How To Tame An Angry Audience

When we give presentations, many of us get all tied up in knots worrying about what to do if an audience gets angry.

You get worried. Being up there, completely exposed. And you’re afraid that the audience will turn on you…

You have the “deer in the headlights” look, because you don’t know what to say.

You feel insecure because you’re thinking that the audience has exposed you as a fraud. All these people staring at you wondering why you don’t know the answer to the question. I mean, you’re the expert — you’re supposed to know these things, right?

Well, hold on…

Half of the anxiety you may feel comes from having this internal discussion going on in your head. In most cases, it’s never as bad as we imagine in our head.

Honestly. Most people do not think like this, and won’t be hostile to you. They are real people who are genuinely interested in what you have to say.

And know that you’re human. You may not have all the answers to everyone’s questions at exactly the right moment and describe those answers in exactly the right way for every member of the audience.

So, take heart. It is NOT as bad as you think…

However, some people do ask tough questions, and can make it uncomfortable for you when you’re giving your presentation.

For taming this handful of people, there are some helpful tips that you can keep in mind. Here are five simple tips that can help you through these tough times.

— Be honest – Saying “I Don’t Know” is OK

People like honesty. And they will understand if you don’t have all the answers right at your fingertips. So don’t stress about it.

Now, that doesn’t give you an excuse to be unprepared in your presentation, but you can’t anticipate everything.

If someone asks a question to which you don’t know the answer, just say “I don’t know”, and agree to look into it for them. It might even be good to ask that they give you their contact information and say that you’d be happy to get in touch with them later with what you find.

This will defuse the questioner, since you’re agreeing to try and answer the question. You’re just admitting that you don’t have the information right now.

While the questioner might not be happy with that answer (I suppose you can’t make everyone happy…), the rest of the audience will understand and agree that this is reasonable.

— Keep Your Cool

Some people can be really rude when they ask a question. They might call you a name or say that what you said was a load of bull. They might make sweeping characterizations of what you said just to make a point.

While you might be afraid of what the audience thinks of these questions, your reaction will be how the rest of the audience actually judges you. If you’re cool under tough questioning, then the audience will perceive you as being under control.

If you get angry or sarcastic in response to a tough question, then the audience will judge you as being an angry person or someone who doesn’t respect the person asking the question (since you responded with sarcasm).

So it’s not the question, it’s your response, and this is where you are in complete control.

Whatever you do, never make it personal. While the questioner might make it personal, you should never reply in kind.

Focus on the question itself, not on the person. Try hard to find something of value in the question, and answer that part of it. The rest of the audience will recognize you’re trying hard to provide quality information and will value you for that.

— Stay In Control of Your Q&A

When someone asks a question, you need to make sure that they don’t hijack your presentation. A good, tough question deserves a straightforward answer. That’s fair.

However, if not reigned in, a tough questioner can become a speechmaker. They go from asking you a question about what you’re presenting to making statements about what they think. They may even go so far as to start giving the presentation for you — on their terms.

Or, the questioner can keep asking questions in a combative manner or start asking other questions that are off topic.

In either of these cases, it’s completely acceptable to stop the questioner (of course, politely) and move the presentation along. Just say, “I’m happy to continue this dialogue offline, but I’d like to give others the opportunity to ask questions.”

The audience will thank you for this (because it’s their time that the questioner was imposing on…), and it keeps the presentation moving.

So, remember, answer tough questions directly, but don’t let a questioner take over your presentation.

— Repeat the question

If you listen carefully to the question and repeat it back, it sends a couple of important messages.

One is that you are listening, which communicates that you value the question enough to be able to ask the question yourself. It means that you understand it.

This alone can defuse a hostile questioner since you’ve conveyed a subtle message that you actually care about answering their question.

A second message is that you care about the audience since you value making sure that they know the question that you are going to answer.

Sometimes presenters get a tough question and they answer it with something that makes the audience wonder whether that was really the question or not. The answer itself may seem to them like the presenter is ducking the question.

Repeating the question and answering it conveys a message that you are answering the question, even a tough one, directly — a good quality for a strong presenter.

— Remember, it’s not the entire audience – it’s probably just one person

Don’t judge the entire audience by the fact that one person may be asking a tough question. If you keep this in mind, then you can serve the needs of the entire audience in how you handle this one question.

Keeping this mindset will get you through a tough Q&A period, since it segments the problem area (one person with one tough question) away from what you might be most afraid of (the entire audience throwing tomatoes at you…)

Again, most anxiety of public speaking comes from the irrational fear of having the entire audience being against them. Just because one person may ask a tough question doesn’t mean the entire audience agrees with them.


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I currently serve as Vice President of Decision Science at CenturyLink. I've previously served as a leader in the Advanced Risk & Compliance Analytics (ARCA) practice at PwC and as Director of Data Science & Analytics Engineering at Areté Associates. I've served the public as Chair of the Thousand Oaks, CA Planning Commission. I have been married to my wife Stephanie since 1993, and we have a wonderful daughter Monroe. Learn more about me »

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