If you find yourself presenting enough, be it in boardrooms or conferences, you will eventually find yourself faced with a difficult audience member. As my motorbike coach told me (regarding coming off the bike), “It’s not if, it’s when.” This could be mid-presentation or during the Q&A.

Luckily there are three easy tactics that you can deploy when dealing with a difficult audience member*
*If you want more detailed information consider checking out my book Boredom Slayer, or better still, join one of our training sessions.

Step 1: Acknowledge and answer.

The first step is to acknowledge the person and deal with their question if they have one – the first sign that you have an argumentative audience member is if they want to make a point and not ask a question. When that happens a great answer – if it doesn’t derail your message altogether – is simply, “Hmmm, that’s an interesting observation, I’ll need to ponder that more, thanks.”

In some cases (especially when you’re in the middle of your presentation) you may need to add, “however, for the sake of the session today, I’m going to stick with what I’ve prepared, I’d ask all of you to keep an open mind”.

“All of you” is the key term here. This brings me to step two.

Step two: Flip your focus.

It’s a presentation, not a conversation. If you finish your answer by looking at the person they will see it as an invitation to reply. This is horrible for the audience who end up watching a strange tennis match between two people. Instead, focus on someone else in the audience as you finish your answer, a good idea is to go to someone else that had their hand-up earlier, or just scan the room (avoiding the initial questioner). If you were mid-preso, just jump straight back into your content, a bridging line like, “so, to pick up where we left off…”

I was recently in a talk in which this happened and I failed at this step:

What I was stuck doing was looking back to see if I’d won them over yet. Rookie mistake. It’s not my job as a speaker to move Mohammad, I have to move the entire mountain – and I forgot that! Every time I looked their way, they used this as an invitation to continue their argument.

This is where I needed to engage…

Step three: Delay the dialogue.

If you have a persistent audience member, after your second back and forth and for the sake of all involved, you need to shut it down.

Keenan & Peele Shut it down

You do this by agreeing to discuss this later.” A line like, “Alas, I’m pretty sure that we’re not going to be able to go into this in the detail it deserves right now, so out of respect to the rest of the audience, I’d like to suggest that we grab a quick coffee after the session and discuss it then. Does that sound reasonable?” I then glance for a split second at them, with a nod. And then smile at the rest of the room and add, “and of course, any of you that are interested are more than welcome to join us. Right, let’s move on…”

The key part here is again not to engage with them.

Keenan & Peele Shut it down

The most important principle is to remember that you are there for the entire audience, and not just one person. You also need to remember that you can’t win an audience over if you attack a member of it. The three steps are:

  • Acknowledge and answer
  • Flip your focus
  • Delay the dialogue.

I hope this never happens to you, but if does, you have all the tools you need to win the room back, and if you deploy them respectfully, grow your authority at the same time.

Failing that, there’s this approach. It’ll be the last presentation you ever give, but at least you went out in flames: