Tuesday, October 4, 2011

From the vault: 6 ways to speak about a contentious topic

(Editor's note: It happens a lot to political campaigners--and to ordinary speakers who just happen to face angry audiences over difficult issues. Whether you're campaigning or just trying to get through a meeting, tough topics add extra layers to your task. I've updated this longstanding post to reflect today's concerns for speakers addressing difficult subjects and contentious issues.)


You may not like to speak in public. You may fret over your delivery, voice, outfit, the lighting. Or perhaps you're a happy speaker, ever willing and comfortable. But when your topic or subject creates the difficulty, you're facing the great equalizer, the challenge that might thwart both the confident and the shy speaker.

And the definition of "tough topic" rests with you, the speaker. It may be tough for you personally--the eulogy of a parent who's died, or the toast to a child on her wedding day. It may be tough for you as a speaker, if you face a contentious topic or audience that might explode, or if you're especially nervous. Tough can be a momentary but pointed political debate, an argument impossible to win, your nerves about the topic, the circumstances of the day, a politically incorrect issue and more. So how to plan and prepare? Here are six ways to take the plunge:
  1. Listen: If your audience is angry, taking sides or otherwise a tough crowd, engage them from the start by listening, rather than talking. Tell them you'll begin in a few minutes, but you want to hear right from the start from them. It may not disarm them completely, but it will help them vent--and help you get a better sense of where they stand. Then work their comments into your presentation. No need to answer things at this point. Just listen before you speak. My twist on this: I tell the audience I want their questions up front. I'll answer some on the spot, or promise to get to them during my remarks.

  2. Acknowledge: It doesn't matter whether you agree or disagree with angry or contentious questioners or comments. Thank each audience member for sharing her views. Acknowledge that the situation he's describing is difficult, frustrating or a conundrum. In many cases, your tough crowd just wants to be recognized--and sure that you know how its members feel. Make sure they know you've heard them. This isn't actually about your views, but theirs.

  3. Emote: No need to hide your feelings if you are speaking to a topic fraught with them. Yes, you can cry, pause when you're overcome by emotion, or give a rousing cheer for an exciting development. And if someone says something preposterous, feel free to laugh--then explain why. But no need to bring your poker face.

  4. Ask: You can use this tactic a couple of ways. I've coached speakers who had to address contentious crowds with conflicting goals and lots of political tripwires, and often, I'll suggest that the speaker simply state the contentious questions...without answering them. That's especially effective if the speaker won't be in a position to address all the issues completely, but wants to be sure to demonstrate an understanding of the issues. It's another form of acknowledging the crowd's issues.  This article on speaking differently to people skeptical of climate change offers some concrete examples of how to engage an audience that thinks it's against you. Don't forget: If you insist, instead of ask, you risk hardening your audience's opposition.

  5. Reflect: Add some perspective, and reflect aloud for your difficult audience or on a troublesome issue. Remind your listeners of similar problems that occurred long ago--especially if they sound eerily similar to today's issue, or if they demonstrate how much worse things were long ago. Talk about your own wrestling with a tough issue, so they understand more of your thinking. Or share a memory only you have, one that will help them see a new side of what you're describing. Finally, when faced with a question about what you'll do--one you can't answer today--tell the group you want to reflect on it before making a decision, and ask for their input on the spot.

  6. Respond, don't react:  Contentious issues are often a test of your patience, and some provocateurs in the audience want nothing more than to see you react--it almost doesn't matter what the reaction is, it'll get dissected, sneered at, celebrated, whatever. Instead, focus on responding. Check out these tips on our sister blog, don't get caught, in Do you react or respond? How not to get caught in an answer.
Related posts:Speaking challenge: Deliver your mother's eulogy

Graceful ways with Q&A

Handling hecklers: How to do it

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