What to Say When the Audience Disagrees with You

Have you ever had an audience member disagree with you while you were presenting?

I have. I was conducting a workshop at Microsoft with about 15 students, reviewing the research on bullet points. Someone in the audience raised their hand, sputtering “I have to interrupt. If I showed a slide of bullet points, I’d get kicked out of the room.” All audience eyes were on me. What would I say?

What would YOU say?


Don’t get into a confrontation. Instead, follow this three-step process.

1. Get Excited! First, respond in a positive tone “I’m glad you brought that up!” (bonus points if you use their name – “I’m glad you raised that point, Carol!”). The confronter is expecting an argument so you disarm them when you respond positively. Others in the audience become tense when a confrontation appears to be brewing but will relax when you show you’re still in control.

2. Ask if others feel the same way. Use this phrase “Let’s talk about that! What do others think?” Now, you’ve directed the conversation away from the confrontational speaker and opened it to everyone in the room.

3. React to the entire audience. You can maneuver out of hostile waters, based on how the audience reacts. There are three possible reactions: dead silence, disagreement with the confronter, agreement with the confronter.

If there is dead silence, the confronter now senses they are alone in their opinion. Say “This might be more specific to your situation. I’d be glad to talk about it with you at the next break.”

If people disagree with that speaker, you can build momentum to reinforce your point and to quiet the dissenter. Gather 2-3 supportive comments, then restate your position and supporting research.

If others agree with the confronter, you need to stop and listen to their concerns. Maybe they misunderstood you and you can clarify your point. Maybe they have valid concerns! You aren’t convincing anyone if you keep going, so consider this a blessing that you’ve uncovered an objection. Hit the ‘b’ button on the PowerPoint (to black out the screen) and step into the audience to facilitate a discussion. Say seriously, “Let’s talk about that” then take comments from the audience. Keep directing the conversation to the most reasonable voices in the room.

In my situation at the Microsoft workshop, I put on a big smile and said “I’m glad you brought that up. Let’s talk about that!” then I strode into the audience and said “What do the rest of you think?”

There was stunned silence, then someone offered haltingly, “I don’t think it’s so bad”. Another opined “It’s better than some slides, where they have like 20 bullet points in 12-point font.” Someone else offered “I don’t think anyone would kick you out of the room. I’ve seen some pretty horrible slides but no-one has ever been kicked out. Sometimes, they should have been.”

There was some laughter in the room. The air seemed to go out of the confronter’s voice as she sullenly maintained “Well, I would never show a slide like that.”

I restated the research and said “Ultimately, you have to decide what you’re most comfortable with. But I wanted you to be armed with the facts to make that decision.” Then I resumed the workshop, having sidestepped a potentially contentious conversation.

So, keep this technique in mind the next time someone in the audience raises their voice to disagree with you.

About the author: Bruce Gabrielle is author of Speaking PowerPoint: the New Language of Business, showing a 12-step method for creating clearer and more persuasive PowerPoint slides for boardroom presentations. Subscribe to this blog or join my LinkedIn group to get new posts sent to your inbox.

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