Home > Leadership, The Monday Musings Column > when the audience doesn’t love you

when the audience doesn’t love you

Most of the time when you have to stand up and speak you have a receptive audience for you have usually been invited and people want to hear what you have to say.

Over time you learn to work an audience and can usually read the signs if things go less well so that you can bring people back. Even simple things like changing topic, voice modulation or moving around the stage can have a positive effect and the pleasure in a good performance is immense. One of the reasons I like to feel my nerves twitching before a session is that I know that I am fired up and ready to go.

Not all audiences are receptive though and I learned early in my working career that you have to be the bearer of bad tidings now and again. For most of us as we drift into management this might be having to tell someone that they are under performing or you might even have to tell them that they are on the road to being fired. You have two comfort factors here though; such meetings are one to one and you know that the news is likely to be unwelcome so you can prepare.

Passing on bad news to a group is another matter because you are outnumbered and there is the possibility of mob mentality taking over. Managing the way you handle news that there are major changes coming, possibly loss of hours or redundancies, for instance, takes some managing. You know that these are not good messages and again can prepare for the worst though.

Facing an audience where you have no idea how they will react is another matter. Many years ago, as a junior project manager, I was in charge of rolling out a new process across a unionised workforce around the country. The first session went fairly well; there were some concerns, but I was able to deal with them in a way that was accepted and I moved on to my next venue. There things went well again and I polished a few aspects of my pitch ready for the next port of call. There I was shot to ribbons, not just by the workforce, but by all levels of management too. The workers were concerned about loss of jobs, the junior and middle managers about being able to cope with change and the senior managers about some oik from head office who had come to stir up trouble in their fiefdom.

It was a baptism of fire and one of the loneliest moments of my life. For a few moments I felt unable to even breathe let alone speak, but there were a lot of people between me and the door so I could hardly run and hide; I had to tough it out and I learned a lot that day about managing myself and others. The rest of my tour around the UK saw a mixture of results for some went well, but at others I was sword at, spat upon and even at one location had my company car vandalised.

One of the defences I developed was to try and find out where there would be opposition to change and if that looked likely I would try to meet with the senior management on arrival to at least get their objections into the open before I had to deal with their team. Even that was not always a success; at one such meeting I had the ring binder containing the project information thrown at me across the table. There I learned another lesson; don’t nonchalantly catch missiles one handed whilst carrying on talking for it infuriates the thrower even more.

At times in my working life I have variously been buyer, seller and operator and have had all sorts of tough gigs. They are rarely fun, but there can be a satisfaction in turning an audience around. In having to speak to any group there is always the risk that they will take against you. One of the skills in public speaking is to try and spot that you are losing them, work out why and correct it before it goes too far. As always you can never get it right all of the time, but you have to overcome your fear of failure first. Once you have got that out of the way then you will be able to cope with whatever life throws at you, even ring binders.


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