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You Know How Your Audience Is Going to React – So Adjust Before You Speak


We have a dog named Dude.  Dude is about nine months old lab-retreiver mix that we rescued him from the Humane Society in Atlanta.  We named him Dude because he seemed to have a laid back personality and because we like to make people laugh – and they usually do when we introduce our dog Dude.

I work from home in an office in our basement.  I’ve got a small dorm fridge in the basement where I store my daily supply of Caffeine Free Cokes.  As I was getting things around this morning, Dude watched me while I put a couple of diet cokes on the chair next to the basement door.  I planned to carry them downstairs when I was ready to go to my office.  As I was sitting the sodas down I thought to myself, “Dude is going to try and sniff these sodas and get his doggy germs all over my cans.”  As I’m sitting the cans on the chair I’m thinking, “I shouldn’t do this.  The cans are at the right height where he can sniff them and get his doggie germs all over them.  He seemed comfortable laying there.  But he’s watching everything I’m doing.”  I was either too lazy or overly optimistic so I thought, “Aw, screw it.”  I left the cans and went back into the next room to grab something.  Sure enough he was sniffing my cans when I got back.  I was a little upset with myself for not thinking about turning my can upside down before I left the room because I just KNEW he was going to sniff my cans!  But by then, it was too late.

Isn’t that the way it happens with presentations sometimes?  We know that our audience could potential react to our message in a negative way.  But we take our chances and don’t prepare for it… then kick ourselves when the worst happens?

When You Anticipate Things Could Go Wrong with Your Audience

There are several circumstances where you can anticipate that things could go wrong.  In this post, I want to talk about two of the most common:  Delivering bad news & compulsory attendance

Delivery Bad News

Back in my corporate management days, we had meetings with employees that we knew weren’t going to be pleasant.  The hardest were those that had to do with cost cutting and layoffs.  I sat through far too many of those meetings.  I had to conduct far too many of those meetings.

When you have to communicate bad news, it’s important to be sensitive to the audience’s emotions.  So how do you do that?

Articulate the Emotions

People want to feel like they are being heard.  When there are cost cutting measure, people feel like they’ve had something taken away from them.  They’re mourning a loss.  And they worry about what comes next. When there is a lay offs, they’re losing friends.  They’re scared for their own jobs.  Acknowledge these realities.  Speak to the emotions they’re feeling.

Plan what you’re going to say in advance.  Run it past some trusted peers and your boss.  Don’t tell people how to feel.  They feel the way they feel.  Acknowledge the feelings of hurt, betrayal, fear or what ever is the mood of the group.  It’s tough enough to go through the circumstances of the bad news.  Don’t exacerbate the situation by appearing to be in denial too.

Be Direct

Delivery of bad news is not the time to add flowery verbiage and hallow platitudes.  Deliver the information as directly yet sensitively as possible.

If there was a layoff, say it.  If there are more coming, say it.  If there were cuts from the budget, explain why.  Give people the information they need to be informed.  Don’t pussy-foot around.  Treat your audience like you would want to be treated.  It won’t make the bad news go away.  But it will show that you are still able to treat your audience with respect.

Compulsory Attendance

Mandatory meetings.  Required training.  The attendance-is-not-optional presentation.  Let’s face it.  Sometimes our audiences aren’t there because the want to be there:  they have to be there.  What can we do to help in a situation like this?

Make Your Topic Important to the Audience

Ask yourself and the person who asked you to speak why the topic is important to the audience.  If it’s mandated by law, why was it mandated by law?  There must have been some larger societal issue that was compelling enough that the training or meeting is now required.  How does that societal issue effect the people in the room.

How will the topic get the audience member something that is important to him or her?  Will it make their job easier?  Will it help the company?  Will it save jobs?  Lives?  Make them feel better about themselves?  People often default to the lower end of Maslow’s triangle.  But in actuality we all want to feel significant.  We all want to matter.  Appeal to the audience’s sense of identity and relate that to your topic.

Add Humor

How many people have you met in your lifetime that don’t like humor?  I bet you can count them on one hand.  Humor is a great coping devise even for presentations that people don’t want to be at.  The best humor is insider humor that’s clean and doesn’t degrade anyone except perhaps yourself.  Use humor that helps you make your point.  Take advantage of the situation you find yourself in and listen for ways to lighten the mood by what you see in front of you.  Invent a game show to add some spice to the presentation.  Add some pep and your audience will appreciate that you’ve tried to make the mandatory subject more fun.

Include Meaningful Interaction

People love to be involved and they love to be heard.  Look for ways to engage the audience.  Ask a question and allow audience members to respond.  Create a contest to test their skills and knowledge in a fun way.  Have them break into smaller groups and wrestle with a portion of your topic.  The person who talks the most learns the most.  Make sure your audience has time and space to talk.


People Are Predictable

Just like I sensed that Dude wanted to sniff my cans, you can sense when you’re going to come across a challenge with an audience.  Don’t ignore that intuition like I did with Dude this morning.  Be prepared for the emotions and the level of commitment that you can expect from your audience.

By the way, the cans Dude sniffed… I washed them.  Not as good as preventing the problem.  But it was certainly a more reasonable alternative to throwing away the cans because of the Dude’s germs!

Prevent your problems by being as prepared as you can.  And if there are still problems, do the best you can to find an alternative that can work for you and your audience.

What Else?

What have I missed?  What else do we need to pay attention to when it comes to delivering bad news to an audience?  What else do we need to do when address a crowd that HAS to be there?  Please add your comments!