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Yes, it's simple - as long as you abandon damaging thoughts like this:  I'll just keep talking and pray they don't ask awkward questions. That mindset, for a challenging topic and audience, is credibility suicide.
 

Prepare for their likely questions and concerns  
Let's assume for the moment that there's not going to be too much emotion in the questions and concerns.

  • Write down every question and concern that people in your audience are likely to have. And write them as if they're being spoken aloud right now:  'Will it be two days or three?' 'Will we still get overtime pay?' Now write down the essence of your answer to each.

Do you want to ace this?  Go a bit further with this powerful psychology.

  • Prepare to take it to them before they take it to you.  Audiences are impressed if you raise some of their questions and concerns before they do. Prepare to use language like this: 'You might be thinking that…' and 'Are you wondering why we're changing a system that works…'   Why are audiences impressed? You're demonstrating two things. First, that you understand where they're coming from. Second, that you're willing to talk openly about matters that bother them. You're not hiding from them. That's courage. Even those who remain opposed to your topic will feel respect for you. 

Prepare for their likely objections   
Now you're dealing with emotions that may overwhelm reasoning. They have negative feelings about your topic, your organisation, or you. You're going to get pushback.

  • As above, write down their objections. This is no time to be easy on yourself - include their worst likely objections.

Now is the negative feeling just about the facts?

  • If their emotions are based on lack of information or on misinformation: then you must first openly and directly acknowledge the emotion (using language like, 'You might be concerned that...'), then correct the information. Emotions, then facts - it's very persuasive.

Do you agree with any part of their objections?

  • If they're going to feel badly about part of your message and you agree, openly concede the point. Use language like, 'There is an inherent disadvantage to what I'm proposing...' 

But now for the toughest obstacle for any speaker:   
  • If they don't trust your organisation or you: (examples: You're hiding something...  or You're cheating us...  or You don't care about us, we're just numbers to you...'), now you must not openly acknowledge lack of trust (except in the most extreme situations); if you were to say, 'I know you don't trust us, but...', you would get howl of derision. Instead, include facts which deal indirectly to the lack of trust. For example, 'You'll be wanting total transparency at every step, and here's how we're going to guarantee that...'

Another hint.  Many audiences are completely silent. But their silent questions, concerns and objections will still undermine - even ruin - your effectiveness if you don't raise them yourself.  You'll win their respect if you make the invisible elephants visible.

Being real with an audience means dealing openly with their questions, concerns and objections. The most respected speakers are real with their audiences. That's connection. That's how to come away from speaking to a difficult audience feeling good about it.

Would you like more on how to handle a difficult audience? See my blog How to handle challenging presentations and meetings.


About Michael Brown

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Michael is a senior trainer with Skillset, based in Christchurch.

He is a leading authority on training in presentation and news media skills in New Zealand. He has special expertise in how to present emotionally-charged topics to challenging audiences. Michael has trained thousands of New Zealanders and worked with people who speak on behalf of some of the country's largest organisations.

Michael is a prolific author and his books on speaking and working with the media are in their fourth editions.

Speaking Easy: how to speak to your audiences with confidence and authority

Media Easy: how to handle the news media with confidence and authority

One of Michael's books is about his family's adventures sailing in the Pacific.

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