Hostile Audience? Here’s 5 Tips to Help You Win Them Over

One of my secret (well not so secret now) pleasures is watching the Australian Government’s Question Time on television every a week. During the weekly session, the Australian Prime Minister stands in front of the entire House and discusses important topics. The Prime Minister also answers questions from any Member of Parliament who wants to raise an issue.

What makes this great television is watching the Prime Minister wrangle a hostile audience. Many of the questions oppose the Prime Minister’s positions and aim to undermine his credibility. He has to find ways to out-maneuver opponents and take advantage of this public forum to strengthen the case for his policies.  Sometimes he does amazingly well, at other times he fails miserably.

Dealing with a hostile audience can be petrifying. It should be noted though that it is rare, by and large, the audience is on your side and want you to succeed. It is worth noting however, that hostility or a difficult audience can also be a useful warning about how to proceed or how not to proceed. You need to know how to react if/when you come across an audience such as this.

What goes on during Question Time is an extreme example of a common problem. Presenters will deal with hostile audiences in a wide variety of places and circumstances: a manager announcing a new and likely to be poorly received Human Resources policy, a CEO addressing customer complaints, or a popular sports person explaining away a doping scandal. All these scenarios pose the same challenge: How do you win the hearts and minds of a hostile crowd?

In a “hostile audience” situation, you may have or you may have seen others react in the following ways:

  • Die a little inside and carry on valiantly with sad ‘please don’t eat me” eyes.
  • Get angry and either leave or beat up the audience, creating more hostility.
  • Trust their gut and adapt to the situation. They may break the tension with something spontaneous and genuine, they may verbally acknowledge how the group is feeling or even ask the group for permission to proceed. They may cut short or change the presentation after negotiation with the group.

I’m sure you’ll agree the last point is the most sensible reaction.  In this post we will discuss 5 tips that will help you choose the correct response when presenting to a difficult audience.

Set Clear Goals

Set clear, realistic goals. Presentations can change the world, but they can’t do magic. When talking to a crowd with a different set of values or beliefs, no presenter is likely to convert them to their worldview in one meeting. But they can begin the process of changing their minds on specific issues or, at least, creating a common understanding about what drives your differences. Setting clear goals for your presentation will help you decide if they’re achievable and figure out what you need to do to get there.

Anticipate resistance

The best presenters realise that their success depends on the audience they’re addressing and adjust their content accordingly. This strategy is even more important when you’re dealing with a hostile group of people, so you need to understand what motivates their resistance and anticipate their objections. Spend some time thinking about what your audience cares about and why they feel the way they do. You can use this insight to craft an appeal for your idea that speaks to their concerns. Consider asking some friends or co-workers to act as your audience during a practice session of your presentation so you can practice handling the difficult issues and potential questions before you’re in the hot seat.

Find some common ground

It’s highly unlikely that you’ve never met anyone with whom you have absolutely nothing in common. Sure, sometimes the overlap is small and a little vague – there’s a reason most pageant contestants settle on “world peace” as an answer that appeals to everyone – but it’s usually enough to start a conversation. By speaking to shared experiences or appealing to a common value set, you can create a link with your audience that makes you more relatable and may even make your ideas seem more familiar. This is a very important first step to overcoming any differences or conflicts.

Be honest

Don’t pretend to be something you’re not. One of the quickest ways to lose an audience is to be fake or appear untrustworthy. Audiences seek authenticity; they want to hear what you really think and understand why you think that way. Many times, what they really crave is to hear you address their concerns directly. In these situations, it’s often best to speak openly about your differences and tackle their complaints head-on. Even if you can’t change their minds in the short-term, your honesty is likely to establish a better rapport that could help you convince them in the mid to long-term.

Stay calm

Have you ever seen a stand-up comedian confronted by a heckler? Most comedians struggle to deal with hostile audiences, and their reactions often become legendary (here’s a nice example – warning, mature content). Don’t let a hostile audience turn you into a hostile speaker. Even if you’re asked provoking questions, stay calm and answer the questions to the best of your ability. If you manage to keep calm even under tough circumstances, the audience will walk away respecting you more than those who couldn’t do the same.


No matter how well you present your ideas, it’s tough to convert people who are strongly committed to their own beliefs and values. That’s why it’s so important to set a realistic goal so you can take the first step toward achieving it. The Australian Prime Minister likely won’t convert any MPs to the other side of the aisle, but he may pick up a few votes for his initiative or boost his public approval – and sometimes that’s exactly the kind of success you need.  An important point to keep in mind when dealing with a challenging audience is to stick to your message and goals. Don’t sway towards the audiences opinion in an effort to win them over, no matter how tempting.

If you’re looking for other tips to improve your public speaking, why not read my Top 3 Books To Read Before Your Next Speech?

Also, if you’re after a short online course in public speaking, I cannot recommend ed2go’s online public speaking courses enough.  I’ll be posting  review of their online courses in public speaking very soon.



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