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Presenting to Angry and Difficult Audiences? Try Subtlety

Presenting to angry and difficult audiences
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It’s easy to present to a crowd who look like you, sound like you and think like you; it’s a whole different skillset to move minds that are set against what you say. In another post, Luke Gregorczyk at Rolfing-London looks at the challenge of presenting a difficult or ‘bad news’ presentation with confidence and calm. In this post Jim Harvey talks about how to create an influential message for difficult or angry audiences.

I was forced to attend a driver education programme in the UK recently, having been caught on a speed camera doing 34 miles per hour in a 30 mph zone. Well, I wasn’t really forced to attend; I was given the choice to attend or pay a £90 fine and accept 3 penalty points on my driver’s license. Not much of a choice really. But I was made to feel lucky for the chance to pay £50 and spend 3 hours of my life attending ‘school for naughty drivers’.

I arrived at the course feeling angry and met 30 other miscreants who were even more upset than me. One guy was ranting and asked everyone who entered the room what speed they were caught at, and every time they answered 33, 34, or 35mph he became even more incensed. He’d been doing 32 mph (so he said) and felt that this was another sign of ‘England going to the dogs’ – the hounding and fleecing of innocent motorists, etc.

The course started with the trainers (all former police officers, not usually known for their charm or tact), standing in front of a group of arms crossed, resentful adults who didn’t really want to engage with them or the subject. As a facilitator myself, and one of those resistant souls, I was thinking, ‘go on then, let’s see you handle this…’

Three hours later, all but one of us (guess who? – no, not me) left  the room feeling chastened, guilty and almost grateful for the 3 hours we’d given to the course. The event was a ‘masterclass’ in influencing.

And here’s my take on what the course design and the instructors did, to make such a successful ‘turnaround’ in the audience, and how it fits into my theory for doing the same thing in my professional life.


General Principles

  1. They trusted the message that they had, and the ‘story’ they were telling.
  2. The message structure was superb, so the facilitators didn’t have to work hard to make up for a weak argument, they just had to run the timetable and ‘trust the process’.
  3. The message followed classic ‘story structure‘ principles – the story answered our question ‘why is 32-34mph in a 30mph zone a punishable offence?’
  4. They made us care in Act 1 – by making us engage with our knowledge/ignorance of the subject and realise that we didn’t know why 30mph is such an important speed limit; they made us think in Act 2 – by showing us the ‘problem’, scale and importance of road safety in a civilised society, they asked us to see their point in Act 3 – by reaffirming our responsibility as drivers for ourselves, other road users, pedestrians and the law.
  5. In short, they answered ‘the question’ in our minds that had made us resistant at the start.


Classic influencing techniques

A hundred years of research in marketing, copywriting and negotiation with resistant audiences (and most are at least a little resistant, aren’t they?) suggest that for effective persuasion, presenters should:

  1. Fit their strategy to the audience they have in front of them, not the one they’d like to have.
  2. Focus on the key issues for that particular audience – solve them and the other factors usually fall away.
  3. Communicate with Flair – Use the tips and techniques of marketing and persuasion to add real power to the story they’re telling.

All of this requires preparation to work. Otherwise what do we have? Charm? That will only get us so far with a resistant audience, so here’s a little bit more detail on each of the stages:

Stage 1 – Fit

  • Understand your target’s current perception of the position they’re in – we felt hard done to even though we accepted that we had broken the law.
  • Find out the choices that face them, and the forces that shape their thinking and any other things that they are currently facing – here our ignorance of the reasons behind the 30mph speed limit meant that we didn’t think that it was that important, so that drove our sense of injustice.
  • Then having found out all of this context and challenge, find out about the possible resistance that they might have to your idea- our resistance was based on our ignorance of the context, data and reality of traffic deaths in 30mph zones and they realised that if they could reeducate us about this, our resistance would crumble (in most cases).
  • Understand how they represent the problem to themselves and how you might begin to reposition their representations, change their pattern of thinking. In this case we tended to represent this issue to ourselves by using numbers with the assumption that a ‘small’ difference in speed in a low speed limit area was not that important, and we saw this as unfair because as ‘law-abiding citizens’ we were sensible and knew what responsible driving was. We did that classic thing and redefined ‘law-abiding’ to mean ‘law-abiding plus or minus 20%’.

How do we get to this level of understanding of our audience before we start to create an argument? Research is the answer. Here are 4 suggestions:

  • Asking the target audience is great, but not always possible – but in this case they’d done lots of research on the thinking and feelings of ‘innocent’ drivers like us. But if you can’t do research- but often you can ask any audience in advance…
  • Asking others who know them or have dealt with them is the next best thing;
  • Then you might consider asking people who have faced similar audiences of their advice, and lastly;
  • You might imagine what it is like to be in their shoes with their worldview, and look at why you might resist if you were them – because most of us are resistant to some external influence, authority or message at some stage in our lives.

Stage 2 – Focus

Having found out a lot about how your audience views your subject, now’s the time to identify how you might best change their minds.

  • Think about their interests. Are their own interests best served by their current thinking? How might a shift in thinking benefit them in future (short, medium or long-term)? In this case, our interests were to avoid prosecution in future, feel good about ourselves, leave with our dignity intact and feel like we had been treated fairly.  And in our resistant stage we couldn’t leave the course and achieve any of these things. So our best interests were served by being shown the error in our current thinking, and being allowed to see if we accepted that we had broken the law (even by 20%) we were harming ourselves and leaving ourselves open to future misery, grief and financial hardship.
  • What is their priority? In this case our priority was to leave with our dignity intact – we didn’t need a lecture.
  • Of the interests that they have that are affected by your subject, what is the priority order of those things to the audience.

Stage 3 – Flair

If you’re preparing to speak to a reticent audience then you absolutely have to remember that facts, evidence, example and patience are very persuasive to the majority of us, even the most skeptical and hostile people. And while such rational approaches alone may not succeed, adding a bit of flair to the delivery of those facts, figures and examples can go a long way as a convincer.

Be sure to use:

  • Relevant stories, examples, visions, testimonials of people that will have credibility to this audience to support your argument.
  • Data and the proof that the change has worked for others that they find credible; and therefore might work for them.
  • Logic path to the change, step-by-step


What did  the facilitators do then?

  1. They started off where we were- they acknowledged our anger and frustration but didn’t try to make us feel better or sympathise.
  2. They took our key frustration, being only 2-5 mph over the speed-limit, and started off there.
  3. They asked us why we thought it was unfair, and we told them.
  4. Then they asked us if we understood why there were speed limits, what they were and on which roads you find them – most of us didn’t really know.
  5. Then they asked us how many people were killed on the roads in the UK each year – we didn’t know. Answers ranged from 130 to 5,000. Answer 1797 (all data for 2011 in UK).
  6. Then they asked us where most of the deaths occurred – again we guessed motorways – wrongly and found out that it was in 30mph zones. (678 deaths).
  7. Then they asked us to guess how many children died on our roads each year – we didn’t know.
  8. Then they asked us about the driving speeds that kill children – we didn’t know.
  9. Then they told us a key fact. That a child who is hit by a car at 35mph will die on 80% of occasions; and that a child hit by a car at 30mph will live 80% of the time.
  10. And the next key fact was that 65% of drivers in 30mph zones exceed the speed limit by at least 5mph.

They showed us medical data, photographs that we’ll likely never forget, videos from pediatricians confirming the official data we’d already seen and left an indelible impression. Then they went on to show us how little we knew of the highway code, road markings, and motoring law in the means of various quizzes, call outs and discussions.

Note: at no time did they tell us that that we were ignorant, dangerous and stupid. We were allowed to find that out for ourselves.


What can business presenters learn from this demonstration?

It’s an old saying, maybe even a cliche, but I think it’s useful here:

You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink

But the most skilful presenters will understand their audiences so well that they can anticipate, accommodate and influence even the most resistant of resistant minds.

Jim Harvey

Jim Harvey

Managing Director at The Message Business
Jim is a serial entrepreneur and the MD of The Message Business, a company which helps international and FTSE 100 companies sell themselves, and their products more effectively. Jim has many years of experience speechwriting, presentation coaching and motivational speaking, all over the world.
Jim Harvey
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