Real Leaders

Facing Tough Questions and a Hostile Crowd? Here’s How to Respond

Each week, speech coach and leadership mentor James Rosebush will answer a question on how to improve your public speaking

Bruce Bond, CEO of Common Ground, asks: “How do I approach a skeptical or antagonist audience on a controversial topic?”

Dear Bruce,

What a timely question and one that perplexes many speakers today. As a speaker, you have a dual role, and you must function on both to make your speech work. First, you must thoroughly know and understand your content and material, and you need to know all aspects and points of view related to it. When you create a thesis for your talk, interview yourself, as if a journalist was questioning you and give yourself some tough questions. In this way, you’ll be vetting your material, turning it over, and considering it from different perspectives.

This is critical because there are always many different viewpoints on almost any topic. Don’t assume you only need to know your point of view. That is why there is so much anger in discourse today. We generally only take the time to establish and confirm our points of view and don’t educate ourselves on other ways of seeing the world. If you want to have a successful experience on stage, follow this advice.

The second tip is to know your audience. Get a briefing from your host on who might be in the audience. Do they reflect regional concerns? Do they represent specific age groups or educational levels? You’ll want to adjust your presentation material based on what you know about them. To build a bridge to your audience and to bring down any barrier between you, you must love your audience.

If you think you’ll meet some hostility or resistance, remember that there is something good in every audience and each individual listening to you. Don’t return hostility with hostility. Your job as the speaker is to represent your material capably, appreciate your audience and the effort they’ve made to come and hear you, and leave it at that.

Have a question you’ve always wanted to ask about public speaking? Email James at and your answer may feature here.

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