Dealing With a Defensive Audience

Uncategorized Apr 18, 2024

Here's a hard pill to swallow: Sometimes an audience doesn't want to hear what you have to say. 

Sure, public speaking can be fun when you're delivering a wedding toast about how much you love your college bestie. 

But what about when you're tasked with being the bearer of bad news

  • It's less fun to give a presentation to your work colleagues about why their last project flopped. 
  • Or giving a speech to your constituents about why they all need to take shorter showers in the midst of a drought.  
  • Or leading a training about how to identify unconscious biases when hiring. 

Any time you tell an audience that they should change their behavior, you risk dealing with any speaker's nightmare: A defensive audience.

Looking into the crowd of frowning faces, you can almost hear their thoughts:  

  • Who is she to tell me how to live my life? 
  • I don't have to sit here getting judged by this person. What does she know?
  • Okay, I get it. But does she have to be so preachy? 

Oof. I'm sweating just thinking about it. 

And I'll level with you, some of these people are not winnable. When you're delivering a message that really challenges an audience, some of them will not be receptive no matter what you do. We're not focusing on those folks right now. If someone sticks their fingers in their ears and starts shouting, "LA LA LA I CAN'T HEAR YOU! LA LA LA" (metaphorically or literally) there is no amount of public speaking technique that's going to reach them. 

But, for the people in the audience who are winnable, here's what I suggest:

Tell a story about a time you were in the wrong. 

This is one of the fastest ways I've found to diffuse defensiveness in audience. Let's say you're trying to improve the recycling situation at your office. 

There's a big difference between saying: 

"People, you gotta sort the recycling. I keep pulling plastic out of the paper and cardboard bins. It's gotta stop. The bins are labeled. Make sure you're using the right ones."

Instead of saying: 

"Where I grew up we had single stream recycling, which meant it all went in one bin. So I've absolutely been guilty of mixing up the recycling. Let's all make sure to check the labels on the bins so we can keep things running smoothly." 

If you're asking people to change their behavior, it often cools the temperature of the room if you are able to acknowledge that you don't have a perfect track-record.

So, next time you have to administer a hard pill to swallow, try adding a spoonful of storytelling. I think you'll find that your message goes down easier when you do.  

Photograph of Sara Glancy on stairs
Headshot by Jessica Osber.

Sara Glancy is an NYC-based actor and public speaking coach and the founder of Speak Masterfully, a service that helps professionals take the stage with less fear and more fun! 

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