How to reach a tough crowd

I was recently asked how to get a hostile or unresponsive audience to warm up and it got me thinking. This is surely one of the greatest public speaking fears: that we tell a joke that falls flat; frame an argument that gets immediately challenged, or struggle to initiate audience interaction in a sea of unrelenting silence.

Without spending too much time on why this might happen, the scenarios are endless - from a speaker accepting the wrong gig, to an audience receiving misleading information, to you turning up on the very day that everyone hears about new staff cuts - so I thought I'd outline a few ways to diffuse a "situation" or, even better, prevent one arising in the first place.

Before you take the stage

Ensure you're creating the conditions for success. Have you researched who will be in the room and what makes them tick? Have you looked carefully at the event information provided to the audience to know what they will be expecting? Are you really answering the topic of the session with something new and of value to everyone? Have you considered what the audience will be feeling? Will they be among strangers or colleagues? Will they be in a conference room with air con and no windows? Will it have been two hours since they last had a break? What will surprise, amuse and inspire them?

During your speech

Establish your credibility

Make sure you are clear with the event organisers about what you need to give a confident and undistracted delivery, so that you have the bandwidth to adapt to the unexpected. Arrive early and get a feel for the room and how the other presentations are landing. Can you hear everything being said from the back of the room? Are the audience getting a real chance to participate or are they just expected to sit and listen? Are they clapping politely or enthusiastically?

Bring your own water bottle, wear shoes/clothing that will enable you to move towards the audience with confidence and, above all, know the one point you want to get across, so that if everything else gets derailed you can still convey your most important message with patience and authority.

Give fair warning

If you're building audience interaction into your talk or presentation, make sure you give the audience a heads up before you start. Let them know that you'll be asking for participation, and what form it will take, and make sure you're doing it to prove your point in an engaging manner, rather than just dragging them out of their seats or away from their thoughts because "you saw someone else do that one time and it worked well then".

Engage curiosity

When confronted with a viewpoint they disagree with or that mismatches their view of the world, an audience's mental defenses go up up up. We cross our arms, we roll our eyes, we escape into our emails. If you're presenting something that might wander into your audience's fears and stress points - such as a change in organisational structures, funding, or company culture - triggering curiosity is an effective way to get them to see the brighter future beyond the hard work and disruption of what you're proposing. Point to similar people and organisations that have succeeded with your new strategy; highlight how every individual will benefit and demonstrate how you'll be advocating for their interests.

Invite outsiders in

If you're interrupted or the mood turns ugly, never get defensive or insult members of your audience. Invite protesters, hecklers or challenge-makers to voice their concerns for an agreed period of time during the session, or propose that they join you in a conversation after the session if you're comfortable with those options. A disruption in proceedings can be an opportunity to ask yourself, "What's really needed here?". Be willing to drop everything you've planned and deliver what the audience really needs, whether that's a frank conversation; an insight into decision-making, or the reassurance that whatever they're facing, they have the means to overcome their difficulties together.