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Dealing with Hostility

What can you do when you face a hostile audience? One answer is to retreat and live to speak another day. But there is another approach.

After the American Revolution, George Washington returned to his beloved Mount Vernon to farm. Despite the Americans' victory over the British, nationhood was still a thing of the future. The Thirteen Colonies had devolved into thirteen independent states, all bickering with one another. As a result of this disunity, the soldiers of the Continental Army had not received money for their years of service. At one point, a group of disgruntled officers gathered in Newburgh, New York, to plot a coup against the government in an attempt to seek restitution. Washington learned of the meeting and asked to speak to the officers.

When he entered the meeting room, he strode to the podium and looked out over the group. He knew most if not all of them, and he reminded them of the hardships they had shared during the long years of the Revolutionary War. He then drew out a letter from a member of the Continental Congress. He attempted to read it, then stopped and apologized. He said that not only had he turned gray while fighting for his country, he had gone nearly blind as well. He then reached to put on his spectacles.[1]

That gesture broke the ice. Washington again won the hearts and minds of his former soldiers. The coup was forgotten. Washington had defused a volatile situation by reminding the audience of their shared past and their shared values.[2] No speaker can do more. It was an act of courage; moreover, it was an act of leadership.

Washington had assessed his audience accurately, unlike our poor executive. To be fair, Washington had a previous relationship with his audience to draw upon, whereas our executive was a stranger to his. Washington had something upon which to build; our executive had nothing. Washington was right to persevere, whereas our executive should have departed quickly rather than try to talk over the disruption.

TV talk show host Oprah Winfrey is a modern master at assessing audience wants and needs. As an experienced presenter, she has a sixth sense for what the audience wants to hear. Her entire show is based upon meeting audience expectations for information, emotion, entertainment, and sometimes insight.

Just as presenters have expectations for their presentations, audiences have expectations of presenters. And there are things you can do to determine those expectations and prepare for them.

[1]The story of George Washington quelling the officers' rebellion at Newburgh, New York, was based on The American President, Episode 7, "The Heroic Posture," written, produced, and directed by Phillip B. Kunhardt, Jr., Phillip B. Kunhardt, III, and Peter W. Kunhardt, a co-production of Kunhardt Productions and Thirteen/WNET New York, 2000. [The series was based on Phillip B. Kunhardt, Jr., Phillip B. Kunhardt, III, and Peter W. Kunhardt, The American President (New York: Putnam Publishing Group, 1999).]

[2]Ibid.


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