The Hostile Audience
Speak to a lot of groups and you'll eventually encounter a hostile audience.
Not everyone will be hostile, of course, but there will be enough frowners, arm-folders, and challengers to make it memorable. Most speakers, sad to say, carry the negative memories far longer than the positive ones and much longer than is warranted.
Here are some tips for those days when a large number of the chairs are occupied by coneheads:
- Remember that it's probably not you. Many people carry around their unhappiness and are eager to share their woe. The speaker is a convenient symbol and target.
- Recognize that their rudeness often masks insecurity. Confident people tend to be polite, even when they disagree with you.
- Consider the possibility that it's the topic, not the speaker, that is hated and you may be unaware of just what local crimes have been committed in that subject's name.
- Treat them politely unless they are openly discourteous. Never, however, stoop to their low level of language or wit.
- Don't try pulling rank by describing your credentials. These are streetfighters. They don't care.
- Listen closely to their reasoning to see the underlying rationale. You may not agree with it, but the process will help to drain the emotion from any confrontation.
- Never forget that a large portion of the audience is on your side. The more professional you are in your handling of a jerk, the more the others will gravitate to your corner.
- Focus on the more reasonable members of the audience, don't let the naysayers bring you down, and don't be too sensitive to negative body language. It is not unusual for a person to assume a disinterested slouch for your entire presentation and then run up afterwards to tell you he loved it.
- Maintain some humor. When Al Smith was running for governor of New York, he once encountered a heckler who interrupted the beginning of his speech by shouting, "Tell 'em all you know Al. It won't take long." Smith replied, "I'll tell them all we both know. It won't take any longer."