Most audiences are attentive and respectful. But you will inevitably encounter challenges from the audience from time to time.
Sometimes it’s not meant as an attack – some people learn best by asking questions and suggesting alternatives, in order to understand why you are proposing one idea in preference to others.
Sometimes they are testing you, to see how you respond to pressure.
And sometimes they are being plain difficult or even nasty, trying to throw you off balance without any consideration for you or the rest of the audience.
The challenge you face is to remain calm and confident, and defend your ideas – without coming across as too defensive or aggressive. If you crush the other person’s argument, you risk looking like a bully and losing the audience’s respect.
Whatever happens you must remain professional and unflustered, no matter how unprofessional the other person’s behaviour.
The good news is that most of the audience will probably be on your side and sympathetic to your situation. You will gain a lot of respect from them if you can handle challenges in a professional manner.
Aikido Principles for Dealing with Attacks
Aikido is a Japanese martial art that aims to absorb the power of an attack and redirect it to avoid injury to either party. If someone attacks you, it allows you to defend yourself without crushing your opponent.
Here are three aikido principles you can use to deal with attacks from the audience:
1. Step off the line of attack
When someone aims a blow at you, the first thing aikido teaches you to do is to step off the line of attack, so that you are not in immediate danger.
The equivalent for presenters is to not take the ‘attacker’s words personally. Even if they are being openly hostile, it’s about them (or other people in the room) more than it’s about you.
You may find it helpful to literally step aside before you respond, and imagine the negative energy passing harmlessly by you.
2. Blend with the attacker’s energy
An aikidoka (aikido practitioner) will use the attacker’s own energy against them, for example by grasping them and using their own momentum to send them into a spin.
As a presenter, one of the most powerful things you can do is to ask questions to clarify the heckler’s point of view, and demonstrate to them (and the rest of the audience) that you are listening. This doesn’t mean you agree with them, only that you are not afraid to get to grips with their ideas.
It also pays to find some point of agreement, however small. E.g. You may not agree with their proposed solution, but maybe you can agree on the problem or goal. Making this agreement explicit can help you establish some rapport with them.
3. Pivot or resist
Some aikido techniques involve pivoting, so that the attacker’s energy is sharply redirected, e.g. by throwing them. Other techniques involve blocking, stopping the attacker in his tracks.
Once you have listened and understood the person’s point of view, you can either acknowledge that they have a valid viewpoint, and incorporate it in your argument, while subtly redirecting it (pivot) or disagree respectfully, explaining why (resist).