Strategies for Delivering a Presentation to a Hostile Audience is a guest post by Shoots Veis, P.E.
As engineers we often get the opportunity to work on great projects. We often transform the landscape through construction and make life safer and more efficient for the people using our infrastructure. However, not everyone is going to see it that way. Many of us have had to deliver a presentation to a hostile audience that does not think a certain project is the best idea. They come to the meeting with a preconceived notion of the project, not happy at the thought of what is proposed to be built.
If you are already a less than confident public speaker, speaking to this type of audience can be one of the hardest things to accomplish. They tend not to share your viewpoint, may have a dislike for technical answers, and may not value engineering expertise. Speaking to this type of crowd is never going to be easy, but there are a few things you can do to get ready.
If you know that you are going to be facing a hostile audience, it is even more important to prepare for the presentation. ‘Winging it’ in this situation is certain to sink the presentation and may cause serious damage to the project’s progress. Ensure you take the time to plan, design and deliver the best presentation you can. Know that you are going to be interrupted during the presentation and prepare strategies to get the meeting back on track. When you are not ready for them, they will disrupt your delivery and have you easily flummoxed.
Address the ‘Elephant’
You have to address the “elephant in the room” with this type of audience. They object to the project and are attending your presentation to tell you why. As much as you want to, you are not going to avoid talking about the debated aspects of your project. It will be easier to communicate with the audience if you acknowledge the reason why they are not happy. Engineers make trade offs to ensure that projects move forward. Our judgement about the importance of certain project aspects does not align with theirs, but you should recognize that you understand why they are not happy.
Seek Shared Goals
It is unlikely that you are going to persuade your audience to believe in the project, however, you can try to persuade them that you are trying to reach the same goal. They may not be happy where a proposed road is going to be located, but they may be happy to know that the road will provide a safer route. If you are prepared for the hostile audience, you should be able to think of a couple of goals you might be able to share with them. Being open to alternatives they provide that meet a shared goal means you are listening and that they do have ideas you haven’t considered. Trying to reach a shared goal opens that dialog.
Be Aware of Your Body Language
Be very cognizant of your body language with a hostile audience. If you say you are listening, but your body shows them you are dismissive of their criticisms, they will never change their viewpoint. Smirking, crossed arms, and all the other signals our body sends out to tell another person you do not value their input will only make your hostile audience more hostile. Sixty percent of our communication is through body language and a hostile audience is going to be even more honed in on how they see your communicating through your body. You must be open to hearing them and valuing their input or they will know in an instant, that you don’t care. Engineers are not good enough actors to fake their body language.
Even with all the options we discussed, dealing with a hostile audience is never going to be easy. It is unlikely you’ll persuade them to see the value in your project. Being dismissive or unresponsive is not helpful. At least if you are open to listening to them, they will feel that they have been heard.
About Shoots Veis, P.E:
Shoots Veis, P.E is the author of Public Speaking for Engineers: Communicating Effectively with Clients, the Public, and Local Government. He is a Senior Project Manager focusing on municipal engineering assignments involving water and wastewater systems, land development, permitting, and project management. He served for five years as an elected member of the Billings, MT city council.
Please leave your comments, feedback or questions on delivering a presentation to a hostile audience.
To your success,
Anthony Fasano, PE, LEED AP
Engineering Management Institute
Author of Engineer Your Own Success