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Handling Tough Questions from Tough Audiences
by Marnie Green

All the preparation and knowledge in the world cannot prepare you for an audience who does not like or believe you. Many of my clients face public audiences who are hostile or who do not want to hear the message that is being delivered. However, even in the most tenuous scenarios, some presenters seem to develop rapport and build the trust of their audience. Here are a few of the things these experts do to win over their tough audiences:

1. Never lie! Never say, "no comment." Those who gain the trust and respect of the audience are those who are up front and tell it like it is.

2. Don't be afraid of not answering a question, but explain why you can't. The audience doesn't expect you to know everything about everything, but they do expect you to be honest and forthright. If otherwise credible, you will many times gain added credibility by saying, "I don't have the complete data at this time, but I'll get it for you by tomorrow." Then, follow up on your promises. As long as it's obvious that you're not trying to be evasive, you become more believable in general by admitting there are things you don't know.

3. Keep the message simple. Comments should be brief, without jargon, and easily understood by the audience. One way to turn a group against you is to talk in your language, rather than theirs. When you try to make too many complex, technical points, it confuses the audience and then they wonder if you are trying to snow them.

4. Don't legitimize loaded or negative questions from the audience by repeating them. In your response, either point out the loaded words or change them so as to disarm them. You never want to directly answer the question, "So, when did you stop beating your spouse?"

5. In general, the tougher the question, the shorter your answer should be. Oftentimes, we tend to ramble when faced with a tough question. We feel as if we need to explain ourselves. However, we usually end up digging an even deeper hole when we run off at the mouth. Just answer the question as concisely as you can and then be quiet.

Maintaining composure and then developing rapport with an audience who doesn't want to hear your message is not easy. It takes practice and preparation. However, if you remember a few of these basic principles, you'll have a fighting chance of having them want to listen to you again.

Marnie Green may be contacted at

Marnie E. Green is Principal Consultant of the Arizona-based Management Education Group, Inc. She is the author of Painless Performance Evaluations: A Practical Approach to Managing Day to Day Employee Performance (Pearson/Prentice Hall). Green is a speaker, author, and consultant who helps organizations develop leaders today for the workforce of tomorrow. Contact Green at


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