Public Speaking: Hostile & Difficult Audiences – Part 1: What Causes a Hostile Audience:

hostileWhen you speak to groups regularly, you’ll come across a hostile audience every now and then. Now hostile is a bit of an extreme word to describe a non-reactive audience. Sometimes the audience is sleepy, bored, not paying attention or simply disinterested.

In this three part series, we’ll discuss what makes an audience hostile, some steps you can take to keep an audience from getting hostile and what you can do when you’re facing a hostile audiene.

So let’s start with what makes an audience hostile:

A number of things can cause an audience to get hostile. These things include:

  • The topic of the speech.
  • Something the speaker said.
  • Your background.
  • News given to the audience prior to the presentation.
  • The time that the presentation is given.
  • The room set-up or environment.

As you can see, some of these are caused by the speaker, but many are caused by things beyond the control of the speaker. Let’s look at each of these items in more detail.

The Speech Topic:

The topic of your speech is a big factor in how your audience will react. If your topic is controversial, takes an unconventional position or is not appropriate for your audience, your audience can turn on you. This is all pretty obvious, but what may surprise you is that sometimes your topic, even if the group requests it, may not be of interest to the audience.

Sometimes, the event planner is interested in a topic or thinks that a topic might be interesting because of his or her background or experience – but his or her interests don’t match that of the group. It could be because the person is new to the event planning role and hasn’t attended enough training, events or seminars to know what the group is interested in. Or it could be that he or she wants the group to learn more about a particular topic.

I ran into this problem a number of times when I first started out as a speaker. As I’d talk with people looking for speaker, they’d learn of my business background or technology background and request a talk on those topics. As a neophyte speaker, I obliged and delivered talks about business and technology to groups that had no interest in the subject. The person who invited me would love the talk, but I’d struggle to engage the audience. Now I have a limited set of things I talk about and ask a lot of questions (many of which I’ll cover in part 2) to prevent this from happening.

Something the speaker said:

It’s not uncommon to make a mistake when you speak to a group, especially if you’re new to speaking or aren’t comfortable speaking to groups. In fact, one of the common things people fear about speaking is making a mistake.

It’s uncommon for someone to make a blatant mistake along the lines of the Michael Richards fiasco and offend the audience to the point where people get angry and post the video on YouTube. But there are times where speakers may use humor, stories or make comments that aren’t appropriate for their audience.

Sometimes, speakers make these mistakes out of ignorance. I attended a meeting for entrepreneurs in 2003 and the featured speaker at the event was a lawyer. Throughout his presentation, he kept making comments about how he felt that some proposed tax cuts by President Bush were absurd. His presentation was on intellectual property so he was going out of his way to make his opinions known – a big mistake when speaking to a group. Unfortunately, he was preaching to the wrong audience – the people attending the event would benefit from the tax cuts. So it was no surprise to me when people got up and left in the middle of his presentation and I heard a number of people complaining to the event organizer.

Making assumptions about our audience is again an obvious mistake. But there are often things that we might say that unknowingly bothers the audience. An example of this would be telling a humorous story about a boating accident to a group that may have recently lost someone because of a boating accident. The story would have been humorous to 99% of the audiences you encounter, but this one is especially sensitive about the issue. Even though your intent was purely innocent, you’ve still upset the audience.

Your background:

We all have different situations so our backgrounds may or may not come into play with our audience’s expectations. Here are some examples of when your background may be a factor in upsetting the audience:

  • You work for a company that has a negative reputation with the media and/or the general public.
  • You work in management for a company and you need to address members of a union.
  • You have political ties that don’t reflect those of your audience.
  • You work in a role or industry that the audience dislikes – perhaps you work for an oil company and are addressing an audience passionate about protecting the environment.
  • You’ve published work or have publicly stated an opinion that is not in line with the opinion of your audience.

I could go on and on with these scenarios, but I’m sure you get the picture. The more well known you are and the more you stray from the opinions of the group, the higher the chances you face of dealing with an audience with a negative perception of you before you even say “hello.”

The good news is that there are many ways that you can overcome this and we’ll cover them in parts 2 & 3. And I want to stress that you shouldn’t avoid having an opinion just because someone might disagree with you. You are entitled to having an opinion and sharing it with whomever you desire to. Just make sure you factor it in whenever you speak to an audience.

News given to an audience prior to your talk:

Again, it’s not too common but it does happen. I know of speakers who have addressed groups that had just received news of budget cuts, layoffs, bonus reductions and even the death of someone close to the audience. This can put the audience in a mood that ranges from somber to downright angry. Author Tony Robbins once shared that he was giving a seminar in Hawaii when the September 11th attacks occurred.

You can’t control what news the audience is fed before you speak to them, but you can learn about that news and take the appropriate action when you speak.

The timing of the presentation:

The time of a presentation can have a big impact on the audience’s reaction to your presentation. I once gave a presentation to college students that was part of an event that started at 9:00 AM on a Saturday morning. I’ve also spoken at events that started at 9:00PM to groups of people that had worked all day. These time slots have their own unique challenges.

Speaking to groups after a big meal or groups that have consumed a lot of alcohol is also a challenge. As an audience member, I dread those late afternoon PowerPoint presentations in a darkened room or lunchtime seminars on an unusually nice day.

The room set up or environment:

Climate change is a hot topic and it can have a huge impact on your speech. It’s tough to engage an audience that’s sweating or shivering – they’re focusing on their discomfort, not on your presentation. It’s also difficult to engage an audience when there’s loud noises in an adjacent room or with obstructed views – Lisa Braithwaite posted an excellent article about the latter on her blog.

In addition to these things, there are a number of things related to the room that can take the focus off of your presentation, including:

  • A poor sound system.
  • People entering and leaving the room.
  • A window with a view of the pool or beach.
  • A bowling alley (or something that sounds like one) above the conference room you’re speaking with.
  • A room set-up where you’re only facing a portion of the audience (such as speaking inside a circle).

So there are a number of things that can cause an audience to not be in the best state during your presentation. Just being aware of these things can help you tremendously. In part 2 of this series, we’ll discuss some of the preventive measures you can take to keep your audience in an optimal state.

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