Managing Unreceptive Audiences

Here is What to Do When It Is Necessary To Speak To Groups Who Lack Interest Or Disagree With Your Position.

By Thomas J. Roach

Last month I had the privilege to speak to the members of the American Coal Ash Association at their conference in Birmingham, Ala. They are a very dedicated group of professionals as was demonstrated by the robust attendance at my talk on public speaking and presentations, which was the last session on the last day. 

I remember when speech classes were about as popular as dental visits and death, but in the last 25 years, we have all become more aware of how much our communication skills effect our careers and our personal lives. When I finished my talk, I half expected to see my audience bolting for the door, but almost all of them stayed for a question-and-answer session, and most of the questions were about dealing with unreceptive audiences. 

I have taught speech and practiced public relations for more than 30 years, and it never occurred to me that my speech lectures and my actual public speaking experiences were sometimes antithetical. When teaching, I always assumed a receptive audience, but my public relations audiences were sometimes unreceptive, sometimes even hostile. 

Many jobs in the aggregate industry require public speaking and presentation skills – for instance, sales, lobbying, public relations, project management and leading workgroups. If you work in one of these areas, you know that you sometimes need to speak to groups who lack interest or disagree with your position. 

Here are the highlights of what I learned, not from my academic studies, but from the school of hard knocks.

  • It is necessary to start on common ground with your audience. Hopefully you can find some aspect of your topic that is universally accepted, if not, at least try to find something more relevant than the weather. 
  • Address what is on your audience members’ minds. If you don’t address what they are thinking about, they will probably ignore you while they are waiting for you to get to the point. It is usually best to identify the controversial issues and spell out audience concerns as accurately as you can before you make your argument.
  • When you are done, raise your hand and ask for questions, and call on the first person to raise their hand. By the time you get to your second and third questions the audience will realize that shouting and being aggressive is not going to get your attention and you will have a calm audience raising their hands like school children. 
  • If you are holding a media conference because of a crisis and it has attracted unfamiliar reporters, they will have no constraints and will shout to get your attention. If this happens, call on the local reporters first. The reporters you work with every year are more likely to treat you with professional respect, as they know they will have to work with you again after the crisis has passed. When the out-of-town reporters see that you have the respect of the locals, they will likely modify their own behavior. 
  • Even at a media conference it is advisable to start out with a short speech that tries to find common ground, acknowledges the audiences’ concerns, and answers the obvious questions.
  • Never refuse to answer questions. Research shows that not responding to questions is more antagonistic than almost any disagreement you may have with the audience. If you don’t have the information they seek or are prohibited from discussing something, thank the questioner and explain your constraints. Most questions will touch on something that you can discuss, and you should be ready to go to that information after you apologetically explain that you can’t give them everything they want. Do this even if you are asked the same questions multiple times. 
  • If you schedule a media conference and you want to downplay the importance of the issue, schedule it in a cavernous room. Television cameras will capture what looks like a small turnout and the issue will be visually devalued.
  • On the other hand, if the purpose of the media conference is to call attention to something positive, schedule it in a room that is a little too small for the anticipated crowd. The camera images will show what looks like a crowd anxious to hear what you have to say.

Lastly, if you can do so without seeming sarcastic, smile!

Thomas J. Roach Ph.D., has 30 years experience in communication as a journalist, media coordinator, communication director and consultant. He has taught at Purdue University Northwest since 1987, and is the author of “An Interviewing Rhetoric.” He can be reached at [email protected]

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