Here’s a followup post to discuss what options our substitute dance teacher had when her class was in full rebellion.
She did have options. Doing nothing is, of course, an option, but not one that I would ever recommend. The ostrich with his head in the sand is still mighty vulnerable. Acknowledging a problem is better than ignoring it.
As a presenter, you’ve probably been in similar situations when, despite your research and preparation to give your audience what it wants, you discover that you’ve misjudged. This doesn’t work for large audiences, of course, or keynote speeches, but with a smaller group it does. Here are three ways to get yourself and your presentation back on track.
What should you do if you are getting the cold shoulder from your audience? If they are texting or leaving or muttering, you need to take action immediately. The sooner you respond the better. The first and best thing to do is to call for a break and bring your audience into a discussion with you about what you sense is happening. If you are correct and they agree that the presentation is not meeting their needs, you need to find out how you might adjust your presentation to deliver what they need or want. Acknowledging your audience’s dissatisfaction is the first step in winning them back. No doubt they are feeling pretty bad about both their lack of interest in your choosen subject and in their collective negative behavior. You’ve shown them your humanity and your humility. Opening yourseslf to your audience will quickly gain their trust. Give them a chance to redeem themselves as you are redeeming yourself. Once you’ve admitted your mistake, they will be more than happy to help you. Most often when you experience a rebellion, as our dance teacher did, it is because you have under estimated the knowledge of your audience. You are playing T-Ball with them when they are ready for the majors. Often times, because you are a subject expert, you can step up and, with their guidance, address the more advanced issues that interest them.
If you are facing a persistent heckler or a very vocal critic, you need to take action. Presentation expert, Nick Morgan recommends going into your audience and standing beside the heckler while asking if the rest of the audience holds the same opinion. Rarely will the audience pile on. If the audience disagrees with the heckler, generally your action will be enough to get things back on course. The heckler is silenced because he knows that he is in the minority but has been acknowledged, listened to and called out. However, if you are uncertain whether the majority of the audience sides with the heckler, what you must prevent at all cost is any kind of mob mentality.
If you are speaking at a public forum on a divisive topic, you should anticipate that there will be push back. Plan for it. It might be a good idea to have a colleague or even colleagues in the audience who can help you handle things if they get really nasty. Sometimes you will sense that the bulk of your audience is uncomfortable or even frightened by the loud nay-sayers. You can give them relief by opening up another space for those who oppose to gather and participate in a Q and A or an impromptu forum with your colleagues. Reassure them that their position will be noted, but that for the sake of the rest of the audience who has come to hear your presentation, you will need them to step out and allow the precedings to continue.
Back to our dance teacher. What might she have done to counter the melt down. At the very least, she might have acknowledged that she was aware that something was wrong. That would have mellowed the room immediately. She could have apologized for her misunderstanding of our state of fitness. But she could have saved herself all that discomfort by doing the three things that every presenter needs to do. First and most important of all, she didn’t know her audience. She should have asked the people in charge about the class that she was teaching so she could deliver something that matched our need. Second, she didn’t introduce herself. She should have explained why she was there: as a sub for a teacher who was returning. The panic that ensued when it was assumed that she was our permanent teacher was extreme and fueled the meltdown. And third, she ignored her audience. She should have kept an eye on us, watching for the indicators that we were with her or that we were not. While she probably didn’t have the skills to revamp her routine into something more appropriate for the class, she could have suggested that people pick their own level of energy. She’d at least have made an effort to connect. All the snarky pushback would have dissipated quickly.
Have you had situations like these? How did you handle them?
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