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Chapter 5: How to Handle Audience Pressure


Sometimes an audience can be your worst enemy. It happened to the president of Exxon when he tried to explain, or perhaps apologize, for the oil spill in the Gulf of Ortiz. Certainly, some of the Enron executives experienced real hostility when facing congressional inquiries. Martha Stewart discovered audiences could quickly turn from being merely fickle to being truly hostile when insider trading accusations caused her world to turn sour. President Clinton felt the pressure during the Monica Lewinsky investigation.

It's hard to generalize on how you should prepare for big-time hostility. Each crisis has its own characteristics. Each has to be handled in the context of those characteristics. If it ever happens to you, remember that you will have time to prepare - because the rest of your world will come to a dead stop. Nothing else will matter, and you will have nothing else to do. You can either resolve the issue and reestablish your credibility, or you get your comeuppance and then fade from public view.

But let's be realistic. Most of us will never be in that kind of "us-against-the-world" situation, though we may, on occasion, have to speak to a somewhat unfriendly audience.

Let's examine this situation in a business context. Recently I was working with the chairman and CEO of a financial investment firm (let's call him Frank Jones, and we'll say the company's name is Investex) to help him prepare for his annual meeting. The meeting was to be held in St. Paul, Minnesota - not at the Investex headquarters in New York. Frank talked to me about the problem he would face and what he wanted to accomplish.

The Situation from Frank's Vantage Point

"The news I will be conveying is not good. The market has been volatile. We have maneuvered to try to stay in the ‘black' and haven't succeeded. Our fund came in at minus 4 percent for the year. I will be standing up there in front of a highly sophisticated audience giving them that report.

"They, in turn, will be thinking, ‘I pay a significant fee for Investex to manage my money in a way that creates growth. If Investex can't accomplish that, I'm paying for nothing; I've wasted my money.'" And, he added with a shake of his head, "I don't blame our investors for feeling that way."

The Situation as the Audience Sees It

As a first step, I asked Frank to imagine himself as a member of that audience. This was part of his apprehension - worrying about "what people would think" at the end of his talk instead of analyzing what their expectations would be as they walked into the room.

Analyzing this did not take Frank long.

"As a member of the audience I would know about the minus 4 percent before coming to the meeting," he reasoned. "As a matter of fact, that is the very reason investors would be attending. Their confidence is shaken, and they want to see if ours is too. They are not panicked yet, but they're very unhappy and annoyed."

Frank decided that most of those who would attend would be looking for reassurance that Investex was on top of the problem and in control. If the meeting didn't accomplish that, he realized, they would retaliate by moving their accounts to another firm.

Frank's Goals for His Talk

Frank wanted to do something with this audience that he had never done in the past. He was always one of those straight-from-the-shoulder speakers. He gave the facts, told the business story, never said anything personal, never any humanity. He felt there was no place for that in a business talk.

But he was bothered by the fact that people seemed to shy away from him after an event. They seldom came up to him to chat or ask questions. The other speakers - the president, the portfolio manager, and the chief investment officer - didn't suffer that fate. But, for some reason, Frank had created an aura of formality. Audiences felt he held them at arm's length, that he was not approachable.

That's not a plus when you're delivering bad news.

For this speech, he wanted - in fact, badly needed - to change that. He wanted to do something that would enable him to create an emotional connection with the audience. He knew it was possible because St. Paul was his hometown, and most of the attendees would be local people.

He also wanted to put the results in their most favorable light and, in the process, break down the hostility.

Greeting Attendees and Shaking Hands

We talked over the situation and agreed that Frank should personally greet attendees as they entered the meeting room. The rationale was a simple one. If you shake a hand, it is far less likely that person will turn against you. The same principle applies in politics, which professes this golden rule, "Shake a person's hand and you have his vote." The rule doesn't hold absolutely, of course, but the percentages are in your favor, and it's a good way to start on a positive note.

With that in mind, Frank decided he would stand at the front entrance beginning a half hour before the scheduled start time, introduce himself, and shake hands with each person who came in. He wouldn't leave his post until he had to go to the podium to start the meeting.

Making an Emotional Connection

His speech that day went something like this:

Good morning ladies and gentlemen. We are here today to talk about the performance of your portfolio, the management of your money. Money management seems so impersonal. But, as with any business, it's run by people. And I'm one of those people. So if you'll allow me, I'd like to tell you something about myself and why I'm so happy to be in St. Paul, Minnesota, with you today.

To me, being here in St. Paul is returning to my roots. I was born here, not far from East Sixth Street. I graduated from St. Joseph High School, which is only a stone's throw from where we are right now.

Please forgive me for the nostalgia, but I have in my hand a 1966 photo of four boys in football uniforms with "St. Joseph High School" across their chests. One of them is me. The photo was taken after we won the city championship that year. I was a linebacker, and my goal in life was to eventually play for the Vikings. I never wanted to leave this part of the country.

Frank had never spoken about himself in a talk before. But one of his goals was the emotional connection. There is no other way to do it than to talk personally. We had discussed how much he should share. He didn't want to say that he came home to bury his mother. He thought that was too personal. We agreed that anything short of that would be okay.

But I did leave. I went to an Ivy League college for four years, coming home to see my mother and father at every opportunity. Then, at the age of twenty-two, I left for good. I went to business school and from there to New York City to make a career in the financial services industry.

I wanted to come back here often. But I didn't visit much. My mother would call me every week and say, "I only see you once or twice a year. Come home. Let me baby you again. Have some home cooking. See your cousins, your aunts, your uncles, your old friends."

The audience loved the fact that he was a native son. They identified with him being torn between career and home. They loved the sharing; audiences always do. They could feel his humanity. Sure, he was the chairman of this big financial investment firm, and some of them were angry with him for this year's poor performance, but they could feel his humanity, and they liked it.

He continued:

I consider St. Paul to be my hometown. I learned to drive on this city's streets. I played hockey on Steven's Pond. I rented a tuxedo to go to my high school prom here.

Why do I tell you all this? Because what I'm doing now is revisiting my roots. Being in St. Paul again is being home for me. I know it's also home for most of you, and I wanted to share ourcommon heritage.

Establishing the Agenda

Having united himself somewhat with the audience, Frank could then move on to his statement of purpose:

But we have other matters to discuss. First, I want to speak about our performance this past year. Then I want you to hear from our president, two of our portfolio managers, and our chief investment officer. Each will present for fifteen minutes. Then we'll spend forty-five minutes or so answering your questions.

Our performance - overall, we were down 4 percent on the year. It pains me to tell you that, and I'm sure you are even more pained to hear it. The market has been volatile. We have made many adjustments and corrections in an effort to stay one jump ahead. Some have worked and some have not.

It's important to state the agenda for the audience so that they know what to expect. This is especially true when the news is bad and they know it.

Putting Results in Their Most Favorable Light

Once Frank had stated the obvious - that nasty minus 4 percent - the audience could be satisfied that he wasn't going to excuse or dance around the poor performance of the fund. He didn't back away from it or gloss over it. He didn't obfuscate. Asserting the problem up front and making himself responsible for it made it easier for him to move forward and share a more positive side of the same bad news:

The minus 4 percent is an absolute measurement. If we look at relative indices, we look much better. The Standard and Poor's index was down 12 percent in that time period, versus our 4, so we outperformed the market.

And when we look at the Morningstar measurements, we outperformed eight of the twelve funds in our category. When we talk to other professionals in our industry, they pat us on the back and say, "Nice going. You outpaced the market in an incredibly difficult year." What they are saying is that on a relative basis we did very well.

But that's not what we are in business for. We are in business to invest our client's money wisely, to increase the value of each client's portfolio.

By adding the perspective of a favorable relative performance versus the market and versus other funds, Frank was able to end his "bad news talk" by actually putting the year's results in a more favorable light:

As I stand before you today, I am pleased that we are outperforming most of our competitors, and I know that we invested your money wisely, but I am decidedly displeased that our fund is minus 4 percent for the year.

At that point Frank introduced the first of the three other speakers, and the meeting progressed according to the agenda. The storyline was consistent. Then came the question-and-answer (Q&A) period - another potential minefield for any bearer of bad news.

Q&A Preparation:  Questions, Answers, and Procedures

A successful Q&A session doesn't happen automatically. It takes hard work, hard preparation beforehand. There are three steps:

  1. Anticipate the questions.

  2. Reach agreement on what the answers should be.

  3. Rehearse the phraseology you will use to properly convey the nuances that are necessary.

Anticipating Questions

Prior to the meeting, write down the questions you expect to be asked. Here is the list that Frank and his team came up with. You can see that many of these questions might fit in anybody's list, regardless of the subject:

Managing Question Flow

But predicting questions is not enough.

How you handle questions determines how the audience feels about everything that preceded it. They recognize it for what it is - it's the prism through which they evaluate your performance, your message, your competence, your credibility, and the success of the entire meeting.

They know it's the part of the program that is not scripted. The audience's attention is at its highest by far. On a one to ten attention scale, the talks that precede the Q&A receive an average of three or four. The Q&A session gets a nine or ten. The audience knows you are on the spot. They see you thinking on your feet. They are impressed when you do well; they are disenchanted when you flub one. But what an opportunity!

Manage the Flow By Establishing Rules

Start things off by raising your hand when you ask for questions. This sets the norm for being recognized. You don't want people calling out questions. When the hands go up in the audience, select one person. This rule helps avoid confusion and increases your control.

You may be saying to yourself, "Wait a minute, I'd feel foolish standing there with my hand up in the air, waiting for questions." You are right when you say, "waiting for questions," because you will have to wait. The questions are not spontaneous. It takes approximately fifteen seconds for a normal audience to come up with a question.

Why the delay? Because it takes time to create a question that will sound brilliant to the assembled group. And the person who breaks the ice wants to sound brilliant. So expect the delay and be patient. The questions will come. Let's consider what to do in those fifteen seconds.

Posture. Right hand up at shoulder level, left hand forward of your body, scanning the audience. It may feel uncomfortable at first, but what's comfortable? Hands folded in front of you in the "fig leaf" position? That looks weak, tentative. Arms folded across your chest? Now you appear confrontational, aggressive. Hands behind your back, the reverse "fig leaf"? Weak again, unsure. So what to do? Use the posture recommended above. Right hand up in the "questioning" position. Left hand out, scanning the audience. It works. And, with practice, you'll feel comfortable, and you'll look strong and in control.

Content. You need to speak during the silence, during the gestation period, while someone in the audience figures out how to phrase a question impressively. But you don't have to worry too much about content. Say something like, "I'm glad we have this opportunity because I want to hear from you. You've heard from me long enough. So please feel free to ask any questions that you may have on your mind. I, in turn, will answer them to the best of my ability. I'm not concerned with controversy, so don't let that hold you back. The important thing is that we have a dialogue together."

Notice that there is nothing earth-shattering in what you have said. You are simply keeping the pressure on them, the audience. The ball is in their court, not yours. You are gently giving them time to perform, to do their part. And they will - every time. So don't panic and say, "Well then, if there are no questions, thank you and good bye." Just give them a little time.

A hand will appear. The first hand raised can be thought of as a calling card/ice breaker to stimulate others to participate. You note it and say. "I see one hand over here. I will start with that person. Anyone else?" Then another will pop up. You recognize it, "Oh, yes, we have another . . . and another over there. Let's start with the first person who raised her hand - and your question is?"

The process has begun. From there on it flows naturally. So stop worrying that there will be no questions and that you will look foolish standing there.

Listen for the Issue

Concentrate on the issue, not the answer. What do you think most speakers are doing while someone is asking a question? Thinking of the answer, right? But the speaker who is trying to figure out the answer may miss the issue - which is what the question is all about. The speaker who misses the issue answers the wrong question. The dissatisfied questioner then snaps back, and says, "No, no, that's not what I asked." Ouch!

Fix your eyes directly on the person asking the question. Listen for the issue. If the question isn't clear, ask the person to clarify it: "I'm sorry, I don't understand your question."

Repeat or Rephrase the Question - Every Time

It doesn't matter if the answer is on the tip of your tongue, repeat or rephrase the question. Do it every time. Here's why: This technique makes you the center of the exchange. You are naturally the source of the answer. By rephrasing, you are also the source of the question as you heard it. This also assures that the audience has heard the question you will answer.

Most importantly, rephrasing creates thinking time for you. The human brain contains something on the order of thirteen billion brain cells (give or take a few). In the time it takes to rephrase, those brain cells are running through your mental files, looking at your storehouse of information from a variety of perspectives, and developing or selecting the answer. They (the brain cells) also are working out proper phraseology so that the answer best fits the context of the meeting.

Simple or nonthreatening questions can be treated in a simple way - repeated or parroted with an uplift of the voice, either using the same words or a slight variation.

Question: How will you improve your performance?

Repeat: How will we improve our performance?

Other questions can be rephrased:

Question: How can we have confidence that you will improve your performance in the future when this year has been so dismal?

Rephrase: Is there reason for confidence in our future together?

Answer the Question

Answer briefly, but don't answer yes or no. The audience wants to hear your thinking. They are not looking for one-word answers; they want a dialogue. They want to get a sense of how you got there, how your mind works. Also, don't get locked in on one questioner. The audience wants broad audience involvement and so do you. Beware being trapped in a monologue with one persistent questioner.

The Tie Back

The final step is to relate your answer to the viewpoint or benefits of your talk. Remember, your purpose in speaking to a group is usually to influence their thinking. That purpose would be the point of your talk. The "tie back" should reinforce that point.

When the Question Is a Challenge

However, there are cases when the question is really a challenge. The goal of the questioner may be to put you on the spot, or undermine you, or even topple you. You feel it. The audience feels it. The tension is high. The interest level is at its peak. The best procedure for a challenge question is to reposition the challenge by rephrasing on the issue. Let's look at the most common issues. Then we'll return to repositioning the challenge.

The Most Common Issues

  1. Priority

  2. Feasibility

  3. Cost

  4. Time

  5. Competence

Why are they the most common issues? Because they are the key factors driving business strategies and decisions. Look for them during Q&A. Knowing them beforehand helps you think on your feet.

The issue of priority is close to the issue of importance and should be looked for in that context. "Why are we doing this?" The issues of feasibility, cost, and time are easier to recognize when the question is asked. Competence is often connected to quality or confidence in future results.

The Challenge in a Small Meeting Environment

Let's examine the impact of the challenge in a small meeting environment. You are making a recommendation to a board, an executive committee, or to a group of superiors. You are suggesting something new. That's why it's a recommendation. You need approval or agreement to go forward. Often it's a way to solve a problem or to take advantage of an opportunity. It may involve a new product, a new direction, a new procedure, the purchase of new equipment, a new process, a new strategy, or creating a new department.

You present your recommendation, support it with evidence as to why it will work, and add the benefits that will accrue. Let's assume the presentation is first rate.

The Classic Put Down Question

Then comes the Q&A session. Most of the questions will be informational in nature. But, sure as the sun comes up in the morning, you'll be challenged with some variation of this question:

Why didn't you think of this sooner?

Suppose you repeated or restated the question: "Why didn't we think of this sooner?" Notice how that restatement traps you into a negative approach to your answer. You are almost forced to start on the defensive, such as: "The reason we didn't get to this sooner is that we were committed to another project, etc." or, "We didn't think of it sooner because our budget structure wouldn't permit it," or, "We didn't . . . because our priorities were different."

Notice how negative it all is.

Make the Rephrase Neutral

You've just made a dynamite recommendation to do something great, and the momentum is sucked out of you by a negative questioner who traps you into being defensive. So what can you do? Simply rephrase on the issue. In this case, the issue is timing. The best lead in for your neutral rephrase is, "What about ._._." Then add the issue, timing. It goes like this:

What about the timing of this recommendation?

What you have done is neutralize the question when you rephrased it. You are not playing games. The question was about timing. An audience will never take offense when the rephrase is neutralized. They will not feel the question has been changed. There is no trickery to this so long as you hold true to the issue.

Answering the Neutralized Question

You now begin your answer with why the timing is advantageous. Your answer begins:

Because of the . . . (Here you insert the conditions that make the timing propitious, such as economic upturn or downturn, positive cash position of the company, failures or successes by the competition, favorable publicity, etc.)

End your answer positively, with something like this:

The timing seems ideal to take the steps we have recommended.

The Tie Back

Go one step further; tie it back to your recommendation, and by this method turn a negative comment into an opportunity to reprise your recommendation.

Usually the transitional words "That's why ._._." lead you nicely into the tie back.

Here is a clean version of the whole exchange. Note how the answer alludes to the criticism of the original question but does not become defensive.

Question: I can't understand why it took you so long to come up with this. This is your area of responsibility. What you are suggesting could have been done a year ago. Why didn't you think of it sooner?

Rephrase: What about the timing of this recommendation?

Answer: I share your sense of the situation (indicate that you are referring to the questioner, either by name or gesture) in that I, too, wish we could have moved in this direction long ago. The opportunity seems so good. At the same time, we are blessed by the recent upturn in the financial markets, which makes the timing seem almost ideal for us to make this move now.

Tie Back: That's why we are asking for your authorization to proceed quickly to put this project into motion.

Why It Works So Well

There is no confrontation. The questioner has not been put down. The rest of the people at the table feel the question was answered well. You may wonder, why add the tie back? It's because you are there to sell a point of view, the recommendation. Your goal in handling the questions is to reinforce the points you made in your talk. The tie back helps you do that by keeping your viewpoint front-and-center during the Q&A.

Hostility in a Larger Audience

Now let's move back to the larger audience situation and assume the same question came up. You, as a speaker, have learned something in this exchange. You don't want to deal with that questioner. He or she is probably a source of trouble. The challenger is probably ready to criticize and tear down the credibility that you have constructed. Therefore, when you complete your answer, don't end by looking at him or her. You certainly don't say, "Does that answer your question?"

"And why not?" you might ask. Because he or she will immediately say, "No you didn't answer my question. What I meant to ask was ._._." And you are caught in a dialogue with that one person to the exclusion of the rest of the group. On top of that, it's the one person you don't want to be caught with. Instead, finish your answer with your eyes fixed on someone on the other side of the room. Then, raise your hand to signal you've finished and to encourage other questions.

Sometimes in volatile situations, questioners will bombard the speaker with multiple questions. This happened frequently during the Iraqi war press briefings. Here's an example of a question that was raised in one of those briefings. It had many parts and much venom ._._. enough to throw almost anyone.

"We have heard that Saddam is alive but wounded, can you verify that? Also, it seems you aren't doing enough to reestablish normalcy and eliminate the looting in Baghdad. What are you planning to do about this? And how about the economic impact of the war? Businesses are dying in Iraq. Can you comment on that please?"

What does a speaker do with all that? The best way to handle multiple questions is to set up parameters at the beginning to guard against it. I would suggest saying something like this: "In order to make sure we get an opportunity to answer as many people's questions as possible in the time we have, I'm going to ask you all to please ask one question at a time."

If you still get asked a multiple question, you have the right, based on your ground rules, to make the question singular. Therefore, your procedure is to rephrase it, condensing it to a manageable morsel:

"That question has many parts. As I hear it, the main thrust is this. What are we doing to get Iraq back on its feet so it can handle its own affairs as an independent nation with a functioning government?"

Now you can answer the rephrased question accordingly. At the end of your answer look elsewhere for the next question so that you don't get involved in a one on one with that questioner.

Don't Get into a One on One

If the offensive questioner shouts out, "Hey, you didn't answer my question," or "I have another question," simply state (without looking back) "Excuse me, we have a question over here; let's give this person a chance." The audience will side with you when someone tries to dominate - as long as they feel you are making every effort to work on their behalf.

Occasionally someone will talk for three minutes or so while formulating a question. When the talking stops you are not at all sure what has been asked. What do you do? Don't try to do the mental gymnastics necessary to fight through it and create a question so as to bring order out of chaos. Not your problem. Simply say, "I'm sorry, I didn't get your question." The burden then falls back on the questioner. Usually, the second attempt is shorter and clearer.

Do the same thing if the question is in the form of a statement. Certainly, in both those cases you have the option of formulating a question out of the debris that has been aired. But remember, it's an option, not a responsibility.

This is especially useful when handling questions in a press conference. If you find yourself facing the press, there is no need to feel awed. They are just part of the audience asking questions, and the same principles apply.

Worst-Case Scenario

Let's look at a worst-case scenario. Assume you are talking to an audience of fifty people. Let's say it's the Investex meeting described earlier. There is one person present who wants to destroy your credibility and scuttle the meeting. He is sitting in the second row, right- hand side. You know he's there. You know he's bad news. He'll be the first to raise his hand. His goal is to monopolize the Q&A. Your goal then becomes to limit his participation so that he doesn't destroy the impact of the meeting.

The Hostile Question

Frank's presentation for Investex, not surprisingly, included a few hostile questions. Here is one:

Question: Is it true that the management team's compensation is not performance-based? In other words, if the fund performs badly you make the same amount of money as if it performed well. There is no motivation to perform well. Is that not true?

Having anticipated the question, prepared, and rehearsed the words he would use, Frank responded like this, starting with a rephrase:

What motivates the management team to perform well?

This was his answer:

I have put together a management team that I think is second-to-none in the financial industry. These people (and you have met some of them today) have different talents and skills. But they have one dominant characteristic in common. They all have a burning desire to excel. They want to be the best in the industry in their discipline.

Each of us is a shareholder in the same funds you are invested in. Our money is invested there because we believe that, in the long run, we are the best and our funds are the best place for our money to be. Just as we feel it's the best place for your investment dollars.

Are we bonused on the performance of our fund? Yes, we are. But that is not the great motivation. It's the desire to excel that drives us. Our lives, our careers, our reputations, depend upon it. And you, our shareholders, are served by that drive toward exceptional performance.

Frank wrapped it all up with a tie back:

That's why we went to great lengths to show you how our performance measured up against that of other funds and the market as a whole. It is true we suffered a 4 percent decline. We regret that, and we'll strive to improve it. We know we can, once market conditions improve, because our performance, on a relative basis, was quite strong.

Notice how Frank, once again, took on the awkward question directly. No pussyfooting. He answered the question at some length, made himself the center of the interaction, and showed that he was not afraid. Is it a perfect answer? No. There is no such thing as a perfect answer. We are talking about dialogue between you and the audience, not about perfection.

How would the audience react? Probably quite favorably. How would a bad guy react? He would not be satisfied and would probably start to ask a follow-up question. But you would raise your right hand. signaling you are ready for another question. You would put your left hand out, in the stop traffic position facing the bad guy. Then you'd say, while looking elsewhere, "Sorry sir, let's give someone else a chance. I see a hand over there." Your hand acts as a stop sign. Your manner reinforces it. Bad guy will go silent. You can count on it.

You can repeat that procedure as the meeting continues. Bad guy might ask three questions, maximum. But he knows, and the rest of the audience knows, that "everyone should have a chance." Once the audience has that mindset, the influence of bad guy diminishes greatly. And you will have handled the pressure masterfully.

Because Frank and his team rehearsed beforehand, they all handled the questions well. Later on, he told me he was fascinated by the fact that no unanticipated questions were asked.

The potential hostility of the audience never materialized - once the audience grasped that Frank had the meeting - and therefore the issue - well under control. "It's amazing," he said, "how proper preparation turned a potentially difficult situation into a controlled environment and a successful meeting."

He also loved the fact that people came up to him afterward to talk about his family and ask him more about his roots in St. Paul. They loved his opening talk. They were impressed with how he and his team welcomed all the questions and handled them candidly. The result: The audience left the meeting feeling the future would be better than the past. Their money was in good hands. Their confidence in Investex was enhanced. Successful meeting.

Key Learnings for Handling Audience Pressure



Westside Toastmasters on Meetup

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