When you speak in public, expect that there are a few members of the audience who will always go against you. Most of the time, this is caused by the topic of your speech or something that you said. While experienced speakers deal with this with grace, newbies or amateurs often lose their calm and let their emotions lead.
To deal with a hostile audience, you must apply some proven strategies like addressing the reason for their reactions, employing logical reasoning, using a neutral tone, being in tune with them, and focusing on shared interests.
Aside from these techniques, there are still a few strategies that aren't as well-known but very effective. In this guide, I'll share them in detail to prepare you for your next encounter with a hostile audience!
What is a hostile audience in public speaking?
A hostile audience is someone who disagrees or opposes what you are saying. Often, they take issue with the topic of your speech or you as a speaker. In some instances, hostile audiences are also the ones who don't pay attention because they are uninterested.
It is also important to note that some audiences are really hostile in nature, and they would really find a reason to disagree with a speaker— not just you.
There are different types of hostile audiences, and identifying them is one of the keys to getting them on your side.
- The heckler: This hostile audience is rude and insulting. What drives them to be hostile is their need to assert their personal worth.
- The expert: This is the know-it-all audience who challenges the speaker just so he can show everyone that he is knowledgeable.
- The lost: This type of audience is exactly as their name suggests— lost. They don't know what they will gain from listening to you.
- The over-zealous: This audience loves to ask questions or answer them to the point that you and the participants become uncomfortable. This type of person has a strong need for approval.
- The intimidator: This person tries to monopolize your speech using aggressiveness, be it through words or action.
- The turned-off: This audience is zoning off, and it comes out as rude. Often, this hostile person is more occupied with other things than listening to you.
- The squawker: The audience who loves to complain and whine is the squawker. They crave attention and acknowledgment.
What are the causes of hostile audiences, and how to prevent them?
There are several reasons why some audiences are hostile during your speech delivery. Here, I'll discuss each of the causes and what you can do to prevent them.
1. Topic of the speech
The major cause of hostile audiences is the topic of the speech. If your topic is controversial, or you need to take sides, expect that there would really be audiences that would disagree with you to the point of hostility.
To deal with this, you have to learn what is the stand or the audience regarding the topic beforehand. The best person to ask this is the organizer. Ask them specifically if the group of an audience has values or interests that conflict with the topic.
2. Something the speaker said
Sometimes, the things you say while speaking can turn the audience against you. It can be an offensive joke, an insensitive remark, or an opinion that goes against the belief of the group.
For instance, if you did not research your audience beforehand and spew jokes about infertility without knowing that the group includes parents struggling to have a baby, expect some walk-outs during your speech.
I suggest that before delivering your speech, read it several times to see if something is culturally inappropriate, sexist, or deeply offensive. If you can't help sharing your opinion, do it lightly.
3. Speaker’s background
Depending on your background, your audience may also show hostility towards you. Here are some examples:
- You work in the oil industry, and you're talking to a group of environmentalists.
- You published a research paper that had a bad impact on the audience.
If you're in this situation, it can be terrifying to know that your audience already has an opinion of you even before starting your speech.
The best thing you can do is ask the organizer what the audience knows about you. Or, Google yourself. Most of the time, you were researched by your audience. Be prepared to answer their questions regarding your background, but do not be aggressive.
4. Bad news shared with the audience before the talk
This is not that common, but still possible. If your audience received some bad news before your talk, expect that they may project their anger or stress toward you.
What you can do is ask the organizer about this beforehand. This is the only way your can tailor your speech according to the audience's mood.
5. Environment or room setup
The conduciveness of the environment plays a role in the audience's mental and emotional state while listening to you. If the room is too hot, freezing, and noisy, expect a hostile audience.
Your presentation may also affect their reaction towards your speech. If your slide deck is not properly made or the speakers are not functioning well, they will not be able to focus and become disinterested and rude.
To avoid any problems with the environment, check the room before your speech. If the surrounding is really noisy, approach the organizer to transfer you to another room.
Also, check your presentation and the sound setup. Make sure that they will meet your expectations if you are an audience.
6. Time of the speech
Delivering a speech super early in the morning, during nap hours, or before the audience goes home (assuming it's a company seminar) can drastically affect the mood of your audience.
If you're giving a speech early in the morning, make sure it is lively, and it can really make the audience interested. In other words, don't prepare a lullaby. If the speech is almost the same time as the dismissal, don't go in circles and get to your point so your audience can go home on time. Otherwise, they will really be grumpy, and you will be on the receiving end of their grumpiness.
How should a public speaker deal with a hostile audience?
When you're already in front of a hostile audience, and you aren't equipped, there's a big chance that you'll let your emotions overpower your logic.
1. Address the elephant in the room
You shouldn't proceed with your presentation without confronting the opposing ideas in the room. If someone is raising their hand to say something against what you said, listen to what they got to say and then state the reason why you disagree with them in a respectful and thoughtful manner. Often, hostile audiences can be disarmed when they are addressed fairly and calmly.
2. Use a neutral tone
If you sound defensive or annoyed with whatever the hostile audience suggested, it would only irk them more. They would attack you further if that's the case.
Of course, this is easier said than done. It takes a lot of willpower to be calm and use a neutral tone.
If you're having difficulties, repeat this in your mind: "I won't let this hostile audience turn me into a hostile person. I will remain calm and speak professionally."
3. Humanize yourself
You can make yourself a small target by humanizing yourself and your speech. As you speak, admit that your perspective is only one way to look at a certain thing and that everyone makes mistakes.
By doing this, you are removing the impression that you are an all-knowing expert who's at the top of the pedestal. Once they feel that you are also human and open to disagreements, they would not be that aggressive in attacking your point of view.
4. Focus on shared interests
Remember that no matter how hostile your audience is, you have a common ground or shared goal. Make them realize that even though you push for Plan A over their Plan B, you are one with them in the expected outcome.
For instance, if you are a new team manager who thinks Asana is a better productivity app to use for the project, but your teammates or audience says they can work without it, tell them that despite the differences in perspective, your goal is the same— to deliver the project on time.
5. Exercise tact
When an audience is hostile, it's easy to assume that they're attacking us personally, so we respond with words that aren't carefully thought out. This is where things get out of hand.
If a hostile audience provoked you with their words or opinion, exercise tact and remember to temperately phrase your words. English is a really huge language. Surely, you would find a way to rephrase your original angry response with something more professional.
6. Build rapport with the positive people in the room
This sounds really counter-intuitive, but it really works. If you have established a good relationship with most people in the room, the others will follow suit. It's like a ripple effect.
Once you have addressed the issue of the hostile audience, focus your energy on the positive people listening to you. Our brains have mirror neurons which makes us "mirror" how the people around us feel or act.
7. Use humor
Self-deprecating humor is really effective when hostile audiences are waiting for you to make mistakes or say something that they can criticize you with. If they act hostile, disarm it with humor.
But don't be too humorous to the point that you're already disrespectful. Only lighten the situation.
8. Be in tune with them
Meet the audience where they are. In other words, demonstrate that you understand where they are coming from by saying things like "I understand that you are frustrated because…' or "You're probably thinking…"
By addressing the audience's concern right away and even initiating a conversation about it, you're demonstrating empathy and that you are on their side.
9. Check your body language
Be very aware of your body language while dealing with hostile audiences. If you're trying to hear them out, but your body language says otherwise, you won't be able to sway them to believe you.
For example, if an audience speaks about the repercussions of your project, don't cross your arms as if you are challenging them or you think they have nothing important to say.
Hostile audiences need to feel that you value their input so they won't react more negatively to what you are going to say after.
10. Stand near the audience who has an aggressive question
Some people find this tip weird, but this is, in fact, very effective. If someone asks you an aggressive question and you know you can answer it confidently, go near the person who asked or stand beside them.
This will disarm them because they'll see that you can stand with people who don't support your point of view. Similarly, this will also make them realize that you are confident with your speech and that you know what you are doing.
11. Learn how to end a disagreement that is not going anywhere
If you engage in a disagreement with a hostile audience and they won't see reason, take a step back and end it. Do not waste your time because a large number of your audience is still waiting for what you have to say.
Tell the hostile audience this: "I think we really disagree. Let me talk to you further during the break if you want. For now, I'll get back to what I'm saying." Trust me, they rarely ask for another round of disagreement.
12. Let them ask questions but allot five minutes to wrap up
Instead of making the last question of your audience as your cue to end, save five minutes of your time to deliver your best rhetoric.
You don't want your listeners to remember how a hostile audience fried you with their questions. Instead, leave them something they can ponder on or look forward to.
A good public speaker knows how to deal with all types of audiences, including hostile ones. It's impossible to be in perfect agreement with everyone's perspectives and opinions, so always expect people to come at you for saying something against their beliefs.
Having a hostile audience in the group doesn't mean that you failed with your speech. This is perfectly normal, so don't beat yourself up if you weren't able to deal with them well the first time.
For more resources to develop your speaking skills while you are in the comforts of your own home, please check the articles Online Resources for Public Speaking and Where Can I Learn Public Speaking. If you would like to leverage the best presentation software for your next big speaking engagement, please read the article 'Best Presentation Technology tools'.