Monday, December 14, 2009

How to approach a tough topic: 5 ways

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 and more. So how to plan and prepare? Here are five 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.

  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.

  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. Another tactic: Open with the Q part of Q&A, letting the audience put their questions on the floor at the outset. You'll promise to either cover them in your prepared remarks, or return to the answers once your formal presentation is done.

  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.

Related posts:Speaking challenge: Deliver your mother's eulogy

Graceful ways with Q&A

Handling hecklers: How to do it

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