Friday, April 9, 2010

Tough Topics, Tough Audiences. Part IV: Meet the Audience Where They Are

As environmental professionals, Bren students and alumni are often tasked with communicating complex environmental problems and solutions to "non-environmental" audiences. These audiences can sometimes be unreceptive or even hostile, and speaking to them can be quite a challenge. On February 26th, the 2010 Doris Duke Fellows hosted a workshop entitled "Tough Topics, Tough Audiences" where public speaking coach Lisa Braithwaite helped Bren students prepare for these difficult situations. The following is an excerpt from her informative presentation. For more on Coach Lisa B., visit her website or blog. You should also check out the excellent resources page she has set up for Bren students.

Meet the Audience Where They Are
If you're doing all the other things we've discussed (knowing your objective and audience, preparing, and engaging your audience) then you're laying the groundwork and will likely have fewer of the "tough audience" situations. But, if you do expect a tough audience, it's important to understand people's motivations for being there and their barriers to learning from you.

Remember that everybody has a lifetime of skills and knowledge to contribute; they're not a blank slate or empty vessel waiting to be filled with your knowledge! Think of your audience as people who have lots of knowledge, experiences and things that they can share and contribute if you're open-minded about it.

Start by checking your assumptions. Before tough presentations, we frequently make assumptions that the audience will disagree with us, but in reality, most of your audiences are supportive. For the most part, people are on your side. Keep that in mind and re-frame mentally. Don't assume they're going to be hostile, think, "They're here to support me; they want to learn from me."

Secondly, try to avoid assumptions you might make during your presentation about how people are acting or responding to you. Don't extrapolate out one person who may look a certain way to the whole audience. And realize that everybody is different: that nasty look someone is giving you may just be his face!

That being said, there are occasionally some people who might make things more difficult for you. What do you think makes these people uncomfortable? Maybe . . .
  • They don't understand what you're saying
  • You're contradicting something they believe (especially anything related to values or personal issues)
  • They have false assumptions about your topic
  • They feel judged or blamed about something
  • You're asking them to change
  • They're afraid that you will make them talk!
  • They have a different perspective
  • They've been forced to be there
  • They don't know what to believe
  • They are confused and a confused mind always says no

Thinking about and preparing for these possibilities in advance can help prevent or defuse tough situations. For example, if you're going into a situation where you expect the audience to have a different perspective, try to address it right up front. Use some humor, let them know that even with differing perspectives, what they have to say is important and you do want to hear it. In any tough situation, be human, be upfront, be forthright. Be 100% honest all the time, and don't break the trust with your audience because it is hard to get it back.

Even if you work hard to avoid it, you may sometimes encounter a heckler. Hecklers can be challenging, but the first step in dealing with them is to take what they're saying at face value: don't read into it, don't over-analyze it. Just remember to always be respectful and never assume that it's you personally that someone is bothered by; it's something going on with them. Let that person feel heard because, a lot of times, that's all they want. It's OK to say, "I'm not prepared to talk about that today, but I'd be happy to discuss it. I'll give you my card and maybe we can talk about it later."

In general, however, the less you say to hecklers, the better, because the more you say, the more you're likely to get into something. For more on dealing with hecklers, see the Bren resources page on Coach Lisa B's website. There is a short presentation on dealing with hecklers by fellow speaking coach Olivia Mitchell, as well as a handout.

In conclusion, try to understand where your audience is coming from. Remember, it's not all about you! Put the focus back on your audience: who are they, what do they need? Then you'll be doing them a service, giving them some value. Do the research, think about it and you'll feel less hostile about them. When you get tough questions, remember, "This person just wants some information." Keep that sense of confidence in your message and if you've done all the prep and legwork, you'll be prepared for these kinds of issues.

Most importantly, remember that tough topics + tough audiences = a tough speaker! The more you speak to these tough audiences, the better speaker you will become. Good luck!

--Audrey Tresham

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