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.
- Four Strategic "Knows"
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- Six Tactical "Implementers"
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
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.
He can be reached at:
Phone/Fax (703) 360-3222
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