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Strategies and Tactics for Dealing with Difficult Speaking Situations

by: Larry Tracy


This "Strategy and Tactics" primer provides advice for those occasions when presenters representing the "Establishment" (business or government) participate in public meetings such as debates or panels in which the position they are advocating is opposed by many in the audience and, of course, by their adversaries on the platform.

This advice can be easily adapted to any presentation in which the audience may be skeptical, including competitive presentations for contracts, in which the questioners are putting "heat" on the presenter to assure themselves the product or service being "sold" is their best possible option.

  1. Four Strategic "Knows"

    1. KNOW the subject from both sides
      It is not enough to merely "know your stuff." When you are facing a demanding audience, such as a Board or a Committee of your company, you will most likely have your judgments and assertions challenged. Have a clearly defined strategy for how you wish to accomplish your objective. But to do so you must have an in-depth knowledge of the issue from the other side. The time to see how solid is your information is not when you are making the presentation, but before, during a "Murder Board," including a possible "Reverse Role Murder Board" (see below). Testing the validity of your information, and your ability to respond to objections through a demanding and difficult Q & A session, will cause you to challenge your basic premises. An added benefit of knowing the issue from the other side is the insight you gain on audience attitudes, needs, and concerns.

    2. KNOW the format
      In public meetings, such as debates or panels on controversial issues, microphones are normally placed in the aisles, and people with questions can walk to them to ask questions. If the nature of the issue being discussed/debated makes you the likely target for accusatory questions from many in the audience, request the organizers before the presentation to have questioners recognized in their seats. They then walk to the microphone. Otherwise, you will probably find that those most vehemently opposed to your position "capture" the microphones and berate you and your organization. Put the odds more in your favor.

    3. KNOW who the "troublemakers" are
      There are at least two sides to each issue, as stated above, and you are likely to find people in audiences who may be strongly opposed to the position you are advocating. These are the people most likely to ask demanding, even unfair, questions in an effort to discredit you. As part of your pre-presentation "intelligence-gathering," it is vital you find out why they are opposed to you, what their credentials are, etc. If they have published or otherwise made public their views, acquire and study these statements as a means of knowing their game plan.

    4. KNOW your own vulnerabilities
      Among the worst fates for any presenter is to have an audience member or a debate/panel adversary make a devastating comment that undermines the validity of your message and perhaps your own credibility. It is especially galling if you had wished the problem away with "Oh, they’ll never bring that up." In the famous 1988 debate, Senator Dan Quayle was stunned when Senator Lloyd Bentsen made an unfavorable comparison between Quayle and the late President John F. Kennedy. Quayle did not have a prepared rejoinder to an attack he should have anticipated. When you know what the Achilles‚ heels of your presentation are--and all presentations will have vulnerabilities, it is better if you make them known first. The audience will applaud your honesty and candor, and your potential tormenter, who may have been anticipating destroying you presentation with his or her broadside, will be outmaneuvered.

  2. Six Tactical "Implementers"

    1. Conduct a "Murder Board"
      Request knowledgeable colleagues to form a "Murder Board." This is a realistic dry run that simulates the forthcoming presentation. Have this practice session videotaped or at least tape-recorded. Have the "audience members" assess your delivery style, body language, choice of words, etc. Ask them to give you a frank and honest evaluation, and to ask you tough questions likely to be asked by the demanding audience you are preparing to face. Record all pertinent questions that arise from your "audience" on 3x5 cards, as well as any questions you may think of later, placing the final version of your answers on the reverse sides of the cards. Play "speakers roulette" with these "flash cards" at every opportunity. You will find you rapidly internalize the data through constant reference to these flashcards. Knowing you have probably anticipated the questions the audience members will ask is a great confidence-builder, and will go a long way towards reducing your apprehension at speaking before a demanding, critical, audience.

    2. Conduct a "Reverse Role Murder Board"
      A "Reverse Role Murder Board" is an unorthodox but effective means to prepare yourself for a difficult speaking situation, whether it is a public debate or meeting of the Board of Directors. Follow the guidance presented above for the Murder Board, but have someone else play your part in the debate or panel, and you play the role of your adversary, or perhaps an obnoxious member of the audience. You will gain valuable insights into weaknesses of your position, enabling you to take necessary steps to strengthen your argument. "Standing in your adversary's shoes" will pay immense dividends by allowing you to gain a better grasp of your own vulnerabilities as well as those of your adversary if you are in a debate, or antagonistic questioners in a presentation.

    3. Press the Flesh Before the Presentation
      When you know you will face a difficult audience, and you know who the "troublemakers" are likely to be, it may be advisable to "chat them up" before the presentation. You'll be able to establish a human connection, especially if these are people you do not know. This may work to your advantage when the tough questions begin to fly. If audience members get to know you, they may not put as much barbed wire into the questions they throw at you. Learn the names of people you meet before the presentation, and mention them: "Now Mary and I were discussing this very issue before the meeting, and while we are not in agreement, I certainly respect her view." When Mary has a chance to ask her question, she is likely to be more civil than she may have been, had her name not been mentioned so graciously by you.

    4. Maintain Your Composure
      Do not allow yourself to be provoked into a shouting match with either audience members or your opponent(s). It may be helpful to think of yourself as the thermostat of an air conditioning unit. When the "heat" of debate or disagreement intensifies, you kick in the cooling mechanism. When someone raises his or her voice, lower yours and speak more slowly, not appearing cowed, but instead in control. By appearing calm under fire, you will gain a measure of respect. Be careful that in your desire to lower the temperature you do not appear intimidated or lacking in conviction.

    5. Watch Your "Non-verbals"
      In a public meeting in which you are a target, all eyes will be on you, even when others are speaking. Do not slouch, either at lectern or table. Be especially careful of facial expression when your adversary is speaking. Rolling of the eyes or vigorous head-shaking will be perceived by many as ill-mannered and rude. Avoid looking at your watch, as that will make you appear defensive. The non-verbal signals you send will make you appear either cool, composed and concerned, or wondering why you are there in the first place.

    6. Quote From "the Other Side"
      Buttressing your position by quoting an authority identified with your position can help in the persuasion process with a fairly objective, open-minded audience, but will do little to sway those who are intransigent and biased against you. But you can shake the resolve of such people by quoting an authoritative source normally identified as aligned with your opponents. This requires extensive research (Nexis, Congressional Record, articles, books, etc.) Remember to read the entire piece to avoid inadvertently quoting out of context.

Some Final Thought on "Difficult" Speaking Situations
There is no greater challenge in the field of speaking than the debate or panel with informed, passionate adversaries in front of an audience that at least initially shares the views of these opponent(s). Close behind in difficulty is the high-pressure presentation to potential clients, or a boardroom presentation in which the speaker is "selling" a controversial project, defending an unpopular issue, or delivering "bad news."

Unfortunately, many people are inclined to take a fatalistic position at the prospect of dealing with such a challenge. But that attitude is self-defeating. If you have a strong belief in the position you are advocating, devote the needed time to plan and prepare, using the tested strategy and tactics contained in this essay.

Emotions play an important role with any audience, but it is still verifiable, factual data that persuades reasonable people to come to your side. Keep in mind that you will not persuade an audience; the audience must persuade itself. Allow audience members to "save face" by providing backing for your position with evidence, and with information these people did not have prior to listening to you.

A debate or presentation before audience members who disagree with you is a wonderful opportunity to "write on their brains" with the thoughts you wish them to accept, retain and act upon. Calmly match your arguments to those of your opponent(s) and you may be able to expose the falsity of their position. Just remember to maintain your composure, not engage in personal attacks, and always remember the objective you have set for the debate or presentation--what you want your audience to do as a result of listening to your argument.

"Winning" does not mean scoring debating points, humiliating your opponent, or alienating a questioner with a patronizing answer. Do this and you will leave the debate/panel/presentation without having opened any minds, perhaps in the process losing support for your position. You do not want to win a battle and lose a war.

The ancient Greeks, even while admiring the speaker with the stentorian voice, dramatic gesture and clever turn of phrase, nevertheless realized the purpose of any presentation was to cause the audience to take the action the speaker wished audience members to adopt. So it was said, in comparing the greatest speaker of the day with one who had lived many years before:

"When Demosthenes speaks, people say 'how well he speaks'. But when Pericles spoke, people said, 'Let us march'".


Strategy and Tactics for Dealing with Difficult Speaking Situations [1836 words]

Larry Tracy's "Presentation Skills in a Nutshell" workshop for business executives and government officials teaches a natural, practical, easy-to-learn method to help participants deal successfully with demanding speaking challenges and difficult audiences.

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