Tough Crowds

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“Everyone gets a bonus,” “Introducing our expanded PTO policy,” and “We’re lowering prices across the board for our customers.”

Public speaking would be easier if the news was always good.

Unfortunately, delivering bad news, facing a hostile crowd, or discussing a contentious policy is an inevitable part of leadership. And in these moments, what you say and how you say it matters even more.

So whether you are meeting with an unsatisfied customer, addressing a crowd with opposing viewpoints, hosting a meeting in a community that feels betrayed, or delivering financial information that didn’t meet expectations, take some extra time to plan, prepare, and execute.


  • Put yourself in your audience’s shoes. What are their experiences? What are they thinking and feeling? How will they filter your information? What will they hear? Once you have a deep appreciation for their perspective and experience, incorporate that understanding into your content. Don’t patronize the audience, but illustrate that you are not naive to (or ignoring) their situation.

  • Frame your information in a way that that puts the positives at the forefront of the presentation. Design your presentation to emphasize the inevitability, necessity, and, ideally, long-term advantages of the policy or plan you are discussing. For example, if you are building a controversial public works project in a neighborhood, don’t focus on the disruption to local businesses and traffic; instead, discuss the hidden costs to the present configuration and how the completed project paves the way for future opportunity.


  • Intentionally catalog the questions your audience could ask.  Include the predictive power of your larger team so you get diverse suggestions. Once your comprehensive list is compiled, develop sympathetic answers that lay out your points in the context of the audience’s perspective. When fielding live questions, keep your resolve and adhere to your main message.

  • Practice! Practice! Practice!  Rehearse your speech in front of co-workers, friends, and colleagues, and ask them to be skeptical, critical, or even hostile.  Conclude by fielding their questions and practicing your answers.


  • Don’t be the know-it-all -- Be human and authentic.  No one wants to hear a patronizing talk from an ivory tower. Instead discuss the conditions that necessitate your plan or policy and the thoughtful process your team went through to arrive at your specific course of action. Being human allows your audience to look for areas of agreement.

  •  Presentation style -- Research shows it is not just what you say but how you say it. This theory is magnified when you are presenting unpopular information to a hostile group. Think about your tone, pace, and approachability. Don’t hunker down behind a podium and race off the stage once your planned content is complete. Go slow. Take effective pauses to let people absorb the information. Invite people to listen with your body language and demeanor.  

  • Listen -- It can be difficult to be accosted by a hostile audience, but it’s all feedback. Take a moment, pause, and listen. Demonstrate you’re willing to hear their views. Answer their questions. If they are yelling, offer time at the end for people to come speak with you and ask you questions one-on-one. This helps break down barriers and create a civil conversation.

In the world of business, politics, and leadership, there are always those uncomfortable conversations and presentations that must be made. How you approach them with your planning, preparation, and execution can make the difference in whether people listen, tune out, or attack.