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How to Handle Difficult Audiences
By Diane Diresta   Printer Friendly Version

You've polished your act. You're rehearsed and ready. You step up to the platform and there they are-the audience from hell.

3D Strategy
How do you move from panicked to professional? Change your outlook. Use the 3D strategy: depersonalize, detach, and defuse.

Step one is to depersonlize. Realize that people come with their own emotional baggage and agendas. One woman walked out of my friend's opening presentation because she was wearing an Elvis costume and the audience member did not like Elvis. It had nothing to do with the entertainer's talent or competence. So don't take it personally. Step two is to detach.. That means that you don't engage the ego. Once you go head-to-head with that heckler you set up a competitive dynamic. Don't let your emotions get out of control. Ask questions to gain understanding. Don't get defensive.

The last step is to defuse the negative energy. And one of the best defusers is humor. Take a light, playful approach. If you get tense, the negative energy will increase.

Managing Resistance
To get a handle on a difficult audience, begin to recognize the signs of resistance. Are they side-talking, reading the paper, challenging you, or having difficulty understanding directions. Do they sit with closed body language? If you have ever felt like you were working too hard to get a response, chances are you were dealing with resistance. Once you recognize resistance, figure out where it is coming from. Reasons for resistance fall into three categories: How To, Chance To, Want To. Is the reason for resistance that they don't know how? Then provide clearer instructions on how you want them to participate. Is it that they don't have a chance to? Let's say you asked audience members to turn to a partner and discuss a point you just made and some people do not respond. Maybe they can't find a partner. When this is the case, provide an opportunity. The last reason for resistance is a lack of motivation. You ask for a volunteer to come on stage and nobody moves. Perhaps they don't see the benefit. Make it fun, offer a prize. Your job is to help them see the value.

To break resistance, use a pattern interrupt. In other words, do something different. Shake them up. Pick up the pace. Tell a story. Get them involved. Children at play are not resistant Have fun. But most of all, break your own resistance. Are you doing anything that is contributing to their resistance.? Are you too rigid? Are you following a script that just isn't working? Are you reacting to a difficult person instead of responding to the situation?

Cast of Characters
Who is the personality that can really push your buttons? Is it the know-it-all or the whining complainer who finds fault with everything? To stay cool and in control, begin by recognizing which type of person will set you off. By recognizing this person, you will strengthen your ability to handle him or her.

Here are a few difficult personalities and how to handle them: Eager Beaver-This person is always the first to participate and is eager to help. This makes it difficult for others to respond. Acknowledge their contributions and suggest that others participate. Negative - Very resistant and negative about you, the subject matter, and doesn't want to be there. Begin to acknowledge his/her concerns. Deal with the problem immediately. Paraphrase your understanding of the issues. Ask the group to problem solve or offer to discuss the concerns later. Complainer/Whiner-Finds fault with everything. Likes to whine but has no solutions. He/she is not necessarily negative about the subject matter, but likes to complain. He/she will respond with "Yes, but" to your solutions. Don't go there. This is a no win. Instead, ask the audience for alternatives. Stay focused and move on.

Expert-Challenges your authority; argues with others. This may truly be a person with expertise who wants recognition. Acknowledge comments without getting defensive. (Remember depersonalize, detach, defuse) Ask the group for other opinions. One of the best strategies is to play to his/her expertise. Invite and recognize the expert's comments. Soon you will have an ally instead of an enemy.

This is a storyteller. You ask for the time; you get the history of watch-making. To manage the rambler, cut in, summarize the comments and ask for other opinions. Don't let them drone on. Poor Loser-The people will not admit a mistake. They don't have the ego strength. Do not back them into a corner. Instead, agree to disagree. Let them save face.

Wants to control. He/she may not be an expert but can intimidate a group by monopolizing the conversation or activity. Don't let dominators take over. Ask for other responses. Use humor. Jokingly say, "Someone other than Jerry." If that doesn't work, call a break and speak to them privately.

Side conversations
Two or more people engage in regular conversations during your presentation. If it is a large auditorium, ignore it. In smaller groups it can be distracting.

Make eye contact with the talkers and stop speaking until they look up. You can also confront them directly and ask them to hold their conversation until later. Or try the walk technique. Walk toward them, stand in front of them, and keep talking. They will get the message. Hecklers-Do not play their game. Try to ignore them and continue your program. If they are not getting a response from you, they may give up.

A clever retort will only challenge the heckler to come back at you one more time. Instead, walk over to him and put your hand on his shoulder and keep on talking to the group. Do not show any hostility or use put downs. Only a trained stand-up comedian can get away with that. Another technique is to ask the difficult person to identify himself and his company. This often works because the heckler wants anonymity.

When dealing with difficult audiences, remember that the disruptive behavior is a symptom of an unmet need. The expert needs recognition, the poor loser needs to be right, the whiner feels helpless and wants to be cared for. When you can give them what they need, the behavior will disappear. Since this is not always possible, you still have a choice of how to deal with it. You can stay in control or let it control you. Your best strategy is a sense of humor. In most cases, it is not about you. The next time you meet a difficult audience, take a 3D view. Depersonalize, detach, and defuse!

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