When the Audience is the Bully

I remember my first corporate consulting assignment. I landed a multi national bank who hired me to train 70 MBAs in their credit training program. After developing the curriculum, the day finally arrived when I was to deliver the writing and presentation skills seminar. I was feeling excited and a little anxious.     

My anxiety quickly turned to panic when I learned that management had scheduled their first credit exam the day after my training. The MBAs thought they would have that day to study. To make matters worse, the manager told them the class was only three hours. The reality was that we were booked for a full day.

At this point, the group marched en masse to the manager's office threatening to boycott my class. Immediately I summoned the HR person who hired me and suggested that we reschedule the class. She remained unconvinced. Her response was akin to "the show must go on". At 4:00 p.m, the manager called to apprise me of the situation. I'll never forget his parting words, "Diane, I wouldn't want to be in your shoes tomorrow."

Predictably, I didn't sleep well that night. As I tossed and turned I considered different strategies to handle the situation and even considered calling in sick. Strike that one. I knew that would be career suicide. 

The next morning, as I was facing my Armageddon, I  knew I was approaching a Lion's Den. It felt like David confronting Goliath but at least he had a slingshot. There was no time for wishful thinking. I was entering the room unarmed. What was going to be my slingshot? I had to act fast.

Walking in with an air of confidence and planting myself before them, I looked them straight in the eyes and spoke directly. "What's important to you is time. You want time to study for your exam. What's important to me is to give you a quality seminar. " Clasping my hands together as a visual anchor, I continued, "How can we make them both work?" After a moment of silence, they began to speak. After some back and forth, we negotiated a half day seminar. By reducing the number of exercises, we were able to make it happen. The group was intensely focused and cooperative, so we finished on time. 

Did they like me? Probably not. They still didn't want to be there. But the mission was accomplished and I emerged unscathed.

What do you do when you feel bullied by the audience? Here's what works when you encounter a hostile audience.

Own the Room. When dealing with a bully or hostile audience, assume the body language of confidence. A bully doesn't respect weakness. Stand tall, make direct eye contact, stay planted in one spot, and don't let them see you sweat. These behaviors can be practiced even if you don't feel confident. Believe in a positive outcome. 

Enter their world. An audience is hostile because they feel threatened or because a need is not being met. Name it. When you name the elephant in the room, you can begin to solve the problem. Listen, address their needs, and you'll establish trust and good will (at the very least, they'll be more cooperative).

Stand your Ground. Don't cave in. State your needs or purpose and invite them to respond. Aim for adult-to-adult communication. Look for a negotiated solution. Think "both" rather than "either or".

Use an Anchor. Gestures, words, and music can all be presentation anchors. By clasping my hands in front of my body, I was inviting the audience subliminally to come together. Motivational speaker, Tony Robbins, pumps his chest with his fist to anchor a state of power. What words or gestures could you use to anchor a difficult audience?

At some point, every speaker will experience a hostile audience. Don't allow yourself to be bullied. Stay calm and in control.

For more tips on handling difficult audiences, read chapter 10 of Knockout Presentations.