Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Engaging a difficult audience: The Kenneth Feinberg lessons

Do you really know how to engage an audience? That means not just speaking to them on your topic, trying to teach them your views or even change their minds. Engaging an audience allows for back-and-forth, differences of opinion and outright disagreement that can't be neatly resolved.  Can you do it with an audience that doesn't trust you or accept your authority?  Can you hold your ground without defending it like a fort? Can you acknowledge views that don't fit with yours?

That's what attorney Kenneth Feinberg, special master of the compensation fund for those affected by the BP oil spill, is doing as he begins outreach to affected communities. And while you may think he's got $20 billion worth of appeal for his audiences, these public appearances are drawing skepticism, anger and hurt feelings from the oil spill, feelings he needs to account for in engaging his listeners. Start watching him, speakers.  In this New York Times article, this Diane Rehm Show interview, and his other numerous public appearances to start outreach for the BP compensation fund, Feinberg demonstrates these lessons you'd do well to follow if you're facing an audience that's angry, uncertain or just on the other side of your viewpoint:
  1. Acknowledge the realities of your audience members:  Many would-be claimants run all-cash businesses, so Feinberg offers them options for proving their cases. From the Times article: “Do you have a profit and loss statement? Do you have a checkbook? Check stubs?” he said. “No? Well, then, tell the captain of the boat, or your priest, to vouch for you.”  Instead of leaving that question open to speculation, he addresses it up front, taking some of the tension off the table, and suggesting real-life options that let the audience know he gets their situations.
  2. At the same time, keep to your boundaries:  Feinberg uses "I" statements to maintain his boundaries, instead of arguing back with "you think this" or "you think that." Angry Gulf residents who want to make the point that there'll be damage for years to come sometimes ask Feinberg whether he'll eat the local shrimp or crab. He's careful to say "I don't know," then answer the underlying question of how claims in the future will be handled when the consequences can't be determined today.  When he talks about needing documentation, he often says, "I have to have something to back up what you're saying," couching it in terms of his responsibility.
  3. Don't be afraid to have an opinion--but show that you understand not everyone shares it.  Feinberg tells audiences he thinks they'd be crazy not to apply--but tells them not to do so if they think they can get a better deal.  When that comes up, he usually underscores his determination to make the fund fair and the best deal available, without attempting to change the naysayers' minds.
  4. Don't underestimate how humor can level out tension:  Even when posing for a photo with audience members, Feinberg says, "Everybody file a claim?" instead of "cheese."  And he shows a gentle humor, poking fund at the process where he can without deprecating its credibility.
What successful tactics do you use to engage audiences on difficult topics? Leave your tips in the comments. (Photo from BP's photostream on Flickr)

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