It's like having one of those uncomfortable conversations. Except in public.
You've been asked to speak at an important conference for your business, and maybe you know you've got something to say that your audience may not like. Maybe you can reasonably expect some pushback, whether from the audience or from investors. Or maybe you're speaking on a topic that's aroused contention or even aggression in the past, and you're anxious about handling the situation in front of a live audience.
In any of these cases, you want to be prepared -- for the sake of your business, of course, and also for the sake of your inner stability.
Sooner or later, the need will arise to speak publicly on a sensitive topic, whether it's staff layoffs or not meeting your target numbers or allegations of harassment or discrimination. Being in that situation is challenging enough; managing the communication around it can either compound the problem and make it worse, or else set you on the road to mitigating the fall out and moving on.
Here are three tips worth adapting to your individual situation.
1. Know your "one thing," and repeat it for emphasis.
What is that one nugget of information you absolutely want to communicate to the audience? Do the work of distilling your presentation -- however long it is -- down to one concise, memorable message. It won't take more than a few seconds to say it, but this is critical: we all have too much information, so packaging the most important part in an easily-digestible way is worth the effort, for you and your audience.
Distill it down, and then repeat it, especially at the end. You want the last impression you leave on your audience to be the one that keeps resonating in their minds once you step off the stage.
2. Focus on the story.
Take the audience along for the ride. Know the takeaway at the end, and work back from there if it helps. Demonstrate the emotion of the narrative with the highs and lows of interesting characters.
A well-constructed plot traces a narrative arc. It builds tension for your audience then releases it, and builds tension again then releases it again. It's about transformation, says Nancy Duarte: build credibility by showing that you understand "what is," then introduce "what could be," and end with the "new bliss" of your new idea for moving forward.
It's a cliché but it has merit: people won't remember everything you said, but they will remember how you made them feel. So make them feel great, even when "great" in a difficult situation means that they feel heard or understood or related to in a very humane way.
3. Take a breath, then restate the question.
There are few more valuable tools in a speakers' toolkit than the breath. When we breathe well, we communicate from a place of stability and confidence. When we breathe well, we are also in a better position to respond when challenged with a difficult or convoluted question.
When that happens, take a breath and rephrase the question before rushing to answer it, advises Fairyal Maqbool-Halim, who has been a speaker, content creator and trainer with the Islamic Speakers Bureau for the past six years. With extensive work experience in the area of human rights, she speaks frequently about cultivating sustainable relationships between local American-Muslims and the wider community.
"Take your time in understanding what is being asked," she said. "Don't assume you know what the question is." Beginning your response with something like, "So you are asking..." or, "Am I correct in understanding..." or, "Your question is..." helps to clarify the question. It also invites the space to pause and engage the questioner, shifting the focus to an actual inquiry rather than the bluster that may surround the question.
And then answer that specific question, now that you've taken the emotion out of a potentially confrontational situation.