A Problem That’s Thankfully Rare
Most of the time, an audience is on the speaker’s side.
The people who come to hear you want you to succeed—in part because it’s more fun to listen to a speech that goes smoothly than to watch a speaker struggling onstage.
But sometimes, your audience includes that person. The one who has an ax to grind, who’s having a bad day, or who “enjoys” being hostile in public.
What do you do when that person aims their anger, negativity, or disrespect at you with a hostile question?
I’m Not Great at Handling Hostility
Most of us aren’t.
And the (fortunately few) times this has happened to me, I haven’t been totally satisfied with how I handled it.
So when this question came in from a reader of my newsletter, I turned to a couple of my colleagues for ideas. Speaker coaching, after all, is a uniquely individual activity; and every coach brings their own temperament, training, and experience to the job.
Here are their suggestions for handling rude, angry, disrespectful, or disruptive audience members:
Advice on Disrespectful Questions from Great Britain
Kolarele Sonaike—coach, working barrister (lawyer), and founder of The Great Speech Consultancy—suggests these go-to moves:
Give a deadpan, non-confrontational, mono-syllabic response that sucks the oxygen from the fire, such as “OK,” or “thanks.” (If you like more syllables, try “Interesting.”) Then move on without skipping a beat.
(Kola calls this the “Arthur Ashe technique,” after a time when the legendary tennis player smoked a Wimbledon opponent by knocking them off their rhythm.)
Offer them private attention, such as a 1-to-1 discussion later.
What you’re raising is a little too much to go into right now. Why don’t you look for me after the meeting, and we can talk about it then.
This one is particularly good for when you get hit with a barrage of questions from one person: Ask the audience to vote on whether they want to detour into what’s been asked, or keep going with your talk (or with Q&A).
Once the questioner sees everyone vote to keep going, they’re likely to settle down.
How It’s Done in the C-Suite
Diane DiResta—who coaches top executives, writes books on public speaking, and makes frequent media appearances—offered these tactics:
Take the sting out of disrespectful questions by rephrasing them. So, if someone “asks,”
How did someone like you get this job?
…you can respond by saying,
I think you’re asking, “What are my credentials?”
…and then briefly cite them.
Sometimes angry questioners have a legitimate gripe (say, about something that’s happening in your company). In that case, acknowledge their feelings and, if you’re able, try to help.
I hear that you’re upset. Can you be specific about the situation? Maybe we can escalate the issue to a higher authority…
If someone keeps coming at you with repeated questions or follow-ups, politely refuse to engage by saying something like,
We have a lot of other questions. Next question?
I’m going to move on to someone who hasn’t spoken yet.
I hope this never happens to any of us, but in the extreme case where an audience member is getting out of control, take a break or, if necessary, wrap up your speech.
And Two Bonus Thoughts on Disrespectful Questions
When I discussed this issue with my creative strategist, Melea Seward, she pointed to an interview with the great comedian Hannah Gadsby.
In it, Hannah mentions two things that have minimized (or eliminated) the heckling she gets during her shows. (And yes, hostile questions are a form of heckling.)
1. She Tightened Up Her Act
Early in her career, Hannah’s act had halting or hesitant moments. Her stumbles and silences (my words, not hers!) acted like an invitation, or at least an opportunity, for hostile audience members to jump in with heckling comments.
Over time, she learned that a well-paced show that flows smoothly discourages negative people from acting out. The moral for speechmakers is to keep working on our skills, and the coherence of our speeches!!
2. She Got Famous
Getting famous isn’t an option for most of us :-), but Hannah’s experience suggests that the more status, authority, acclaim, etc., you bring to the stage, the less people will want to challenge you.
So don’t hide from your expertise and accomplishments. When you speak from the attitude that “I know what I’m talking about,” your knowledge and confidence will help discourage negative pushback.
And it never hurts to remind yourself that there’s a reason why YOU’RE the person who’s onstage…and they’re taking pot shots from the audience.