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Part 2 - Question-and-Answer Sessions

Chapter 14
Handling Audience Hostility

As more businesses and special interest groups take on a high profile in their communities, in efforts to inform or persuade the public on important issues, audience hostility becomes more and more commonplace. The right to hold and express opinions contrary to those of your fellow citizens is a precious one indeed, although that is sometimes difficult to remember while you are fielding questions from a seemingly carnivorous crowd. However, with careful planning and some restraint on your part, you will not only survive a hostile attack, but may create some converts to your point of view in the process.

Ground Rules

Never accept an invitation to speak, or to field questions from an obviously hostile audience without first establishing some ground rules. If the program chairperson refuses to agree upon a set of ground rules, then simply back out. If they do agree, then by all means accept the engagement and give it your best shot.

Sometimes the ground rules are as simple as this: The audience agrees to give the speaker 30 minutes total time – 10 minutes of prepared remarks and 20 minutes of Q & A.

A couple of techniques that help keep an otherwise rambunctious group in order may be useful in establishing ground rules.

One technique is to require audience members who wish to ask a question, to stand in full view before a microphone, state their name (address, occupation, profession, depending on the topic under discussion), pose the question, and then relinquish the microphone while you answer. This technique enforces order on the proceeding. If you can force people to identify themselves before they ask a question, you tend to encourage more responsible questioning. Unfortunately, however, nothing can guarantee order. One problem with this technique springs from basic psychology: those with the courage to stand up in front of the group and ask a question tend to be aggressive. The “middle of the road” person stays seated. A twist on this technique is to have all audience questions directed to the moderator or chairperson, who passes them on to you, or to others who may be on the program with you.

A second method requires that each question be written out (usually with the questioner’s name included); these can be submitted either to the moderator or chairperson, or directly to you. This method reduces the possibility of an outspoken audience member monopolizing your time to give a speech. It also creates generally shorter questions. The elimination of the one-on-one facet of the encounter between speaker and questioner can help keep from being cross-examined by one questioner. The downside is that it also deprives you of the opportunity to analyze your audience further – and to gear your answer to the specific individual posing the question – an important tradeoff.

The most commonly used method (and my personal favorite) is the “anything goes” approach: just you, fielding questions from the audience without a moderator of any kind. This requires some skill. The only ground rules you may wish to establish here are that you will attempt to answer as many questions as possible in the time available – as long as they pertain to your area of expertise, and as long as you are given ample opportunity to respond uninterrupted to each question.

When an audience has violated the agreed-upon ground rules, don’t hesitate to point that fact out. Appeal to their sense of fair play. If several members of the group grow rowdy and begin yelling at you, it might help to remind the audience that you agreed to answer their questions after they promised that you would be given an opportunity to speak. The vast majority of impolite, loud, and outspoken audience members will be most effectively quieted by their peers. Always let hostile audiences police their own – if they will.


When you encounter emotionally upset questioners who ask legitimate questions, be they angry, frightened, or whatever, don’t lose your grip. Stay calm. Remember that the first rule is to be a good listener. Let that person have his/her say; let them release their frustrations. Act as an emotional sponge. The more interested in the questioner’s problem you are, the more concerned you appear to be, the sooner you’ll be able to regain control and proceed with answering the question. Only as a last resort should you interrupt an emotional question. Let him/her blow off steam – and don’t get angry. The entire audience is watching closely to see how you handle this situation. Give that close attention, try to consider this an opportunity to score points.

Provide the emotionally involved questioner first with supportive silence. When the questioner finishes venting his/her emotions by asking a question, respond with caring and with sensitivity. Do not attempt to put the person down or to belittle their concern. Have the attitude that it’s okay to feel that way; show human understanding and compassion. You don’t have to agree with the point of view expressed, but you should recognize their feelings.

Many speakers make the serious mistake of considering the Q & A session a competitive exercise. They see it as one of life’s little games, where there are winners and losers. This attitude and practice has alienated many an audience. Communication with an audience is not a competitive experience. If you succeed in communicating with your listeners, then everyone wins. There should be no loser.

Speakers who whittle listeners down to size with razor-sharp tongues rarely bolster their cause. The political arena, however, may be one exception to this rule. It will help you stay calm if you remind yourself that we live in a country where we encourage our fellow citizens to hold individual beliefs and opinions; the divergence of convictions is an essential part of democracy. Never attack a questioner personally; confront his/her ideas, but do not engage in personal attacks while conducting a Q & A session. Failure to heed this warning will ultimately make you the loser; audiences invariably side against a podium bully.

Other factors should be considered in dealing with a hostile or a potentially hostile audience. Some of these will be discussed later (see Part V). For now, the most important things you can do are to stay calm and to maintain control – both of yourself and of the group. Don’t let one or two belligerent people deprive you and the rest of the audience of this unique opportunity to communicate. Be above petty name-calling, and you’ll score more points with the audience than if you were to resort to aggressive tactics. Attack the problem, not the person.

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