Winning over a hostile audience

GRACE UNDER FIRE: Former United States secretary of state Hillary Clinton looking to the crowd after a woman threw a shoe at her while she was delivering a speech in Las Vegas on April 10. Mrs Clinton ducked, joked about it and continued her speech.


    Apr 22, 2014

    Winning over a hostile audience

    AT SOME point in your career, you're going to find yourself about to walk into a meeting with a hostile or likely-to-be-hostile audience.

    Learning how to take an unpopular public stand with grace, cope with unwilling followers or issue a mea culpa will go a long way towards turning the jeers into cheers - or, at least, fewer jeers.

    For top managers and executives, it's even more important as the entire reputation of a group, division or even company can be on the line.

    So how can you disarm members of a hostile audience and win them over - even if you're delivering unpleasant news or a controversial report?


    The best speakers might look like they're winging it, without notes prepared in advance, but few actually are.

    Mr Peter Bubriski, a Massachusetts speech and communications coach, puts his executive clients through hours of preparation focused on what he calls the five As, which are anticipate, acknowledge, ask (for clarification), admit (what you don't know) and answer in a fashion that keeps it short and sweet and to the point.

    Much of the work of disarming an audience is done ahead of time, when planning for the meeting.

    For instance, Mr Bubriski coached the team of architect Santiago Calatrava when they were pitching their services to rebuild the transportation hub at the World Trade Center site in New York City.

    The transportation authority is notoriously tough on presenters and the audience could have quickly turned hostile at any sign the team was misusing the emotion connected with a construction project at Ground Zero, where so many people had been killed, including many staff of the transportation authority.

    Mr Calatrava hung blank sheets of white paper around the room and then drew lines on them slowly as he spoke, saying something along the lines of "We begin here… and we will take a journey to… here", invoking the vision of the completed transportation hub.


    "Laughter is the shortest distance between two people," actor Victor Borge said. This just might be true with angry audiences, too.

    Colin Cloud - a comedian based in Edinburgh, Scotland, who bills himself as a forensic mind reader and performs a Sherlock Holmes act for audiences globally - recommends breaking the tension you feel as you enter the room by mirroring the body language of the audience.

    If people in the room are looking at their watches, stand on stage and look at your watch. If they are playing with their mobile phones, play with yours.

    When people recognise their own discomfort, they often laugh - producing a moment you can use to acknowledge that, while the work at hand may be difficult, the message you're about to deliver is important.

    One easy way to get a laugh is to poke fun at yourself. Cloud cites United States President Barack Obama's speech at a dinner.

    Facing attacks over questions about his birthplace, Mr Obama announced that he was going to show the audience a film of his birth, and cued up the animated Disney movie The Lion King.

    Laughing at yourself shows you are in control of the situation, said Cloud.

    "There's a difference between serious and important," he said.


    Experts who acknowledged uncertainty are actually more persuasive than those who express complete confidence, according to research from Professor Zak Tormala of Stanford University's Graduate School of Business.

    The research, released in 2011, shows that if an expert expresses doubts, the audience is surprised.

    As the crowd focuses and tries to sort through its surprise, a greater connection is formed. That can help soften negative attitudes.


    You can't always get a joke right - or perhaps jokes aren't your strength.

    Mr Scott Cassel often faces a room full of global executives opposed to the environmental regulations that his organisation, the Boston-based Product Stewardship Institute, advocates.

    "I play the harmonica," said Mr Cassel, chief executive of the organisation. "I'll say something like, 'It's really been a blues kind of day. I might play a harmonica blues riff.' Often people will laugh or might clap."

    Other ways to try to break through: Offer to ditch the presentation in favour of answering the audience's questions, or climb off the stage and walk around.

    Then you're "in a position where you're equal with the audience, not looking down on them", said Deakin University lecturer Ross Monaghan.

    Sometimes, the best policy is to disappear altogether, if you can. Mr Monaghan, the former chief executive officer of the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association, had his car chased on one occasion and had colleagues receive death threats.

    Town hall-style meetings are usually no-win situations for executives.

    His advice: "Avoid situations where you're going to be a lamb to the slaughter."