What if your audience is hostile? How do you handle it? It’s a sad commentary of the times that this question is coming up frequently enough that I thought it time to offer some solutions to this ticklish problem.
I once saw the magic act of Penn and Teller, and Penn was quite edgy and combative with the audience. By the time he threw a bunny into a wood chipper, and spattered the stage with apparent bunny blood, the audience was ready to turn on him, and that’s exactly what they did. At some level, he deserved the reaction he got, since his own actions provoked the rather predictable result.
That was all part of the act. But when an audience objects to something a speaker is doing or saying, it’s more typically because of political differences of some kind. We’ve all read of the staged protests, walk-outs, and yelling matches precipitated by political polarization, in settings from the school board to the presidency, and there are varying mixes of real anger and theatrical point-making involved.
I think the result of all this tension and division is that audiences are primed in a way that they haven’t been before to take issue with their speakers, in ways large and small. It’s good to be ready with a bag of tricks to meet the challenge. Here are five:
1. Never own the problem. This advice sounds like I’m advocating avoidance, weaseling, and ducking the issue. I’m not. I’m suggesting instead that you share the problem. If you’ve got a heckler, or a small group of protesters, ask the rest of the audience how they’re doing. Do they share the concerns of their fellow attendees, or are they coming from somewhere else? You can use either response. But a problem shared is a problem halved. Get the audience working on the dissension with you.
2. Accept the anger or dissension head on. After you’ve involved the rest of the audience, then be ready to acknowledge the (legitimate) anger or frustration or pique or whatever it is, using the classic model of the five kinds of listening: giving feedback, paraphrasing, clarifying, empathetic listening, and active listening. Of these, the last two are the most likely to defuse your audience’s ire and get them back on side. Empathetic listening says something like this: “I’ve been there, too – I worked a fishing boat in my 20s and lost a finger to a shark one December.” You’re sharing your perspective and telling a story of your own designed to create common cause with the irked audience member. Active listening goes even further. It might go like this: “It sounds like your frustration has been building for a long time. You feel that your repeated complaints have been ignored and that management is not addressing the underlying issues. Is that a fair statement?”
If you’ve done a good job listening, you’ll get a “yes!” from the audience and be half-way to helping create a positive vibe in the room once again.
3. Use your body language to create a bond with the audience. The urge, when confronted with hostile audiences, is to become defensive. After all, you do feel under attack. Of course, you want to take up arms and defend yourself. But that’s usually counterproductive; the better part of wisdom is to stay open with your arms and face, and move toward the angry audience member or members. It’s counter-intuitive and hard to do, but it can work wonders. When you get close to the angry group, then align yourself in the same direction facing the stage, acknowledge their ire, and start a discussion about it.
4. Defuse the anger with humor. This takes rare grace and composure. Don’t be hard on yourself if you can’t do it well; few can. I once watched a masterful speaker, a lawyer, defuse an audience at a public meeting that was coming to protest the powers-that-be for not responding fast enough to a threat to their kids. They were furious. And frightened. The lawyer, who was representing the town, stood his ground, however, and started cracking lawyer jokes. Apparently, he had about 500 up his sleeve, though he never used more than about 25. The audience was chuckling in disbelief by the time he got to the end of his response – fortunately before he ran out of jokes. Basically what he did was change the subject, and then it was so entertaining listening to him that the audience was beguiled in spite of itself.
5. Tell the audience its story. This technique requires deep knowledge of the audience in front of you. To understand fully is to forgive, and if you can share the stories of the angry audience members, showing that you understand them fully and can tell them compassionately and in depth, few people can resist being seen in that way. If you’ve grown up with the people in front of you, then you might have the kind of knowledge required to do this well.
Each of these techniques can handle some of the audience some of the time. If they’re coming after you with pitchforks, however, running to the edge of town might be the better option. Then keep running.