We discussed what causes hostile audiences in Part 1 of this series. Now we’ll discuss some measures to help prevent them. In general, you need adequate preparation to prevent a hostile audience and that boils down to researching your audience. When you’re nailing down the details for your speech with the person organizing the event, a little research up front can go a long way.
Since everyone’s situation is different, not all of these tips may apply to you. For example, if you’re delivering an inspiration story about how you survived cancer, you’re not worried about people judging you based on the company you work for. So we’ll discuss some preventative measures for each of the main points from part 1.
The topic of your speech:
When I first started out, I contacted every non-profit within twenty miles of where I lived to see if they needed a guest speaker for their meetings. At the time, I didn’t have a particular topic that I spoke on, which was a huge mistake to begin with. Instead, I’d say that I could speak about business or technology topics and I may have occasionally mentioned I could speak about public speaking. I’d then have the other person select a topic which every single time resulted in me giving a talk that only one person in the audience was interested in – the meeting organizer.
I quickly got wise. Even though I continued to let the meeting organizer choose the topic, I began to ask questions such as “has anyone talked about this before?” or if they asked me to speak about a topic of interest to small business owners, for example, I’d ask what percentage of audience members owned businesses.
Now my topics are a bit more limited. I have a list of them on my web site and although I will tweak them to match the goals of my audience, I no longer create an entire speech – unless of course, they pay me to do so but even then, if it’s not something I have knowledge or expertise in, I won’t do it.
Now sometimes your talk may be controversial in nature. If you’re taking a strong position on a touchy subject, you’ll want to know how your audience stands on the topic. This is because not only do you want to provide different information depending on the way audience feels about the subject, you’ll want to consider how to present that information.
So when you’re planning your talk, ask the organizer the following questions to determine if your topic is appropriate:
- How interested is the audience in the topic? This question alone will prompt several follow-up questions.
- Do they have knowledge or an opinion on the topic?
- Has anyone presented this topic (or something related) recently?
- Is this topic currently in the news? If so, what is the public opinion of it?
- Does this group have any interests or values that might conflict with the topic?
These are some example questions you can ask to uncover potential problems with your topic before you even get started.
Something the speaker said:
Along the same lines of your topic, sometimes a sentence, phrase or even a word within your speech can turn the audience hostile. One of the worst speeches I’ve ever delivered was a talk on how people in Toastmasters could take their speaking to the next level. This was given to a group of Toastmasters, but some people in the audience were very passionate about the organization and didn’t take too kindly to some of my comments about how speaking to a non-Toastmasters audience can be a real wake up call.
Although I respectfully disagreed with their criticism, the mistake was still on my side. I knew everyone in the audience and should have chosen my words for my talk more carefully. I learned a big lesson from that experience and was lucky that I made it at a Toastmasters meeting instead of in front of one of my corporate clients.
So again, take a look at your speech and look for anything that might offend your audience. If you’re giving an opinion, make sure you do so in a lighthearted way and that it won’t offend your audience. Keep in mind that it’s your job to inform the audience, not to spout your opinions. Practicing in front of a mock audience can help you identify these problem areas with your speech, but the general rule is that if you ask if it’s appropriate, then you should leave it out.
Do you work at a company that’s in the news because it buys products produced by enslaved children from third world countries? Have you written articles or been on TV giving your extremist opinion on something? Have you ever worked on a controversial project?
If you’re a public figure, chances are that people will have an opinion of you before you hit the podium. If you’re not a public figure, people may still search for you on the internet and find out information about you. So what do you do?
First, figure out what the audience knows about you. Ask the event organizer why you’ve been invited. Also, search for your name on your favorite search engines and see what comes up. If there’s anything controversial there, then you’re going to need to prepare for it.
There’s no need to bring it up. For example, let’s say your employer was recently portrayed in the news in a negative light. If your speech has nothing to do with your job, then there’s no need to mention it. Instead, prepare for questions that might come up.
If the issue is common knowledge, ask the event organizer the same questions you would related to the topic. Do they know about your background? Are the okay with it? Is there any reason for concern?
News given to the audience prior to your talk:
Yes it does happen: “We’re laying off 20% of the work force. The rest of you are now invited to hear James Feudo talk about public speaking.”
Unfortunately, these are the types of things you can’t prepare for far in advance. Layoffs happen, people die unexpectedly, scandals break and all sorts of other crazy things can happen in the moments building up to your speech. Your best bet is to monitor the groups you’ll be speaking to in the days leading up to the talk. I usually follow up with the event organizer three to five days before a talk so I can make sure everything is still on as planned. But I also take the opportunity to find out if there is anything new happening that I should know of. If a well-liked member of the group died unexpectedly a few days before your talk, you can ask the event organizer about rescheduling – provided that’s an option for you. We’ll talk about how to deal with this when it’s right before your speech in part 3.
The Timing of Your Presentation:
Consider the timing of your event. If it’s too early in the morning or too late at night, you may want to consider getting a better speaking slot. If there are several presenters, then you’ll want to consider the fact that many may go over their allotted time which could eat into your time and frustrate the audience. If this is a potential problem, identify parts of your speech that you can drop to meet the new time limits. It’s better to leave off parts of your speech than going five minutes over time.
Your best bet is again to ask the questions ahead of time. How many speakers? What number am I? Is this unusually early for the audience? Is it late for them?
If your talk is going to be at a sub-optimal time, then you’ll want to add more attention getting devices into your talk. For a normal talk, I recommend you insert something to get the audience’s attention (such as a joke, audience participation, etc…) every two to three minutes. If you’ve got a tired audience, you’ll want to do it more frequently, but you’ll want to use techniques such as humor more than having them do something because the latter may make them grumpier.
The Room Set Up:
Find out all the details about the room ahead of time. How is it set up? Will there be wait staff coming and going? Do you need a microphone?
If at all possible, check out the room prior to your talk so you can find any potential problems. Sit where the audience would sit. Make sure you sit in several spots to get different perspectives. Note the temperature of the room and if it’s adjacent to a noisy hallway, kitchen, etc…. so you can plan accordingly.
If the room set up does not work for you, make sure you resolve the issue prior to the event. You don’t want people playing musical chairs while you’re starting your speech.
If it’s a meeting with a meal, request that the wait staff do not clear plates while you’re speaking. You’ll want to remind the wait staff of this request as you set up as an extra precaution.
So these are some of the precautions that you can take to cut down on problems with your audience. Too late to take these steps? Then check out Part 3 which will be posted soon.