Presenters need to listen, keep it moving

"Just imagine that the audience is naked." Anyone who has ever taken a workshop on how to make presentations has heard that one. But in a situation where you face a hostile audience or you are asked a challenging question, you’re the one who feels as if you’re standing there in your birthday suit.

If you are expected to make presentations to employee groups, shareholders, industry peers or the public, chances are, you’ve been challenged by a member of the group at some point in your speaking life.


Increasingly, my firm is asked to help an executive polish his or her presentation skills. It’s becoming more important as companies realize the value of face-to-face communication in building commitment to changes and forming partnerships with constituencies. For instance, some executives are now expected to hold regular "town hall meetings" with employees at all levels. These meetings provide a great forum for give and take but it’s the "take" portion that causes presenters to sweat.


Presentation skills don’t come naturally for most of us. In fact, it’s number one on the list of things most feared by Americans. It’s daunting enough to just stand up there and talk, let alone be grilled or attacked by the audience. The good news is that group behavior is fairly predictable and predictably fair.


Here are some strategies for you to clip and save. You can pull them out the next time you’re asked to speak:


A member of the audience disagrees with a point you made in your presentation and attacks you in front of the rest of the group.

What not to do: 

Do not respond with a condescending remark or attempt to justify your position. I recently heard a speaker say, "Apparently you didn’t listen to mywhole speech or you would have known I made that point." Then he went on to restate a portion of his speech that everyone had already heard. Ouch! The audience instantly turned against the speaker.

What to do

Never get into a shooting match with a member of the audience. You will lose, even if the person is a flaming fool. Here’s why. The leader is in a position of power and authority, and if he or she appears to "argue down" a dissenter, or get defensive in front of the group, credibility is lost. Each member of the audience recognizes that the audience member who is being embarrassed could be them.


A better approach is to let the arrows pass right through you. For instance, say, "I appreciate your perspective. What do the rest of you think?" Almost without fail, a group will rise to the occasion and moderate the situation for you.


If the person has a personal axe to grind, or is inappropriate in other ways, another approach is to gently cut him or her off by briefly restating the opinion in neutral words and thanking the person before moving on. For example, "So, if I understand you correctly, you feel that managers are power hungry people who climb on the backs of their employees to get what they want and to look good to their superiors. Unfortunately, you must have had some very negative experiences. Thank you for sharing your perspective."


An audience member who asks a question that is really a thinly veiled challenge.

What not to do:

Don’t take the question at face value and answer it. For example, if the person asks, "Don’t you think there are a lot of people who will disagree with this policy?" don’t respond with, "No, I think the policy is fair." The audience will know you have tried to dodge the real issue and it will make them uncomfortable. Once there is dissention in the group, they will not be able to settle down until it is resolved. Ignoring it generally causes a flurry of conversation in the hallway and at break time. The audience needs the leader to bring closure to the challenge.

What to do:

Ask for more information. The more you show sincere respect and try to understand the point they are trying to make, the more the audience will settle down and respect the leader. "It sounds as if there is more behind your question. What specifically do you think some of the problems are?" will draw out the real issue and force the person to be straightforward about what they really mean.


An audience member who begins to take a lot of time to tell personal stories, express their views, or asks numerous questions about an issue that only has importance to that individual.

What not to do: 

Don’t get caught in the trap of conducting a lengthy one-on-one dialogue in front of a group. The audience will begin to check their watch, shift in their chairs and even leave the room. They expect you to respectfully cut it off. Another mistake is to cut the person off too abruptly. For instance, interrupting the person with, "We’re running behind schedule. We have to move on" will insult the person and may make the person more disruptive.

What to do: 

Look for an opening, briefly summarize the person’s point and say, "I’d be happy to discuss this with you after the session or at break." Then neutralize it with, "I’d be happy to discuss any personal experiences or problems any of you have after the session. I wish we had more time but unfortunately we’re forced to stay on schedule."


An audience member who expresses a contrary viewpoint that others seem to agree with.

What not to do:
Don’t evade this one or play down its significance.
What to do: 

Stop, restate what the person said, ask the rest of the group if they agree. Then spend the necessary time to explore the opposing viewpoint. If you don’t listen to the majority opinion, you will shut them down and lose them for the rest of your presentation. Ironically, even if the rest of the group disagrees, they will resent it if you don’t listen to what members of the group have to say.


Public speaking is a tremendous career builder. If you are able to handle tough situations with grace and dignity, your audience will respect you and listen to your ideas. Trust the group to help you succeed.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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