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Winning over a hostile audience

Facing a hostile audience is tough even for professional speakers (Thinkstock)

Facing a hostile audience is tough even for professional speakers (Thinkstock)

Ross Monaghan used to have the thankless task of explaining to local residents why mobile phone towers might soon by towering over their back gardens, as part of his job in the telecommunications business.

Sometimes, his fellow executives didn't help.

"I once (saw) a senior executive turn up to an angry meeting in an expensive car to explain why his company couldn’t spend more money on the local community," wrote Monaghan in an email. "First impressions count. If you blow it, there is almost no chance of recovery,” added Monaghan, who later became chief executive officer of the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association and is now a lecturer at Deakin University in Melbourne

At some point in your career, you're going to find yourself about to walk into a meeting with a hostile or likely-to-be hostile audience. Learning how to take an unpopular public stand with grace, cope with unwilling followers or issue a mea culpa will go a long way toward turning the jeers into cheers — or at least fewer jeers.

For top managers and executives, it’s even more important since the entire reputation of a group, division or even company, can be on the line. Some executives handle a hostile crowd with reasonable aplomb, such as General Motors’ chief executive officer Mary Barra who testified for hours before the US Congress and has fielded tough questions from families of people killed in crashes linked to faulty ignition switches involved in a massive recall by the car maker.

Others, unfortunately, crack under the pressure — think AOL's Tim Armstrong, who in the middle of a meeting to announce job cuts at US news website, Patch, fired a senior executive on the spot for having a camera switched on.

So how can you disarm a hostile audience and win them over—even if you’re delivering unpleasant news or a controversial report?

1. Don’t go off the cuff

The best speakers might look like they're winging it, without notes prepared in advance, but few actually are.

Peter Bubriski, a Massachusetts speech and communications coach, puts his executive clients through hours of preparation, focused on what he calls the five A's, which are anticipate, acknowledge, ask (for clarification), admit (what you don't know) and answer in a fashion that keeps it short and sweet and to the point.

Much of the work of disarming an audience is done ahead of time, when planning for the meeting. For instance, Bubriski coached the team of architect Santiago Calatrava when they were pitching their services to rebuild the transportation hub at the World Trade Center site in New York City. The transportation authority is notoriously tough on presenters and the audience could have quickly turned hostile at any sign the team were misusing the emotion connected with a construction project at Ground Zero, where so many people had been killed, including many transportation authority staff.

Calatrava hung blank sheets of white paper around the room and then slowly drew lines on them as he spoke, saying something along the lines of "We begin here… and we will take a journey to… here," invoking the vision of the completed transportation hub.

2. Seek laughter — aim at yourself first

"Laughter is the shortest distance between two people,” actor Victor Borge said. This just might be true with angry audiences, too.

Colin Cloud, a comedian based in Edinburgh in Scotland who bills himself as a forensic mind reader and performs a Sherlock Holmes act for audiences globally, recommends breaking the tension you feel as you enter the room by mirroring the body language of the audience.

If people in the room are looking at their watches, stand on stage and look at your watch. If they are playing with their mobile phones, play with yours. When people recognise their own discomfort, they often laugh — producing a moment you can use to acknowledge that while the work at hand may be difficult, the message you're about to deliver is important.

One easy way to provoke a laugh is to poke fun at yourself. Comedian Cloud cites US president Barack Obama's speech at a dinner. Facing attacks over questions about his birthplace, Obama announced that he was going to show the audience a film of his birth, and cued up the animated Disney movie The Lion King.

Laughing at yourself shows you are in control of the situation, said Cloud, who suggests tapping into humour whenever you can.

"There's a difference between serious and important," he said.

3. Admit your vulnerability

Experts who acknowledged uncertainty are actually more persuasive than those who express complete confidence, according to research from Stanford University's Graduate School of Business's Zak Tormala.

The research, released in 2011, shows that if an expert expresses doubts, the audience is surprised. As the crowd focuses and tries to sort through their surprise, a greater connection is formed. That can help soften negative attitudes.

4. Break the tension any way you can.

You can't always get a joke right — or perhaps jokes aren't your strength. Scott Cassel often faces a room full of global executives opposed to the environmental regulations that his organisation, the Boston-based Product Stewardship Institute, advocates.

"I play harmonica,” said Cassel, chief executive of the organisation. “I'll say something like, 'It's really been a blues kind of day. I might play a harmonica blues riff.’ Often people will laugh or might clap.”

Other ways to try to break through: offer to ditch the presentation in favour of answering the audience's questions, or climb down off the stage and walk around. Then you're "in a position where you’re equal with the audience, not looking down on them," said Monaghan.

Sometimes, the best policy is to disappear altogether if you can. Monaghan had his car chased on one occasion and had colleagues receive death threats. Town hall style meetings are usually no-win situations for executives. His advice: "Avoid situations where you're going to be a lamb to the slaughter.'

Elizabeth MacBride also occasionally writes for Stanford.

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