In a recent Presentations and Persuasion class, we got to talking about the challenge of facing intimidating audiences—powerful people who argue with you, impatient executives, or just pushy colleagues who know a lot and think you don't know enough. One participant in the class said she was about to face an audience of intimidators the very next day, headed by a notoriously demanding exec known to shoot first and ask questions never.
“Everyone who’s been in front of this guy says he just takes them apart. I’m really dreading it!” she said. “What can I do?”
Before we can answer that question, we need to take a closer look at what intimidation actually is.
Intimidation and Discontent
Intimidation is making normal people feel inferior or (worse) threatened. Intimidation can appear as blame, unfair treatment, being denied opportunity—anything that works to intentionally attack confidence. During presentations, intimidators attack confidence by interrupting frequently, criticizing, arguing until it gets personal, and making their impatience and exasperation obvious.
Sometimes these behaviors spring from preconceived notions lurking in your audience—that is, people who already have their minds made up about what you’re going to tell them. For example, you’re going to explain to your audience the problems you’ve been having with a critical vendor who hasn’t delivered. As a result, you need to extend the project deadline. You’re about to explain all this to a roomful of stakeholders who have no patience with delays and are ready to pounce. That’s a preconceived notion.
There’s not much you can do to prevent people from interrupting or criticizing. If they want to “go there,” they will. That doesn’t, however, mean you have to go there. That is to say, no intimidator—even a powerful executive, a head of state, or the most fearsome power monger you can thing of—can succeed in intimidating you if you won’t be intimidated. As Eleanor Roosevelt once famously said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
On the surface, that makes sense. Imagine that someone tells you something that’s intentionally insulting—“You’re worthless!”—and you, in your heart of hearts, don’t believe you’re worthless. No harm done. The insult-slinger can say that all day long, and you won’t be affected. As Mrs. Roosevelt observed, he needs your consent in order to make you feel inferior.
But just understanding that doesn’t solve the problem. We have to internalize the understanding to make it work for us: how do we withhold our consent? Otherwise, despite our best intentions, we’ll just do what we always do when intimidators come at us—we’ll retaliate, confront, let ‘em have it. Or maybe we’ll do the opposite—cower, stammer, and withdraw. These reactions take no thought, planning or analysis whatsoever. We just do it, and it usually gets us nowhere. Even well-played retaliation is just escalating the power game. It doesn’t solve the problem of how to handle intimidating audiences.
Instead, let’s think about where intimidation really comes from and what outcome we want after we face it.
Perspective and Tactics
We have, then, two reasons people in your audience try to intimidate you:
1. They want to be sure you know they’re powerful, either because they’re used to being in a power role, or they very much want to be seen that way.
2. They come in with preconceived notions about what you’re going to say—that is, they’ve already decided (before you begin) that they disagree or don’t like it.
In the case of #1, it’s often true that the intimidation has little to do with you personally. It could be anyone up there presenting, and they’d do the same thing. So don’t take it personally. Don’t even take it professionally. And, though our normal tendency in these circumstances is to tense up, do the opposite: relax.
How on earth do you do that when someone’s coming at you with criticism, argument, even anger?
For starters, take a breath. Notice that you’re breathing. It’s easy to overlook that, since we’re breathing all the time, but it’s actually a really great technique for keeping your cool.
Then observe the person who’s using these intimidation tactics. He’s distressed, I guarantee you. Unhappy. Distraught. Even if you were to make the tightest, most polished and agreeable presentation imaginable, he’d still be unhappy. When this presentation is over, he’ll take his unbalanced state of mind with him, and you’ll move on. Who would you rather be? Yourself, or the guy who’s intimidating you?
Often an intimidating person is someone who’s eager to demonstrate power and control, who’s stressed out, insecure, agitated or anxious. Use your analytical ability to see the situation as it really is. When you have clarity about what’s driving intimidating behaviors, it’s much easier not to be run over by them.
If it’s #2, the preconceived notion, start by acknowledging the opinion of those you expect will disagree with you, especially if you expect them to argue and interrupt. Intercept it at the outset. For example:
You, as a fairly junior member of a project team, have been asked by the project manager to make a presentation recommending changes to your testing process—adding more steps, more documentation and more rigor. You have evidence that testing shortcuts have been costing time and money. You’ll present the proposed changes to colleagues and senior technical people, many of whom have a lot of experience at your company and are senior to you. They feel that more quality checks are just a waste of time. They trust themselves and distrust process, and they plan to let you know that.
Start the presentation by anticipating the dispute and respecting their opinion.
“I plan to propose some changes to a process that I know many of you believe is working just fine the way it is. I appreciate that you’re here to discuss this today. You guys have a lot of experience here, and I have some data to look at I’d like to get your take on….”
Acknowledging what’s on their minds will go some distance towards intercepting and dismantling intimidation.
When a presentation is over, and you’ve been facing a senior or knowledgeable person in your audience whom you’ve found intimidating, what outcome do you want?
Ideally, you want the audience to be won over by your material. But if that doesn’t turn out to be the case, you want to leave the session intact—with a balanced state of mind, not argumentative, not defeated. What impression have you left with your audience? That you were argumentative and defensive because you’re easily intimidated? Or that (even if your presentation had shortcomings) you were confident, respectful and you managed the occasion well?
That takes a different kind of planning, the kind that involves thinking ahead about why audiences are intimidating so you’ll have clarity in the moment and will know what to do when they are.
Susan de la Vergne is a writer who worked in software development and Information Technology leadership for a very long time. Her new book, Peaceful Under Pressure, will be out in January. Other books by Susan, including Engineers On Stage: Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals, are available from Amazon. More about Susan at www.SusandelaVergne.com.