Public Speaking Tip 43: Want to Minimize Negative Reactions? Vaccinate Your Audience

What Does It Mean to Vaccinate Your Audience?

You’re probably familiar with the principle behind vaccination:

Vaccines contain a small amount of something that has the potential to make you very sick – let’s say, the polio virus.

Why would you willingly get shot up with polio virus? Because (and I apologize to scientists everywhere for this quick and dirty explanation),

  • Introducing a small amount of polio to your body lets you develop immunity to it.
  • This means that, if a serious polio virus ever comes your way, your body will already have learned to fight it off.

The same principle can work for you with public speaking.

There are some situations in which it makes sense to vaccinate your audience before you inject an idea that might otherwise (not to take the metaphor too far) make them sick.

Vaccinate Your Audience Against Bad News

Sometimes, we have to tell an audience things that they would rather not hear:

Your sales quota is going up.

Some of you are going to be laid off.

We did not meet last year’s fundraising goal.

If you were delivering this sort of news to a family member, you’d probably try to soften it in some way. You might start by saying something like,

Listen, I’m really sorry about this, but…

I have something to say that may upset you.

Try not to freak out too much about this, but…

Of course, the family member you’re speaking to may still react with anxiety, anger, resentment, or myriad other difficult emotions — but at least you’ve given them a fair warning that what you’re about to say may be hard to hear.

When you vaccinate your audience in a public speaking situation, you’re giving them the same fair warning, in hopes that your actual news will go down easier.

Vaccinate Your Audience Against (Perceived) Insults to Their Status

You may have noticed that high-status people can sometimes be more fragile or insecure than the result of us. (Arguably, they can “afford” to be easily offended, and we can’t.)

A friend of mine recently discovered this when she delivered a speech to top executives that she’d given many times before to managers.

And while the rank-and-file managers loved her speech, which was filled with practical advice, the executives were very negative.


Probably because this group expected to be spoken to with deference, not given matter-of-fact suggestions for ways that they they could do better.

To understand how to vaccinate your audience against imagined attacks on their status, look at these three pairs of statements. (The ego-stroking adjustments are in bold.)

The system has 27 components.
As you know, the system has 27 components.

One of the most important things to understand is the value of connecting with an audience.
Now, clearly, you know the value of connecting with an audience; it’s one of the most important things you can do!

Let me explain the impact of school dropout rates.
Let’s review the impact of school dropout rates.

In each of the second statements, you’re complimenting your audience by implying that they’re already so well-informed that what we’re doing is just a review, or a re-statement of the obvious..

This can seem silly in cases where you suspect they actually don’t have a clue.

But remember: You don’t just vaccinate your audience to keep them healthy. Sometimes it’s good for the health of your career, too!

Vaccinate an Audience that Disagrees with You

There are times when — separate from their emotional reactions — your audience will just disagree with you.

We need to look for venture capital.

This company would be more successful if there were more women on the Board.

Jazz is the only true American art form.

Statements like these may spark heated opposition in the people you’re speaking to, particularly if you present them as being settled fact…  and heated opposition will prevent your listeners from hearing (let alone being convinced by) the brilliant argument you’re about to make.

To hold off that ear-closing disagreement, use a vaccination phrase like,

Reasonable people can disagree about this, but I believe that…

You may not agree with what I’m about to suggest, but…

Whether or not you like this idea, I hope you’ll give me a chance to convince you that…

You can’t hold off disagreement forever, but with luck, you can hold it off long enough to plant your idea in some people’s minds!

And PLEASE NOTE: There’s a big difference between using a modest-sounding phrase (like those I just listed) to strategically vaccinate your audience and using it because you’re in the habit of demeaning or undermining your own ideas:

  • The first is a public speaking skill. 

Prepare to Vaccinate Your Audience By Practicing What You’re Going to Say

It isn’t always easy or comfortable to speak in the situations I’ve described.

But you’ll feel more confident and up for the job if you choose a few “vaccination” phrases and practice them out loud until you know them cold.

Use these phrases as needed in your speech…  and then go home and take two aspirin!

Image by Pan American Health Organization, Flickr/Creative Commons

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