How to Handle a Tough Crowd

Giving a polished sales presentation is tough, but it’s even tougher when members of your audience are angry or frustrated with your company and walk in aiming to discredit you rather than learn about your products and services. Almost everyone has been there – dealing with questions that accuse and distract rather than seek information. Or having to endure what appears to be a question but what actually becomes a long tirade about shoddy service or defective parts your company shipped in the past. Lenny Laskowski, president of Newington, Connecticut-based LJL Seminars and author of a new book called 10 Days to More Confident Public Speaking, acknowledges such audiences are challenging, but says they can be handled gracefully with a little practice.

First, know your audience and be prepared for potentially hostile questions. When you get a hostile question, there are several things you can do to diffuse it. “First, you might rephrase the question to a more neutral position,” says Laskowski. “If someone asks, ‘What makes you think you’re such an expert on the widget market?’ you could respond by saying, ‘You may be wondering where I get my experience in this market.’ And go on to discuss your background.” Or if the question comes in two parts, dissect it and address the easier part first. You might say, “Let me address the second part of your question first.” Then after you answer that part, ask the audience member to repeat his other question. “A lot of times, they’ll automatically rephrase the question to be more neutral and get at the heart of the issue,” says Laskowski. Finally, try simply agreeing with the questioner. “That really floors them. When you say something like, ‘You’re absolutely right. We messed up. Now what can we do to fix things going forward?’ they’re usually stunned. What are they going to do, argue with you?”

The important thing is to genuinely try to understand where the questioner is coming from and to acknowledge that position. Sometimes, people just want to be heard. “You don’t need to get them to agree with you, you just need to get them to neutral ground,” Laskowski says. “Too many people try to say, ‘I’m right, you’re wrong’ and it’s got to be one way or the other.” Instead, just try to get more information by saying, “Let me understand what you’re saying…” and really try to understand their viewpoint. Once you do that, they’ll be much more receptive to what you have to say.