12 Tactics for handling challenging public speaking situations


Have you ever found yourself in a challenging public speaking situation?

Many of the most experienced and confident presenters have worked in very challenging public speaking settings and have lessons to share.

I’ve had my fair share of them as well.

This article sets out some of the key learnings I’ve taken from some very challenging public speaking ventures.

What could possibly go wrong in a presentation?

–  Perhaps the audience dislike your idea or proposal because they fear it’s not in their best interests

–  It could be that they are emotionally attached to the status quo or another idea

–  Some may feel that they know better

–  What if some are simply neutral and therefore disengaged?

–  It may just be that they can’t see the big picture; there is no clear vision

The following 12 tactics wll serve you extremely well if you ever find yourself in a challenging public speaking situation.

1.  Get perspective

When you are likely to have your message and assertions challenged, perspective is key.

You must have an in-depth knowledge of the issue from your audience’s perspective. Passion, belief and eloquence in your delivery is one thing but your first priority is to put yourself in their shoes. That means having a clear understanding and considerable empathy for their positions.

One of the reasons it feels like such a challenging public speaking event is because you can’t fully see things the way your audience does.

Before you utter a word, do whatever is necessary to see things from your their perspective.

2.  Plug the ‘holes’

That means preparing for the worst in terms of understanding the ‘holes’ in your message. Don’t wait for them to be raised, present them in advance. Demonstrating that you have identified and acknowledged potential issues with your proposal is healthy. You must however, also plan for and propose the appropriate and effective mitigation for those challenges. The dissenters will respect the fact that you have thought it through, even though they may still not agree.

It’s also important to understand your own personal weaknesses. What is it that your audience may say or do that could antagonize you and lead you to lose control. Anticipate these happening and prepare for them in advance.

3. Identify the ‘Snipers’

In other words, make it your business to know and understand the perceived ‘trouble makers’ in advance. These are the ‘snipers’ who are sitting at the back  of the room waiting to shoot down your message. Better still, if you know who they are, get to make a personal connection with them before they enter the room. Making the effort to reach out to these people in advance of your presentation will serve you well. They may be thankful too.

Don’t shoot back at the ‘sniper’; stay calm and focused. Welcome their comments, support your point and then move on.

Returning fire never pays.

4. It’s not personal

It’s quite rare that any difficult challenge, awkward question or any level of hostility towards a presenter is personal. Remove any judgments or assumptions that they don’t like you and are out to get you.

It’s highly likely that whoever is presenting the message would receive the same reaction. Don’t see it as personal. It’s just a challenging public speaking situation. Detach and depersonalize yourself from any adverse emotional reaction.

Your job is to calmly and collectively stay focused on your message whilst respecting your audiences opinions.

5. Give them some ground rules

It’s your presentation, take control of it at from the start.

That means:

– Asking them to turn off their mobile phones

– Letting them them know when you’ll be taking questions.

– Taking ownership of everything; the platform, the time, the agenda, questions and even the flip chart.

6. Diffuse the emotional charge

Remember to smile.

Wherever possible and appropriate keep it light hearted by using a little humour.

Don’t respond negatively or defensively.

Keep to the facts and stay grounded.

Remember, put yourself in their shoes and be empathetic.

7. Unmet needs

We all have needs and you may be absolutely certain that your audience has them too. If their needs aren’t  fully met, some may get a little grumpy, sulky or argumentative. It’s your job in challenging public speaking situations to make sure that your audience’s needs are met.

Such needs could be:

–  The facts, detail, evidence, examples

–  Respect, acknowledgement and understanding

–  Involvement and interaction

–  An emotional connection

8. Create allies not opponents

There will sometimes be people in the room who simply know more than you on the topic. If that’s the case and they are being a little difficult, it’s because they need you to recognize their expertise. They need to have a voice and to share their knowledge; there’s nothing wrong with that.

Make sure you  involve the rest of the audience to elicit their thoughts.

Don’t let anyone sit in discomfort just because they have something to say.

9. They yawned, so what?

A member of your audience just looked at their mobile phone while you were speaking.

Another person yawned.

Someone looked at their watch.

One person whispered something to the person sitting next to them.

This can sometimes cause instant paranoia. It’s easy for a presenter to immediately jump to the conclusion that she has lost or bored her audience.

Human beings yawn, look at their phones and watches all the time, that’s what we do.

Don’t make assumptions and judgments about how they feel or what they may be thinking, because you really don’t know.

10. Be humble

You can be in control but still be polite, courteous and respectful. There really is nothing worse than an arrogant presenter who speaks as if ‘it’s my way or the highway’.

A little humility goes very long way.

11. The ‘War Room’

Well in advance of the presentation meet with a few trusted and knowledgeable colleagues and do two things:

–          Brainstorm and record every conceivable concern, contention and question you believe could possibly come your way and find the answers.

–          Role play each scenario, dealing with those issues until you are as comfortable as you can be that you have everything covered.

12. Its not the question; it’s the response

Answering questions is often the part many presenters dread. It can be the greatest source of anxiety in a challenging public speaking situation. As the presenter you may feel that if you can’t answer a question you will be exposed or ridiculed and lose the respect of your audience.

If someone asks you a question you either don’t know the answer to or are just struggling to answer, here’s what to do.

– If you don’t know the answer, don’t pretend you do and bluff your way through it. It’s embarrassing and they won’t thank you for it.

Don’t apologize either, simply step forward into the question (rather than be on the back foot as many presenters are).  Tell them that you don’t know the answer but will make it your business to find out.


– Don’t just answer the person who asked you the question, answer the whole room and share eye contact. If you simply answer the question by maintaining direct eye contact with the questioner you will lose the rest of the audience. Some may feel offended and switch off while you have a one to one dialogue.

Feel free to ask the rest of the room for their thoughts on a difficult question.

– Listen to the whole question and make sure you understand it before you answer it. Many presenters are so relieved that the presentation is over, they quickly then become so anxious about questions that they find themselves waiting to speak rather than really listening to the question. Give the questioner your undivided attention. If you didn’t hear or understand the question fully, don’t be afraid to ask them to repeat it.

– Never answer a question negatively, with a ‘yes but’ or suggest in anyway the person asking it is wrong.

– Don’t respond by saying ‘that’s a great question’. Many people do it; it’s very often not true and can sound patronizing. Also, if you didn’t say the same to either the previous questioner or the next, some people may be disturbed by this.

Training can help to give you the confidence you need

If you give enough presentations it’s likely that one day you’re going to find yourself in one of the challenging public speaking situations  I’ve described. Explore these 12 tactics for yourself and remember that the key to handling any challenging presentation or audience is to retain control.

Control of yourself and the presentation by believing in yourself, your message and the value it will add to your audience.

If you are entering into a challenging public speaking situation soon and need a little help:

– Book yourself onto a powerful public speaking course.

– Invest in some really good one to one public speaking coaching.

– Get yourself some excellent presentation training

I really hope you enjoyed this post. If you did, please feel free to share it through your preferred social media channels below and subscribe to our mailing list so you won’t miss any future posts.

Photo by Mae Mu on Unsplash

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