I'm from post-earthquake Christchurch, currently the kiwi capital of earth-shaking emotions.

Some audiences so worked up, so worried, frustrated and angry, that many cannot hear what is being said to them - even things said two or three times.

Difficult enough. But I've also seen presenters throw explosive fuel on the very fire that's burning them. Many presenters are so fearful of the emotions in front of them, they do one of two things. Either they become defensive/aggressive, or they keep to the facts (supposedly calm and dignified) as if the emotions did not exist. Wow. Audiences simply cannot stand that. It's the perfect formula for transforming irritation into anger, anger into rage.

Got a difficult audience? Charged meeting? Emotional issue?

Disarm them. Deliberately engage at the emotional level. No, they won't transform to sweetness and light, but they will feel respect for you even as they disagree with you. And if they feel that, they will control their own emotions. Here's a quick-fire summary of how to do it. (No, this won't involve being over-emotional and you won't need a box of tissues.)

Prepare to engage. Anticipate concerns and emotions.

  • On a blank piece of paper, write a 'purpose' sentence to tell the audience what you want to achieve with them. Typically it will start, 'I want to...
  • Around that sentence, jot down a list of the toughest objections and concerns the audience is likely to have. Don't spare yourself - the tougher the question, the more it should be on your list. Why? Because you're going to take it to them before they take it to you – a powerful piece of psychology called pre-empting objections.
  • Jot down your answers to each of those objections and concerns – even when the answer is I don't know yet or Yes, that's obviously a problem for you and we can't change that because...
  • Write down other facts important to the audience.

Deliver to engage. Talk with obvious (mostly non-verbal) awareness of audience concerns and emotions.

  • Right after your greeting, acknowledge the feelings in the audience. It might be something like, 'Good morning everyone. Thank you for coming. I know that for many of you this whole process has been long and frustrating. In this meeting I want to...(purpose sentence)
  • When an angry question or interjection comes, welcome it. In fact thank that person before answering. Why? Because he or she is doing you a favour, bringing out in the open what others in the group want discussed. Choose to be comfortable in the presence of negative emotions no matter how strong. Your credibility will jump to a significantly higher level.
  • Choose also to be there for the audience rather than concerned about your own survival. They can sense the difference instantly.

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