Sometimes your audience needs defusing. You may know ahead of time that the audience is likely to be hostile to your ideas, or there may be a big issue looming over them which distracts them from listening to your presentation. Or they may simply not be that interested in listening to you.

Whatever the issue, it’s best to acknowledge it in the opening of your presentation. Here are some strategies:

1. Acknowledge the audience’s concerns

If your audience is riled about something before you even start- don’t ignore it. For example, public meetings around infrastructure issues can explode in emotion, if the audience doesn’t feel listened to.

You may be familiar with the concept of “reflective listening”  or “active listening” in one-on-one conversation. You can apply the principles underlying active listenting when you’re talking to an audience. By acknowledging the emotions, you can reduce the likelihood of chaos.

However, you do have to have some sensitivity in the way that you do this. Avoid cliches like “I understand how you’re feeling.” That’s a recipe for them to fire back with “Oh no, you don’t – how can you know what’s it’s like to live here”. Add specificity, for example, “I can understand that the idea of huge wind turbines on the hills behind your home is very concerning.”

2. Find common ground

When you’re addressing a controversial issue, start by identifying what you have in common with your audience. Listen to Barack Obama as he touched on what we have in common in his now famous speech on race “A More Perfect Union”:

I chose to run for the presidency at this moment in history because I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together – unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction – towards a better future for our children and our grandchildren.

I have seen Nandor Tanczos, previously a Green Party MP in  New Zealand, do this effectively in a debate on drug law reform. He was arguing for the decriminalization of cannabis – but he reached out to all the members of the audience by identifying the common ground in the debate – that we were all interested in reducing the harm done by drugs.

3. Name the elephant in the room

If there’s an issue on everybody’s minds – address it head-on. Else your audience will be distracted from your substantive content.

The classic example of this is now Randy Pausch in The Last Lecture. For those of you new to the blogosphere, Randy Pausch was a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University. Professors at Carnegie Mellon were traditionally asked to give a speech entitled “The Last Lecture” in which they passed on their life’s wisdom to students. In Randy’s case it truly was his Last Lecture – he had recently been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given 3-6 months to live (sadly he died in July). Every person in the audience knew about the diagnosis. If Randy hadn’t mentioned it right at the start, it would have been swirling around their minds and interfering with their concentration on what he was saying. Randy addressed his diagnosis head-on by showing slides of his CT scans to the audience. He demonstrated that he wasn’t feeling sorry for himself and said he didn’t want anybody else to feel sorry for him. Having dispatched “the elephant in the room” Randy was then able to get on with his presentation.

Note: If you haven’t yet seen The Last Lecture make the time to do so (about 70 mins). Once you’ve seen it you’ll want your loved ones to see it, so make it a family event.

4. Give them a reason for listening

If your audience don’t have an inherent interest in the topic of your presentation, then give them a reason for listening. Identify the benefit to them of listening.

Tony, my co-trainer at Effective Speaking, used to train sound engineers and radio technicians in how to carry out cardio-pulmonary resuscitation (CPR). As they worked with electricity there was always the risk that one of their colleagues might get electrocuted. But none of them looked forward to the idea of doing CPR on their colleagues! Tony would introduce the session by saying “Imagine you come home from work and your wife or your child is lying unmoving on the the kitchen floor. In this session we’re going to look at what you need to do.” Having the skills to save your loved ones – that’s a benefit.

5. Acknowledge weaknesses

Barack Obama spoke to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee at a time that many wild rumours about him were circulating. Here’s how he started:

Before I begin, I want to say that I know some provocative e-mails have been circulating throughout Jewish communities across the country. A few of you may have gotten them. They’re filled with tall tales and dire warnings about a certain candidate for president. And all I want to say is — let me know if you see this guy named Barack Obama, because he sounds pretty frightening.

In Yes: 50 secrets from the art of persuasion, Cialdini and his co-authors report on a study of jury decision-making.

When jurors heard a lawyer mention a weakness in his own case before the opposing attorney mentioned it, they rated him as more trustworthy and were more favourable to his overall case in their verdicts because of that perceived honesty.

Do you have audiences you need to defuse? Let us know in the comments.

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