Did He Really Say That? Upsetting Your Audience

image: Open Hardware Summit

At a recent workshop, I was asked the following question:

“You’ve done your research, you know all about the audience, you’ve prepared a speech that caters perfectly to the needs of that audience and yet in the middle of your presentation, you discover that you must have missed something in your research and something you say offends a large proportion of the audience. You’re about to lose your entire audience, what do you do?”

If you ever want to scare a presentation skills trainer, then it’s questions like that will stop them in their tracks.

Because no matter how much we know and understand our audience, there’s always the chance that we will miss something and if that something offends the audience then the primal urge of “Fight or Flight” kicks in.

Your first impulse is to run. They’re not going to listen to you anymore, staying there will only make them angrier, running away is the best way to avoid being lynched. Unfortunately, running away also means that you may never get the chance to speak in front of that client or audience again, it could damage your and your company’s reputation and lose you additional clients.

Running away isn’t a viable option. Strangely, staying and being lynched is actually better for your business because staying gives you the chance to repair the damage.

When we think of a traditional presentation, we imagine it to be a one-way affair, the speaker speaks and the audience watches and listens. If the speaker interacts with the audience, asking them questions, getting them to participate this involves the audience more but it’s not until the speaker starts to watch and listen to the audience that the communication becomes truly two-way.

Everytime you say something to your audience, watch their reactions, did they agree with you? Do they look confused or bored?

By keeping a careful eye on their reactions you can add extra details to ease confusion, try alternative arguments or change your speaking style to help get your message across.

With this two-way interaction, you can spot quickly if or when you’ve said something to offend audience members. If they are visibly agitated then it is important to find out why. Think back over what you’ve just said, was there something that might have been offensive? Maybe stop what you’re doing and find out from the audience if you said something wrong, if you’ve said something offensive, there’s bound to someone who will have no problem telling you.

Once you know, there really is only one thing that you can do.


With sincerity. If you can’t be sincere then don’t bother. Ease ruffled feathers if you can and see if it’s possible to continue.