We’ve come to the 7th and final skill in my C.R.I.S.P.E.R formula for good speaking (see 7 skills of every good speaker for an overview). Today’s skill is Respect, which we show in different ways when we’re in charge of a group: by respecting others’ opinions and time, and ensuring we’ve done enough preparation.
In fact respect is my number one attitudinal goal when dealing with audiences; and it’s especially important to focus on if you’re challenged by an audience member.
I always aim to respond respectfully to comments and to remember – not always easy in the heat of the moment – that people are fully entitled to their own opinions. And I’ve also seen audiences turn against a speaker who reacted rudely to a challenge, even when they disagreed with the initial comments.
Here’s an example of a presenter dealing well with a situation when something important to her was challenged:
I was in the audience earlier this year where an experienced speaker in her early 30’s was telling a heartfelt story about her father, who had since died. What she was sharing was obviously important to her, and she was showing some emotion (nothing over the top) as she told us an anecdote about a naughty prank her father had done when he was a child. As she was speaking, a member of the audience piped up and told the presenter – and all of us – loudly and in no uncertain terms what he thought of the father’s prank:
“what a stupid thing to do! That’s terrible!” ….and so on in a similar vein.
I watched with interest as the presenter paused briefly to contain herself, acknowledged the man’s words with a nod and a few words, then moved on gracefully. It would have taken real self-control for her to respond with outward respect, even as she must have struggled internally with the insult to her father and denigration of an important story for her.
Being respectful is, of course, not always easy or natural, and it takes self-control and practice. Here are some ideas to prevent any escalation of trouble when your values or opinions are being challenged.
In advance: role-play with friends or colleagues, asking them to be as difficult as they can! Get used to how it feels when someone disagrees with you publicly. These are not scenarios where you want to be unprepared.
During a talk:
- Acknowledge the speaker’s point of view. They often just want to be heard, and treating them with respect by showing that you’ve heard them is often enough to settle them down. (And as in the story above, if you don’t want to respond, give a nod of the head and a glance and move on. Just be aware that with some people, if you don’t give them enough air-time they may come back at you again.)
- Then briefly point out to the whole audience why you believe in your ideas, and point out the advantages of your methodology e.g. “I recommend you go away and try my idea, and here’s why”. This ensures that you maintain your authority by not backing down from your own point of view, and retaining clarity.
- Finally respect the rest of the audience by keeping control of the event; if the challenger doesn’t back down, acknowledge that you appear to have different perspectives “let’s agree to disagree and move on”. You can offer to discuss the ideas later after the talk has finished. (And no, don’t run for the hills as soon as you finish talking!)