In May 2005, I was at a review meeting at the corporate office in a conference room. People were taking turns to present technical information to upper management for approval. The person speaking before me was presenting on a very unpopular subject. His presentation dragged on and on, and I could feel the negative energy level rising in the room. I had gone to this meeting feeling relaxed; the information I was presenting would benefit the company and help implement new regulatory safety requirements. I had also brought along the two page procedure which described the process for implementation. It was short and to the point. The concept I was presenting was logical and was already being implemented informally at the company’s chemical plants. I felt it would only take a short time to get the nod of approval. That was the plan…the result was very different.
I stood up and gave a short outline of my proposal and its benefits to the organization. At the same time, one of the executives who were visibly infuriated by the previous speaker quickly scanned through my procedure. He then aggressively flung it on the table and declared, “This is rubbish“. He then picked it up from the table and threw it down again, repeating, “This is rubbish“. The room with 20 of my peers and numerous executives went deadly silent. My boss and I looked at each other, and I immediately stated that I would address the concerns outside the meeting. Ah yes, another fine day at the corporate office. I went back to my office after the meeting; I was furious and humiliated. The vice president of my department came to my office a few minutes after the meeting and sat down to talk to me. I think he was trying to understand if I was angry enough to quit. I was very close. Less than a month after the disastrous meeting, my safety procedure was approved as written, and a few months after that at the company Christmas party, the executive came up to me and stated, “I have been told that an apology would be in order“. Somehow this did not make me feel much better.
This story leads into this week’s article on using persuasion techniques to help gain consensus on the concept you are presenting.
10 Success strategies for persuading potentially hostile audiences
1. If people suspect that they are being “tricked” or “coerced”, you could break the bridge of trust and set yourself up for failure for future presentations.
2. When your presentation has been developed, consider reviewing it with your peers to make sure the content is fine tuned to your audience and their level of understanding.
3. If differences in opinion or conflict are a possibility, you can open with remarks such as, “I realize that many of you today may have issues with what I am presenting. It is important for me to tell you that I have spent a lot of time trying to see this issue from your viewpoint. We may not agree on everything, but we do have common goals. How we can get to the common goals is what my presentation is about today“. This can help the potentially hostile audience understand that this is not a one-sided viewpoint. It sets the scene for a decision making partnership.
4. It can be very beneficial to identify common ground at the beginning of a presentation. This sets the stage for possible agreement. On the contrary, if you were to start off on an unpopular topic that immediately hits a nerve; you run the risk of emotional conflict that can remain throughout your presentation.
5. Use respected sources of information wherever possible to build credibility.
6. Identify any “fuzzy logic” in your presentation such as statistics that are hard to nail down. This can help the audience trust that the information you are bringing to the table is not lop-sided. You might say, “One of my challenges in putting together this presentation was to give you specific, hard facts to help you make good decisions; however, I must be honest and tell you that some of the examples are based on limited data, but I still feel they are relevant“.
7. Provide supporting information in your presentation to demonstrate that other successful people in industry or in the community (that the audience can relate to) are either in agreement of the concept you are presenting or are practicing it. This will help deflect the perception that what you are presenting is radical or nonsensical.
8. Arrive early to the meeting and take time to have conversations with as many audience members as possible. Use humor where possible to diffuse tension. Try to remember people’s names as it can be beneficial to be conversational with them during the presentation using their names. An example would be, “John, I have heard you talk about this and I respect your views. Similar views are shared by Steve and Michael, and I feel that we can all reach a reasonable conclusion with some minor changes”.
9. Build your credibility wherever possible, let the audience know how much experience you have with a subject, dress like a professional, and have the posture and speaking skills that will help build your credibility.
10. When conflict is potentially going to cause emotional barriers for progress, it can be very beneficial to build allies. If possible, meet with some audience members one-on-one ahead of time to explore the potential resistance, and to make your case in a non-explosive/emotional forum. If someone in the audience helps support your concept, this can be a huge benefit to gaining consensus as a group.