One of the interesting by-products of our world becoming more virtual over the past decade is that behavior which would never have been appropriate face-to-face is now leaking back into that world from the virtual one.  For speakers this development has a particularly interesting aspect:  audiences now feel more entitled to turn negative and to articulate their anger.  

In the past, norms of polite behavior prevented all but the most uncultured from speaking bluntly from the audience to the stage.  But if you begin with authenticity and add in the fury of the virtual world, you get some surprisingly outspoken audience members.  Speakers need to be prepared to handle these trollers.  

So, what do you do if your audience is hostile?  How do you handle the emotions, the disagreements, the fear involved in standing before a sea of upturned, angry faces – or at least a handful of cranks?

The good news is that you’ve got a real, if perilous, opportunity.  As I always say, the only reason to give a speech is to change the world.  Well, you’ve got the chance to change that audience from furious to happy, and only you can do it. 

The bad news is that you have to deal with the obvious.  You can’t ignore your audience’s angry feelings.  That’s so important, I’ll say it again:  you can’t ignore your audience’s angry feelings.  In fact, only by acknowledging your audience’s feelings and doing it right away can you begin to bridge the gap between you and them.

Let’s imagine you’re one of the top leaders of a startup company that has just missed its numbers and is burning through its capital too fast.  You’re having an all-hands meeting and those hands are angry because they’re counting on the company to succeed, and they’re frightened that maybe now that won’t happen.  They’re letting you know in no uncertain terms that, as the CXO, you’re part of the team that is supposed to be managing that burn rate.  

So, you say, ‘You’re angry.  And you have a right to be.  We missed our targets.  We’re sorry and we’re angry too and we’re not going to miss them again.  We are going to do whatever it takes to get this company back on track.  Here’s what we plan to do differently starting right now….’

That’s what you have to do:  acknowledge and validate the audience’s feelings and face head on the problem that caused them.  Make no mistake:  this is hard to do.  The human instinct is to dodge when the bullets start coming at you.  Few people want to embrace that kind of pain.  But that’s precisely what makes it so powerful when you have the courage to do so.  

Keep that in mind when you’re tempted to do what most bureaucracies (and all the lawyers) want to do when something goes wrong:  stonewall.  And yet the studies show that doctors, for example, who communicate their intentions, hopes, and failures to patients are far less likely to get sued than those who stonewall.  The human urge to deny mistakes and problems is very powerful. 

If you’re going to win over an angry audience, that’s the urge you have to fight.  You’ve got to come clean.  And there’s one more urge that you’ll have to fight as well, and this one may be even harder.  Because the angry audience member won’t be delivering friendly thoughts in a warm tone, your natural urge will be to move away from that person.  Do the opposite.  Move toward them.  If possible, get into their personal space.  That alone will become a powerful way to connect with them, validate their feelings, and let them know that they’ve been heard.  

It’s just as important to get the body language of connection right as the language.  


6 Comments

  1. My friend Alex Lickerman says it’s difficult to empathize with someone’s pain when you’re the cause of it. Speakers are rarely the cause of a heckler’s pain, but finding something to agree with in a rant — as you point out, Nick — is a great way to lower the temperature in the room.

    It takes practice, of course. Thankfully (I guess) our personal lives present plenty of opportunities for that!

    1. Good to hear from you, Maureen. Yes, the speaker has to rise above the urge to shut out the anger, even though not the cause of it (in most cases) and instead play bigger and embrace it.

  2. What if the anger is about a perception that is not true. EG, “You guys always meet in secret!” Do you respond with “If that were true, I would be angry, too!” Or, “I can see why that sort of thing would make you angry, but …”

    1. Thanks, Linda — if there’s a misguided perception, then you really need to address the underlying reason for the false belief. For example, do employees not trust management? If not, what’s going on there? That’s the real issue that needs to be discussed. Authenticity and openness are extremely important in this case.

  3. How do I apply what you are teaching applies in interpersonal situations? If I’m angry at you because of something I think you did (whether or not you really did it), how can I offer useful help?

    1. Hi, Leslie — remember, we’re talking about a speaker dealing with an audience. So if the speaker has an issue with something the audience has done, then it’s up to the speaker to deal with that first, before the speech, or, if you bring it up during the speech, have a way to work through it that doesn’t make the audience a villain.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

*