12 Tactics for handling challenging public speaking situations

Maurice DeCastro
7 min readApr 8, 2021

Public speaking can be an extremely challenging experience for even the most confident presenters when speaking to a difficult audience.

Prior to stepping out of the board room a many years ago I spent several months travelling around every major City in the UK presenting a vision and a strategy to thousands of small business owners. The objective was clear; to acquire all of the support we needed to save and revive an ailing global brand.

Thankfully I wasn’t on my own at the time, together with a small but brilliant executive team and a visionary CEO our job was to persuade thousands of people to do what we knew they didn’t want to do but we also knew they had no choice but to.

These were without doubt the most challenging presentation environments I have personally encountered, largely because most of our audience were vehemently opposed to the radical but critical changes we were proposing.

Many of the presentations were greeted with considerable animosity although I’m pleased to report that the net result of our extensive efforts was that we were successful in achieving our goal.

This article sets out some of the key learnings I took from that demanding venture.

We share these very same principles with our delegates at Mindful Presenter when they need to know how to deal with challenging presentations and speaking situations.

Most speaking situations are unlikely to be so confrontational but here I set out some of the reasons for such volatility and dissent and more importantly the solutions for the speaker.

What could possibly go wrong?

– They hate your idea or proposal because they fear it’s not in their best interests

– They don’t understand and are therefore sceptical

– They are emotionally attached to the status quo or another idea

– They don’t believe you are in position to tell them anything, they know better

– They are neutral and therefore disengaged

– They can’t see the big picture, there is no clear vision

– All they can see is potential pain rather than benefit

This isn’t a definitive list of course as human beings are complex.

The end result of audiences entering a presentation with one of these mind-sets is that at worst it can lead to hostility and at best resistance and disengagement; neither of which you want as a presenter.

The good news is that there is plenty you can do as we demonstrated and here at Mindful Presenter we share with our clients today.

1. Get perspective

When you are facing a demanding audience where you are likely to have your message and assertions challenged you must have an in-depth knowledge of the issue from their perspective. It doesn’t matter what your message is, how passionately you believe in it or how eloquently you can deliver it. Your first priority is to put yourself in their shoes, and really understand their perspective.

What if you were them listening to you?

Only then can you begin to prepare to speak to them.

2. Plug the ‘holes’

That means preparing for the worst in terms of understanding the ‘holes’ in your message and presenting them in advance together with the appropriate and effective mitigation. The dissenters will respect the fact that you have thought it through even though they may still not agree.

In addition to your topic and message it’s important to understand your own personal weaknesses and things your audience may say or do that could antagonize you and lead you to lose control.

3. Identify the ‘Snipers’

In other words make it your business to know and understand the ‘trouble makers’ in advance; the snipers who are sitting at the back waiting to shoot down your message because that’s why they came. Better still if you know who they are and can get to make a personal human connection with them before you have them in the room you could help yourself considerably.

Don’t shoot back at the ‘sniper’, stay calm and focused, welcome their comments, support your point and then move on. Returning fire never pays, they are ready and waiting for the gunfight so don’t give it to them.

4. It’s not personal

It’s quite rare that any difficult challenge, awkward question or any level of hostility towards a presenter is personal. It’s vital that you remember that and remove any judgments or assumptions that they don’t like you and are out to get you. It’s highly likely that whoever is presenting the message would receive the same reaction so detach and depersonalize yourself from any adverse emotional reaction.

Remember the old saying ‘don’t shoot the messenger’, well if shots are fired it’s not really about you and your job is to calmly and collectively stay focused on the message whilst respecting your listeners opinions.

5. Give them some ground rules

It’s your presentation so let them know who’s in charge at the outset.

That means asking them to turn off their mobile phones and let them know when you’ll be taking questions. Take ownership of everything, the platform, the time, the agenda, questions and even the flip chart.

6. Diffuse the emotional charge

Remember to smile and keep it light hearted by using a little humour where appropriate and don’t respond negatively or defensively.

Keep to the facts and stay grounded.

7. Unmet needs

One of the problems with us human beings is that we always want something. We have needs and you may be absolutely certain that your audience has them too. If our needs aren’t met then we can often get a little grumpy, sulky or argumentative. It’s your job to make sure that your audience’s needs are met.

Such needs could be:

– The facts, detail, evidence, examples

– Respect, acknowledgement and understanding

– Involvement and interaction

– An emotional connection

8. Create allies not opponents

There will sometimes be people in the room who simply know more than you on the topic. If that’s the case and they are being a little difficult it’s because they need you to recognize their expertise so make sure you do and involve the rest of the audience to elicit their thoughts.

9. They yawned, so what?

So a member of your audience just looked at their iPhone while you were speaking or they yawned, looked at their watch or whispered something to the person sitting next to them. This can sometimes cause instant paranoia in a presenter who immediately jumps to the conclusion that he has lost or bored his audience.

Human beings yawn, look at their phones and watches all the time that’s what we do so don’t make assumptions and judgments about how they feel or what they may be thinking because you really don’t know.

10. Be humble

You can be in control but still be polite, courteous and respectful. There really is nothing worse than an arrogant presenter who speaks as if ‘it’s my way or the highway’.

A little humility goes very long way.

11. The ‘War Room’

If you are really concerned about potential conflict and discord then well in advance of the presentation meet with a few trusted and knowledgeable colleagues and do two things:

– Brainstorm and record every conceivable concern, contention and question you believe could possibly come your way and find the answers.

– Role play each scenario dealing with those issues until you are as comfortable as you can be that you have everything covered.

12. Its not the question, its the response

This is often the part most presenters hate because they feel that if they can’t answer a question they will be exposed or ridiculed and lose the respect of their audience.

It’s not true

No single person is such an expert on their topic that they know the answer to every question imaginable and audiences understand and respect that. If someone asks you a question you either don’t know the answer to or are just struggling to answer here’s what to do and not to do:

– If you don’t know the answer, don’t pretend you do and bluff your way through it. It’s embarrassing and they won’t thank you for it. Don’t apologize either, simply step forward into the question (rather than be on the back foot as many do) and tell them that you don’t know the answer but will make it your business to find out.

Then make sure you do.

– Don’t just answer the person who asked you the question, answer the whole room and share eye contact. If you simply answer the question by maintaining direct eye contact with the questioner you will lose the rest of the audience who will be bored and switch off while you have a one to one dialogue.

Feel free to ask the rest of the room for their thoughts on a difficult question or observation and if there is one you can’t answer if you believe it’s possible someone else in the room may be able to then ask them.

– Listen to the whole question and make sure you understand it before you answer it. Many presenters are so relieved that the presentation is over they quickly then become so anxious about questions that they find themselves waiting to speak rather than really listening to the question. Give the questioner your undivided attention and if you didn’t hear or understand it properly don’t be afraid to ask them to repeat it.

– Never answer a question negatively, with a ‘yes but’ or suggest in anyway the person asking it is wrong.

– Never respond by saying ‘that’s a great question’. Most people do it; it’s very often not true and can sound patronizing. Also if you didn’t say the same to either the previous questioner or the next you’ll look stupid.

Training can help to give you the confidence you need.

If you give enough presentations it’s likely that one day you’re going to find yourself in one of the situations I’ve described. If you take on board these 12 points and remember that the key to handling any challenging presentation or audience is to retain control of yourself and the presentation by believing in yourself, your message and the value it will add to your audience you will be able to handle the most difficult audience with ease and grace.

If this article has inspired you to learn a little more about how effective your presentation skills are you may want to take a look at our presentation training and presentation coaching pages to see how we may be able to help you. You will also find a great deal of really helpful ‘free’ information in our Learning Centre.

Image: Courtesy of iStock



Maurice DeCastro

Author, speaker, trainer, presenter - former corporate executive passionate about personal leadership, people and results.