3 ways to handle difficult audience members

If an audience member tries to dismantle your argument, or asks inappropriate questions or distracts other listeners, these methods can help.

A presentation predator is simple to spot.

A presentation predator wants to distract attention from, dismantle, or deny your message. Predators accomplish this by heckling, asking inappropriate questions, raising doubt by talking to other audience members, rolling their eyes and so on.

Predators can kill your presentation.

If predators change your listeners’ minds by making you look weak or foolish, they win. Consider those YouTube videos of nervous beauty queens caught off-guard by tricky questions. You don’t want to be like them.

Sometimes a predator doesn’t even need to rally the audience. If you’re a natural performer in a room filled with left-brainers, you could build an atmosphere of doubt without a predator saying anything.

Here are three tips to stop predators and give a successful presentation:

1. Engage everyone.

Engaging personalities in your audience requires preparation. If you know what kind of presenter you are (gregarious, data-driven, extroverted, etc.), make sure you appeal to your opposites in the audience. Think of them as your evil twin, and ask yourself what your evil twin wants: audience participation, open conversation, more facts? Ensure introverts, extroverts and everyone in between at least nod their heads at something in your speech.

2. Maintain your tone

When you lose your cool and shift your tone to respond to a predator, you tell your audience that you’ve lost.

When an argument becomes heated, great debaters slow down and respond with more evenness. Take a lesson from them; when a predator riles you, pay attention to your pauses, volume and tempo.

3. Ask and answer.

Jerry Seinfeld’s advice for handling hecklers also applies to presentation predators. In a Reddit AMA, Seinfeld said:

“Very early on in my career, I hit upon this idea of being the Heckle Therapist. So that when people would say something nasty, I would immediately become very sympathetic to them and try to help them with their problem and try to work out what was upsetting them, and try to be very understanding with their anger.”

Don’t spend precious preparation time worrying about predators—spend it eliminating weaknesses in your presentation and speaking style that give their mischief openings.

Sunday Avery is content manager at Ethos3. A version of this article originally appeared on the Ethos3 blog.

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