Handle Challenging Audiences with Authority and Grace

Whether you’re making a formal presentation to your board or pitching a new idea to your colleagues, your presentation skills matter. Here are some strategies from the stage that you can deploy in the office.

By Maria Guida

Even the most practiced speakers experience challenging audiences now and then. When faced with difficult listeners, distractions, or interruptions, you need to maintain control of your presentation. To project authority and flexibility, take some cues from stage actors, who know a thing or two about tough audiences.

Below are some challenging situations you might face when delivering a presentation or idea—along with effective solutions that will help you project a polished and professional image.

Distracting side conversations. If two people in the audience are involved in a distracting side conversation, resist the urge to stare at them, ask them to share something with the group, or ask them to be quiet. Instead, move close to the individuals if possible—then pause without looking at them. This will cause them to notice the silence, look up, and stop talking.

Interruption caused by conflict between audience members. If some audience members begin arguing during your presentation, try to take an objective and neutralizing role: Summarize both sides of the disagreement and try to physically move between the audience members. Don’t let the conflict “upstage” you: Instead, say something like, “Both points are very interesting—perhaps we can discuss them later.” Focus on the issues, not on personalities.

Audience objections to your message. No matter how skeptical or critical an audience member may be to you or your message, stay calm. Try to think of the person’s skepticism as a desire to be acknowledged or to hear more evidence. Do not take objection as a threat or a challenge, and do not take it personally. Instead, try the following:

  • Paraphrase the audience member’s question or objection. Say, “So you are saying…” or, “I can see how you might believe that. Others have expressed that reservation.”
  • If the person’s question is a “why” question, rephrase it as a “how” question.
  • Provide a concise, factual, and relevant response.
  • Continue your presentation. Invite the questioner to discuss his or her issue at a later time.
  • Move on gracefully and with conviction.

When you’re presenting new ideas, you don’t need to convince everyone of everything. If you have understanding from most of the audience, casually move on from tense moments. Spending too much time or energy on one person can damage your rapport with the rest of the audience.

Questions that are not objections. If you can answer a question briefly, do so. If the answer would be complex, tell the questioner that there will be some time after the presentation when you can respond in depth.

Finally: Read your audience. Slow down so that you can listen to them and watch them carefully to gauge their mood—then respond with authority and grace in the moment.

Actors know that practice makes perfect. The same is true for professionals who must occasionally appear “on stage.” Try incorporating these strategies into your next presentation or pitch with a challenging audience: You’ll project grace and authority and enhance your credibility and professional image.

Maria Guida is an executive speaking coach at Successful Speaker, Inc., and a former Broadway actress. Email: [email protected]

Career Development