Ever had a tough day?
Ever had a tough presentation?
Today, we’re going to look at how difficult audiences, or difficult members of an audience can make or break you.
Recently I was teaching a class on programming. It was a subject that I was fairly comfortable with but I’m humble enough to admit that I don’t know everything and probably never will. However, when I don’t know something, I try and get back to the questioner with the answer as soon as I can.
So in this particular class, I had a group of students who were quite advanced and seemed like they worked twice as hard as the rest of the class. When it came time for the review class before the midterm, they had a stack of questions. Questions that I felt were beyond the scope of the class. Some questions, I could answer, others I couldn’t and I admitted to that. I could see the frustration and look in on their faces. It was a look that read “this guy doesn’t know anything”. At that moment, I lost credibility with them. Because of this moment, the rest of the class seemed like they were losing credibility of me as well. After a while, I sensed that the questions were becoming “loaded”, meaning trying to derail my presentation on purpose to see how I would react.
Well I kept cool and admitted when I didn’t know the answer and deferred other questions to “lets take that offline as its beyond the scope of this class”. Eventually, I got through the class (scarred and bruised but still in 1 piece). At the end of class, the “advanced” students left and I took this moment as an opportunity to grow from the experience. So I went from group to group with the remaining students and asked them how the felt about todays class. I asked if there was anything with my teaching style that I could adjust for them. I found out that these “advanced” guys were the same with every teacher and it wasn’t just me. I also found out that the material I was teaching was slightly advanced for them and that I needed to slow down some more. I also told them that I don’t know everything and never will but I will do my best to teach them. The rest of the class seemed quite happy and I regained credibility with them.
Over the course of the remaining weeks in the course, it took a lot of work, but I was able to regain some credibility with some of the “advanced” students as well. But I made the effort to teach at the level of the average student and took the position that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few since the rest of the class was the majority, I spoke to their level.
It was a tough learning experience but a very important one. When you are dealing with difficult audiences, how would you react? Lets explore some possibilities;
1) Keep cool – remember, its important that you keep a level head, your goal is to keep the audience on your side and getting angry will only make you look like a jerk. Your time on stage is temporary and your job as a speaker is to deliver the message to the audience. Your audience is the most important people there and just because a few members are trying to spoil it for everyone doesn’t mean you should let them. So focus and keep going.
You can also keep cool by taking a sip of water every so often. Pause more often to regain your thoughts and take controlled and deep breaths.
2) Defer difficult or loaded questions – remember, you’re the manager at that moment on stage, its up to you how you want the presentation to go. So if you feel that some questions are beyond the scope of the presentation, say so! Say that you would be willing to take that discussion offline. If you don’t know the answer, admit it. Never, never, never, try to BS your way through it. The audience will see it.
3) Keep the audience on your side – Darren Lacroix talks about how you should never jump on a heckler right away. Wait until he or she starts getting on the nerves of others. Which will typically happen after a few interruptions. At that point, be firm and that person that they’re being disruptive and that they need to take their disruptions outside. Being insulting is risky, it can backfire on you. Maybe there’s a way you can turn this heckler into a supporter?
Sometimes the person disrupting the audience doesn’t know they’re being disruptive. For those cases, whats worked for me was a polite “hey thats really distracting…”. In those cases, the person didn’t know and was apologetic. The rest of the presentation was a piece of cake.
4) Disinterested audiences – as a college professor, I deal with students who like Youtube and Facebook better than me…..well sometimes I may like Facebook better than me too! 🙂 But this is an area where you need to work the audience back to you. This is an area that takes quite a bit of practise and over time, if you work at it, you can become an expert at attention getting. Disinterested audiences are difficult audiences too!
A couple of examples of getting disinterested audiences back to you are to take advantage of what they are distracted about. If they’re on Facebook or Youtube, work it into your talk say “hey did you see that viral video on that singing cat? Jim’s watching it right now over in the corner!”. Or, I might try “Lets stop and do an exercise, right now you’re going to design a database that holds Facebook information and link it to another database that holds Youtube information. You should be able to do this fairly quickly since you’re experts on the topic and are on it right now.” I get a laugh every time. But work it in a way that will bring a chuckle and not seem insulting, you’ll get their attention back and win their interest.
So there you have it, difficult audiences can be tough but they can also be the ones you learn the most from. So don’t despair or cry but feed off of the experience. Remember that you’ll grow and get better each time and that the bruises today will be the armour of tomorrow.
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