Facing a tough audience is not easy. But let's face it, sometimes it must be done. Management must talk to unions. Politicians must face voters. School boards must face parents. And so on. Not everyone wants to hear everything that you as a presenter have to say. Anticipating objections is part of the presentation process. If you follow the Toulmin argument process, you can formulate your rebuttals using the claim-reason-warrant methodology (see Chapter 6). With that in mind, here are some tips you can use to prepare yourself for those tough situations (see Figure 7-1).
Determine the objection. Isolate the "hot potatoes." Before you stand in front of the audience, find out possible issues or concerns the audience may have with you or the organization you represent. Vince Lombardi was a hard-nosed coach. He knew that players would initially resist the kind of discipline and hard work he would impose, but this did not stop him from getting his message across. He would deflect objections through implication: If the individual players did not adhere to the regimen, they would be gone. If you are a salesperson, you need to know the account history before you try to sell. For example, if the salesperson before you was a jerk, your audience may harbor negative views about you. You need to know this before you walk into the room. Likewise, if you are an executive addressing a group of frontline employees, you need to know their concerns about their work, the management team, and possibly yourself.
Acknowledge the issue. Say the issue out loud. If it is poor product quality or a tough question regarding management, spell it out—e.g., "I know you have an issue about this." As a former prosecutor, Giuliani was accustomed to dealing with objections. As mayor, he would freely give voice to the opposition as a means of acknowledging dissent. In doing so, Giuliani demonstrated that he was informed on and involved with the issues, even if he did not change his mind.
Empathize. When issues on are the table, communicate your concern. This does not mean that you say whatever the audience may want to hear, it means that you demonstrate concern—e.g., "I understand the issues you are facing." With guests on her show, Oprah oozes sympathy in a way that gets the guest to open up and share a personal moment that will enable the audience to understand an issue more vividly and sometimes viscerally.
Remind the audience of shared experiences. If you or your organization has a prior relationship with the audience, mention it. If it is a good relationship, say so. If it is one that soured, say so. The audience expects you to be honest. At Newburgh, Washington established the shared experiences at the outset. Katherine Graham made the Washington Post her life; her communications emerged from that commitment. Everyone who was part of the company understood that she stood for journalistic excellence and that by embracing that premise they could share in the enterprise.
Deliver the message. Once you have laid the groundwork for your presentation through acknowledgement and empathy, you are ready to move into your message and deliver your content. You are free, however, to emphasize or deemphasize according to audience expectations; in this way, you remain responsive to audience needs. Actor-director Robert Redford is accustomed to fighting battles over causes he believes in. His public speeches, together with his professional commitments, give him a platform upon which to stand tall on an issue, even when he knows that people can and will disagree with him.
Open the door for compromise. If the issue you must defuse is potentially divisive, you may wish to create a forum for compromise. Your presentation then becomes the first step in the healing process. You are entitled to present your views, but if you expect to create an action step—e.g., a sale or a dialogue—you need to open the door for action, that is, what's next? As a manager of 25 highly talented baseball players, Joe Torre lives by the art of compromise. He uses his communications to smooth over disagreements and open the door for cooperation. If you get beyond the objection, you can talk about how you would like to be part of the solution. You would like to help bury the hatchet and work out the issues together.
The good news is that when you can overcome objections within your presentation, very often you will win the audience over to your side and it will be receptive to your message now and in the future.