By Larry Tracy
(This speech was originally a presentation to the Washington, DC Chapter of the National Speakers Association.)
Thank you, Sylvia, for that fine introduction. As professional speakers, we know how a poor introduction can be deflating. Sylvia, on the other hand, was somewhat inflating in her kind remarks.
I am frequently asked how I got into the field of presentations coaching after being a colonel in the U.S. Army. The first time that question was asked of me, my answer, I’m afraid, was a bit flippant. After reflection, however, I decided it was quite accurate. I said that early in my career I concluded, as did my superiors, I believe, that I could talk better than I could shoot. From that time on, I seemed to become the duty briefer no matter what my primary assignment. Ultimately, as Sylvia mentioned in her introduction, I was selected to head the Pentagon’s top briefing team, responsible for daily intelligence presentations to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Secretary of Defense.
My experience with hostile and difficult audiences came later when the Department of State requested the Army to assign me to the Department for the specific task of speaking and debating controversial foreign policy issues throughout the United States and abroad.
Initially, I found it flattering that State Department officials believed I was qualified to take on this task, but after the first few “confrontations,” I realized these officials had decided it was better to place an Army colonel in jeopardy than a promising diplomat.
In all seriousness, however, that assignment was a wonderful life-changing experience. The almost 300 presentations, debates and panels in which I participated caused me to enter the field of speech training as my post-Army career. I knew that few people in this field had the real-world experience I had gained and could now pass on to others.
Let me say something that may offend some of you. Although you are all professional speakers, I submit that you are not a true professional if you are only capable of speaking to groups that agree with you.
The true professional speaker can deal with the jeers as well as the cheers. The true professional knows how to persuade the “non-persuadable,” not just preach to the choir.
There is no greater challenge in the field of speaking than the task of bringing around to your position audience members who are initially opposed to what you are advocating.
Many people are inclined to take a fatalistic position at the prospect of dealing with such an audience. But that attitude is self-defeating. Bringing such an audience to your side by the lucidity of your reasoning, the coherence of your message, and the excellence of your presentation skills will indeed make you a complete speaker. As you have no doubt discovered, speakers in today’s world must blend substantive mastery, focused structure and stylistic elegance to a degree not required previously. In today’s contentious business and government climate, adversarial panels, debates, and presentations on controversial issues are more the rule, rather than the exception.
I want to divide today’s presentation into two parts. In part one, I’ll emphasize the importance of mastering the fundamentals of the speaking art. In part two, I’ll show how to apply these fundamentals to persuading audiences inclined to disagree with you.
Part One: The Fundamentals of the Speaking Art
I know that some of you are thinking: “Hold on, we’re professional speakers. We don’t need any advice on ‘fundamentals.’ Just get to the good stuff — how to tame hostile audiences.” Well, I disagree with those of you thinking that way. I have given over 3,000 presentations, and I always review the fundamentals. Let me use a sports analogy to emphasize this point.
By doing so, I am departing from the advice I teach in my workshops — “Men, go easy on the sports metaphors; you run the risk of alienating people in your audience who are not sports nuts.” So please indulge me this one time, as the comparison is so apt. Professional football players are superb athletes who, in their games, employ complex formations, options and plays. Yet, when they report to training camp, they initially practice only football fundamentals — blocking, tackling, running, passing and catching. Only after honing these skills do these athletes move to their complex formations and plays.
Professional speakers should do no less. It is especially important when you are preparing to face a demanding audience. You may get by with a less-than-polished presentation when you are addressing people who agree with you, and only wish to have their views reinforced. It is, however, sheer folly to speak to an audience opposed to you without a strict adherence to the fundamentals of the speaking art.
Now, just what am I referring to with the word “fundamentals”? I don’t just mean the platform skills of body language, eye contact, gestures and vocal inflection. They are indeed important tools for the speaker, but I mean something deeper. If your presentation does not take into consideration the objections, questions and other obstacles to understanding, it is unlikely the audience will accept and act upon your message.
Don’t think of a presentation as merely a series of words strung together, any more than a bridge is merely wires and steel haphazardly connected. Just as there are sound engineering principles in bridge construction that take into consideration soil composition, prevailing winds, stress and strain, etc., there are sound principles which must be followed in the construction of a presentation.
Your mission as a speaker, to either a supportive or non-supportive audience, is to provide maximum information in minimum time in the clearest possible manner. Keep in mind that every presentation is actually four presentations: (1) the one you plan to deliver, (2) the one you actually deliver, (3) the one your audience hears you deliver, and (4) the one you wish you had delivered. I hope my presentation today will help you to deliver as you have planned and practiced, be on the same page as the audience, and have fewer of those “I wish I had said it this way” moments.
A motto of the National Speakers Association of a few years ago very elegantly described professional speakers as enjoying “The privilege of the platform.” As a speaker, you have the rare opportunity to “write on the brains” of the people in your audience. Never undertake a presentation without that thought uppermost in your own mind. To communicate effectively and persuasively with any audience, you need “actionable intelligence” on these people. Note that I do not use the term “audience analysis,” which is a favorite phrase of most of my colleagues in the field of presentations training. That phrase reminds me of high school students dissecting a frog.
When addressing an audience, you are dealing with living, breathing human beings with beliefs, attitudes, biases, prejudices, etc. Into that mix you will be adding new information. You must know their “what’s in it for me” button, the pushing of which will cause them to listen to your message. You must know what problems these people have, so that your presentation can provide the information to solve these problems. This information must be delivered so it will be received by audience members. You must, in short, open the minds of these audience members.
So just how do you open the minds of an audience so your facts will be heard and accepted? You do so by going back to the teaching of history’s greatest speech coach — Aristotle. He considered “ethos,” which we would call “source credibility,” the most important part of a speaker’s means of persuasion.
He wrote in The Rhetoric, the seminal work on public speaking, that an audience which knew nothing of the subject being addressed would accept the position being advocated by the speaker if that person was considered to have “ethos.”
Moving that Aristotelian precept to our times, we base our view on whether a speaker has credibility on three elements:
Your audience members want to know that you bring to the table information that will shorten their learning curve, that you have the credentials to speak on this issue, that you are telling the truth, not merely a glib speaker selling snake oil. Finally, they must like you. We all tend to accept information from people we like, and we reject it from people we do not like. Interpersonal skills are intimately connected to speaking skills. Credibility is subjective. No one in this room, including me, can say “I have credibility to speak on my specialty.” Your audience members will decide if you are credible. If they do so, you are in a position to bring them to your point of view. If they do not, you are wasting your time speaking to them.
With all that in mind, I want to show you a systematic way of following the fundamentals of speaking. It is what I call the S3P3 system, the heart of my executive workshops. It has worked for me, and it works for my clients who, for the most part are not nearly as experienced in speaking as you are. Therefore, I know it will work for you. Let me ask you to open your mental PowerPoint, this time visualizing a pyramid supported by three pillars. The levels of the pyramid are, from the base to the apex, Planning, Practicing and Presenting. The pillars are Substance, Structure and Style.
Substance is the content of the presentation. Always remember that the purpose of a presentation is to convey information from speaker to audience. Style refers to how you look, how you sound, your choice of words — all those attributes we ascribe to a good public speaker. Substance without style is a dry and boring recitation of data. Style without substance is shallow and meaningless. Structure is the skeletal outline, or scaffolding, of the presentation. That’s the word a young British Army lieutenant named Winston Churchill used in the title of a brilliant essay written in 1897, The Scaffolding of Rhetoric.
The future British Prime Minister emphasized that audience members needed a guide to show them where the speaker and they were going on this joint journey. A reading of Churchill’s memorable World War II speeches, where it was said he “marched the English language into battle,” demonstrates that he followed the advice he developed in his youth.
Such organization is vital for an oral presentation. A written memo can have faulty structure, but can be re-read. There is no instant replay of the oral presentation. Some examples of this structure are problem-solution, cause and effect, chronological. The presentation must have a beginning, a middle and an end. It must also have transitions which send signals to the audience that new elements will be discussed.
Now, let’s look at that pyramid, starting with that wide base.
In Planning, you must develop a concrete objective, aimed at intersecting with the problems, needs, wants and concerns of your audience. This is always important but especially so when facing a demanding audience. Know specifically what you wish to have this audience do with the information you are providing. It is here where you draft your presentation, and this can best be done, in my opinion, by following my 3-1-2 System. While this system is counterintuitive, it virtually guarantees that you will have both focus and theme, vital for an oral presentation.
Take a stack of 3×5 cards. Mark one with a “3,” and place on it the “bottom line” message you wish to impart to your audience. In front of these words, put “In summary,” “In conclusion,” or some other phrase signaling the end of your presentation. You now have your conclusion, as well as a mini-presentation, especially beneficial when making a business or sales presentation when time for the presentation is reduced at the last minute.
Take another card, mark it with “1,” and use it to tell the audience where you are taking them on this oratorical journey. Next, place the supporting points that flow from “1” to “3” on a series of cards marked “2A,” “2B,” “2C,” etc.
Using the 3-1-2 System will enable you to present maximum relevant content within the limited amount of time your audience may have to listen to you. You’ll have more focus, because you will know when you start drafting where you are going with the presentation. Most importantly, audience members will see a structure to your presentation, enabling them to follow and, in the best of cases, ultimately agree with your argument.
Just remember: You draft 3-1-2, but when you have the allotted time, you deliver 1-2-3.
Now to Practicing, something many of us find rather odious. It is, however, vitally important, especially when preparing to face a difficult audience. Thorough practice will permit you to hone your presentation skills, anticipate questions, and it will certainly build your confidence. I teach my clients a three-step practice process. First, practice by yourself with a tape recorder and, if possible, a video camera. You are at your weakest at this stage and do not want anyone criticizing your performance. Listen for your “Uhs” and “Y’knows.” The less of those abominations you utter, the less you will irritate your audience. Men, listen for a droning monotone. Ladies, listen for a high pitch.
Next, ask a colleague to be your “audience.” This should be a person who can offer constructive criticism and comments. The third stage is to convene a “Murder board,” a realistic simulation with colleagues role-playing your prospective audience. I’ll cover this in more detail in just a few minutes when we focus on communicating with a demanding audience.
Finally, you reach that apex, Presenting. This is when you put voice to thought within a structure that facilitates audience comprehension and agreement with the position you are advocating, done with the style most appropriate to make your presentation memorable and successful. Eye contact, purposeful gestures, pleasant vocal inflection, skillful answering of questions are all part of the presentation. If you have practiced well, you will present well. For those of us who deliver similar presentations over and over, the challenge is to keep your material fresh. To do so, take a tip from the theater. Actors who play the same role night after night refer to this as “creating the illusion of the first time.” As speakers, you can add new material, you can concentrate on getting yourself “pumped.” Your obligation is to not be boring to members of your audience who are hearing your words for the first time.
Part Two: Persuading Hostile Audiences
Now let’s see how we can apply these fundamentals to communicate with, and perhaps persuade, people who are adamantly opposed to our position. We live in an increasingly high-tempo, fast-moving, information-laden, real-time age, and the pace is picking up. Audiences are knowledgeable, critical, impatient, and demanding. Public debates and panels on controversial issues are becoming common. Perhaps it has been the institutionalization of presidential and other political debates over the last several years that has led to this state of affairs. Perhaps there is a “Super Bowl” desire deep in our national psyche that craves the clash of ideas, issues and rivals.
A debate or confrontational panel means sharing the platform with a person or persons opposed to you, perhaps with an audience acting as cheerleader for your opponent(s). You will then know how the Christians in the Roman Coliseum felt as they looked at the hungry lions. To be an effective presenter under such circumstances, a flexible “blueprint” must be developed for transferring information and perceptions from the speaker’s mind to the minds of audience members.
When facing a skeptical or hostile audience, you must keep in mind that the information you are presenting is probably at variance with the preconceived opinions and biases of audience members. Anticipating how audience members will react, and what lines of attack any opponent(s) will follow, is an absolute necessity. Knowing your vulnerabilities, and developing responses/counterattacks, will enable you to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, if I may use an overdone cliché.
I’ll illustrate how failure to develop an effective counterattack had profound consequences for one of our political leaders several years ago. To make this interesting, I’d like to make a wager with you that in a few minutes, as I recount this story, some of you will be able to repeat, almost verbatim, something you saw and heard on television about 16 years ago. Any takers?
I didn’t think there would be.
Let me tighten the focus. It’s a cool October evening in 1988, and two senators are in the vice presidential debate. They are Lloyd Bentsen and Dan Quayle. I’m starting to see some knowing nods. I told you you’d remember. Quayle had been a controversial choice to be on the Republican ticket, due to his relative youth. To counter this perception, his campaign compared his age, and his time in Congress, to that of the late President John F. Kennedy.
In his memoirs, Quayle says that his “handlers,” as he derisively referred to his debate prep team, feared Bentsen would turn the tables and make an unfavorable comparison of Quayle to Kennedy. They advised him to avoid any mention of Kennedy so Bentsen would not have an opportunity to skewer him. This was foolish advice, because in a debate one has no control over the questions. Quayle attempted to avoid the Kennedy comparison, but eventually, in response to a reporter’s question, said he was the same age as Kennedy was in 1960, and had served the same number of years in the Congress as had the late president.
Now I see a lot of knowing smiles, and I would venture more than half of you know what happened next. Senator Bentsen said — and repeat after me — “Senator, I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy.” What was Quayle’s response? “That was uncalled for.”
The remark by Bentsen, and Quayle’s stunned reaction, was the most devastating and best-remembered exchange in the history of American political debates. Dan Quayle’s image was permanently damaged, even though the Bush-Quayle ticket went on to win the November 1988 election. The Bentsen-Quayle debate provides an excellent lesson for all presenters. You must seek to anticipate the most daunting objections and questions your audience will raise. Failure to do so could result in public humiliation, the fate suffered by then-Senator Quayle.
Despite the fact that Quayle was, by all accounts, an effective Vice President, he never recovered from the Bentsen broadside. His every gaffe of the next four years was exaggerated by the media and TV comedians because it fit the image of the youthful, bumbling politician established in the debate. Could Quayle have neutralized Bentsen’s broadside? Yes, with an intensive “Murder board,” which I’ve mentioned in passing and will discuss in a few minutes. Had Quayle and his advisers decided to act on their worst fears, rather than put their heads in the sand and hope for the best, think how effective this response to Bentsen would have been:
“Senator, if you want to say who is not a John F. Kennedy, I would suggest you look at your running mate. The only thing Governor Dukakis and J.F.K. have in common is the state of Massachusetts.”
Such a response would have taken little imagination to devise. A lemon could have been turned into lemonade by luring Bentsen into an “ambush,” as a means of guaranteeing a hit on Dukakis.
Quayle’s risk-averse coaches, however, took the cautious approach, hoping to deny Bentsen the chance to launch the attack they feared. Quayle and the Republican Party were ill-served by such incompetence. If Quayle had delivered such a response, his supporters in the audience would have responded with robust applause, Bentsen’s comment would not have captured the headlines, and Quayle would have been credited with a quick-thinking comeback. The exchange would probably have been forgotten, and Quayle, who did well in the rest of the debate, would have possibly been viewed as the winner, or at worst the debate would have been judged a draw. Instead, he was considered the clear loser.
Now let’s move away from recent history and back to today. A presenter can connect with even a skeptical audience by showing that he or she shares certain views with members of the audience. You must develop rapport and seek to establish common ground with the audience. If you don’t, there is no chance of success in bringing these people to your side. You simply must, at the outset, open the minds of audience members.
Let me illustrate once again with a visual image. Imagine a car that is out of gas at Point A. This is your prospective audience, which lacks the vital information you will be imparting. You wish to drive this car to Point B — acceptance of your information. If the gas cap — the minds of audience members — is closed, any “gas” you pour will wind up on the ground. So how do you get that “gas cap” open?
You can do so by getting audience members to like or respect you. You can establish personal contact, perhaps by phone, with key members of the audience well before the presentation. In doing so, you’ll not only establish that needed “human connection,” you’ll also gain additional intelligence on why these people are opposed to you. Arrive early so you can have conversations with people who are opposed to you. Learn more about their concerns, and why they are opposed to the position you are advocating. Perhaps you will learn who will be the troublemakers. You can speak with them in a non-confrontational way.
These people, in turn, may now see you more as a human being, not a remote corporate figure. During the actual presentation, mention the names of the people with whom you have conferred. Nothing is so sweet to the human ear as the sound of his or her name, especially if it is mentioned positively before others. These people that you mention will probably be less inclined to ask tough questions, as it could appear less than gracious after your kind remarks.
Next, find the necessary common ground by emphasizing areas where you and the audience agree, even at a high level of abstraction. This at least puts you and the audience on the same page, even if it is a small page. After establishing that there are points of agreement, you can then move to the arguments supporting your position.
A technique I used in facing audiences initially opposed to the position I was advocating was to acknowledge that we in Washington had done a poor job of articulating our policy, and I could therefore understand why so many people in the audience were opposed to this policy.
I would then say I hoped to fill in some of those gaps with my presentation. In this way, I was providing audience members with the opportunity to “save face,” perhaps even to be willing to change their minds as a result of new information I was about to present. Remember that people don’t want to admit they were wrong, and you cannot persuade people to change their minds: they must persuade themselves.
Now, let’s look at three tactics for dealing with demanding audiences.
First, the “Murder board”: The term Murder board comes from military briefings. It is a rigorous practice, a simulation of the actual presentation to be made. It consists of colleagues role-playing the actual audience, asking the type of questions this audience is likely to ask. As its rather macabre name implies, the Murder board is intended to be more difficult and demanding than the actual presentation. In football terms, it is a full-pads scrimmage. This realistic practice session is the most effective short-cut to speaking excellence. It allows you to make your mistakes when they don’t count. It allows you to be exposed to tough questions, leading to focused research which enables you to provide succinct, accurate answers in the actual presentation.
In sum, the Murder board increases the odds that you will shine. When faced with the audience inclined more to jeer than cheer, it is essential to have such rigorous preparation unless you take some perverse joy in public humiliation. Next, stay within your evidence: During the give-and-take of a presentation with a demanding audience, you may be tempted to go beyond the hard, factual evidence that is the underpinning of your argument. An analogy or metaphor may be stretched beyond its limits, or a conclusion stated that is simply not supported by the facts. This can destroy your credibility, and provide a lucrative target for those strongly opposed to you. Credibility lost is difficult to regain.
Finally, you simply must maintain your composure in the face of hostility: It is quite natural to let your emotions take over if a person in the audience starts to harangue you. Natural, but a recipe for disaster if you lose your temper. Audiences will adopt an “us against the speaker” attitude if you respond in kind to a heckler or a person making obnoxious remarks.
I’ll illustrate with an example from my own speaking experience when I was called a liar by an audience member. I was on a panel at a major university, addressing U.S. Latin American policy. The other three members of the panel were professors from the university, all opposed to that policy. The audience was composed primarily of students who, in the Q&A session, were aggressive but fair. Then a man in his forties rose and asked a “question” to which I responded. This was followed by two loud personal attacks against my honesty. I felt my Irish temper starting to boil. My instinct was to lash back.
Fortunately, for reasons I still don’t understand, I did not. I said “Look, everybody in this auditorium wants to give me a hard time, and I can’t just let you have all the fun.” I broke eye contact, but he kept on shouting. At that point, another person shouted at the questioner: “Will you sit down and shut up? We want to get at him too.” That struck me as funny — perhaps I have a perverted sense of humor — and I laughed. The audience joined in, and even my adversaries on the panel laughed. We then had a civil discussion of policy issues.
What would have happened if I had succumbed to the temptation of responding sharply to this man’s accusations? The audience would have sided with him, I would have been booed, and the evening would have been quite unpleasant. The moral of this story? Keep your cool, no matter how provoked you may be. Your audience will respect you, and may turn on the heckler who is taking up their time. I fortuitously learned a valuable lesson that day.
Let me make some final observations about our profession. Emotions do indeed play an important role with any audience, but it is still verifiable, factual data that persuades reasonable people to come to your side. Above all, remember that you cannot persuade an audience; audience members must persuade themselves. Never tell them that you are going to persuade, sell or convince them. Do so and you are dead in the water. Allow audience members to “save face” by providing backing for your position with oral footnotes, and with information they did not have prior to listening to you.
Remember to maintain your composure, avoid personal attacks, and always keep in mind what you want your audience to do as a result of listening to your argument. I think a fitting way to conclude may be with one of my favorite quotations about the true purpose of speaking to any group. It comes from the birthplace of speech training and the art of persuasion — ancient Greece. The people of Athens, although admiring the speaker with the stentorian voice, dramatic gesture and clever turn of phrase, nevertheless realized the purpose of any presentation was to cause audience members to take the action the speaker wished them to take. So it was said, in comparing the greatest speaker of the day with one who had lived many years before:
“When Demosthenes speaks, people say ‘How well he speaks.’ But when Pericles spoke, people said, ‘Let us march.’”
Thank you, and good luck in all your speaking ventures, to friend and foe alike.