Speaking to a Tough Audience? Difficult Speaking Challenge

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How do you manage when speaking to a tough and challenging audience? The first question might be, ‘How do you define a tough audience?”


Is it tough when they don’t laugh at your jokes? Is that an audience that fails to actively participate in your group activities? It is a group of people who openly your position and ideas? Are there a few disruptive people in the group who don’t want to play your silly games?


There are many reasons why you might believe the audience to be difficult. It might be them, the room, the circumstances, the topic, or you. Maybe you don’t understand the audience.

Be prepared to connect on different levels and receive different reactions to your presentation. Don’t take it personally when audience members do something strange. Don’t sabotage your presentation because of the unusual reactions of a few audience members. They don’t necessarily speak for the group.

Consider this challenge in speaking to a tough audience. Imagine that you are presenting to the seven dwarfs. You might be tempted to think that they are all the same because they are all male, dwarfs and employed in the same industry. It’s easy to generalize. They might not by difficult – simple different.

Consider these possible divergent reactions to your presentation from your audience of Seven Dwarfs.


Dopey – the youngest, sweetest, and silliest of the seven

Dopey will like you no matter what you do or say, even though he might not fully understand everything you say. He might ask silly questions or make silly jokes to suggest that he supports you. He might be inclined to repeat your words out loud, laugh often or applaud at the wrong moments.

Dopey is happy to be there or anywhere. He’s not being difficult, simply having fun.


Grumpy – the grouchiest and curmudgeon of the group

He is devoted to the group and the cause but he feels that it is his responsibility to point out the downside of things. He’s cautious. He’s not going to let you make an easy sale. He will test you and challenge you. No malice intended. It’s the principle. He’s a protector.

Grumpy Could be your biggest support once you get him onside. Be patient.


Doc – he wears glasses (so presumably the most intellectual)

He will listen intently for the logic behind your message. He won’t be impressed by your jokes or entertainment. He’ll make copious notes. He might ask challenging questions. Often he’ll stare at the ceiling while thinking.

Important to listen to the questions from Doc and direct challenges back to him. Engage him intellectually. Challenge his questions and allow him to speak.


Happy – the most jovial of the dwarfs

He is happy to be anywhere with a group. He’s an extrovert. He will smile, laugh and applaud. He will take few notes if any. For him this is a gathering and gatherings are meant to be enjoyed. He’ll eagerly participate in all group activities.

A source of energy and encouragement. The only difficult part is keeping rein on him.


Bashful – shy, avoiding attention and perhaps feeling less confident

He will attempt to sit where you can’t easily see him. If that’s not possible he’ll position his body askew so not to face you directly. Head and eyes will tend to be down cast to avoid eye contact. This body language is saying, “Don’t pick me”.  He feels safe hiding in the group but not standing in front of it. Won’t ask questions, won’t volunteer and prefers not to be centered out.

Acknowledge any form of participation. For him, it’s difficult to be in the room. Allow some slack.


Sneezy – often sneezing or fidgeting

Health or allergies causes him to be coughing or sneezing – always at the wrong times. It’s not intentional. It just is. It might seem difficult to ignore the disruptions. Be patient. If it becomes a big problem, suggest that he leave the room to address the sneezing.


Sleepy – he wears a perpetually sleepy look

Was he up too late or is he ill. Did he just work a double shift? Is he bored or disinterested?  Who knows the cause? It’s tough for him to focus and understand. Don’t take it personal. It’s his issue to manage.

But there he is, yawning or dozing during your presentation. You might feel insulted by his obvious lack of interest. Ignore him, unless he starts snoring loudly. Then, wink at the person beside him with a hint to wake him up.

No need to embarrass Sleepy or get angry. Remember, its not about you.


It can be tough speaking to a difficult audience. You don’t know what’s troubling them. Deliver your message. Don’t be angry. Treat your audience with respect even if you believe they don’t deserve it.


When you present before a group, not everyone loves or even likes you. Some individuals might challenge you, appear disinterested or even hostile. Get over it. Imagine what it would be like if your audience was the seven dwarfs.



George Torok

Executive Speech Coach


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