How to Manage a Challenging Audience When You’re Giving a Presentation

Woman at a podium giving a presentation

Fortunately, most audiences will be courteous when you’re giving a presentation. But it can be a challenge to face customers, senior managers, or even coworkers who persistently disagree with you, constantly interrupt you, treat you rudely, or otherwise disrupt your presentation.

If you anticipate a disruptive audience, learn as much as you can in advance about those who will attend. If possible, meet with some of them one on one before your presentation to give them a chance to have their say. Listen to their issues and concerns. In doing so, you may defuse their hostility, making it less likely that they’ll hassle you during your presentation.

When presenting, watch your tone of voice and choice of words, and treat listeners with respect regardless of how they treat you. Don’t dismiss anyone’s concerns as trivial or speak to them in a condescending manner. Even if you know that audience members are at fault for an issue they’re attacking you about, strive to maintain your composure. Remember, anger begets more anger; if you respond to their anger with your own, you’ll have a difficult time regaining control.

If audience members disagree with you, acknowledge their point of view. Sometimes, what people want more than anything is to have their views heard and validated. In general, no matter what they fling at you, take the high road and treat them respectfully. (Yes, this is easier said than done!)

If the challenge you’re facing is from a single individual, don’t let the person take control. For example, if someone badgers you with nonstop questions, respond to the person directly by saying something like, “I appreciate that you have lots of questions, but I’m going to move on now so everyone else has a chance to ask questions. I’ll be available afterward if you’d like to continue the discussion.” And say it with confidence!

If the source of a disruption is relatively innocuous, consider a lighthearted response. For example, if people are noisily buzzing among themselves, show a slide of a photo taken at a hospital, along with the words “This is a quiet zone.” Or use a sound-maker or favorite ringtone to recapture their attention. Or simply pause briefly; silence usually causes people to quiet down.

While coping with a challenging audience is stressful, there’s one consolation: With each such audience, you’ll improve as a presenter because you’ll become increasingly skilled at responding. Happily, most audiences want you to succeed and will treat you accordingly.

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