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The five types of difficult audience members… and how to handle them.

Ginger Leadership Communications

Do you really know your audience and how they react to your speaking? This is the quality of Empathy, one of the six qualities of an Inspiring Speaker that you can find in the newest edition of my book “How To Be Brilliant At Public Speaking”.

A big part of what we do when we speak publicly is develop a relationship with our audience. A relationship based on trust, respect, information, and interaction! Sure a speech has mostly been defined as one person talking and other people listening. But it always takes two to tango… you know. You AND your audience have a part to play in this engagement.

One of the top fears public speakers have is that their audience won’t like them. Whilst it’s terrifying to think of yourself standing in front of a group of people who are mentally throwing daggers at you, there are tried and tested ways to get your audience on side.

It’s normal to worry about the audience’s perception of you and your material. After all empathy, one of Ginger’s Six Qualities of an Inspiring Speaker teaches us to not worry about ourselves but focus on how to customize our speech for the audience. And as presenters, we will be much more successful if we design our presentations to adapt to our audiences’ needs. It’s all about what THEY need… even if they are difficult audience members. Here’s how to manage them:

Five types of difficult audience members: 

The Clown

Watch out, the circus is in town! Clowns love the social part of listening to a public speaker and this is often more important to them than listening to you. They’re chatty and often offer lively comments and questions to entertain, rather than to support the speaker. At best they’re great fun… but if you’re trying to make a serious point, their hyper energy runs the risk of derailing you.

How to handle a Clown audience type:

  • Use their energy skillfully:  Allow the Clown to shine by getting them involved in your talk (e.g. asking questions, giving them plenty of eye contact) – but keep them from monopolizing airspace by asking very specific questions and cutting short any irrelevant/ waffly comments.
  • Use a light, positive touch:  Keep a good atmosphere in your room. Avoid being too serious with them or you’ll seem pompous. Laugh with their joke, allow the audience to enjoy it and then pull the focus back onto your topic.
  • Focus on the purpose:  If you need them to be more calm or serious, get them on track gently by mentioning the purpose of your talk or meeting, saying how you’d like the audience to behave.

The Sniper

Snipers are often switched on and listening out for an opportunity to criticise, or show their expertise in the room. If you have a lot of them in the room, you’ll notice an atmosphere of competition and aggression; individuals trying to win a point or show themselves to be most intelligent. Arms may be folded, or eyes rolled as you start to speak. These difficult fellows start out with a hostile or cynical attitude towards you or your topic and can be very off-putting to speakers..

How to handle a Sniper audience type:

  • Fear not! You are standing at the front of the room for a reason, so don’t forget that. Snipers are only a problem if you’re feeling uncomfortable– otherwise they can’t hurt you.
  • Don’t take it personal: Although their snipes may sound personal, do know your audience is really on your side. The Sniper doesn’t want to cause you pain, they want an answer to their question. Avoid taking their bullet yourself by directing the snipe back to the topic in hand, to see if the Sniper’s view of the world is legitimate. It may well be.
  • Welcome them: Listen to the Sniper’s comments and do your best to work with them rather than restricting them, or you will only stoke their fire. Resist the temptation to try and ‘win’ the argument. Provide reasonable and tangible evidence to support your point and leave it at that. Once they realise you’re not interested in a fight, their energy will often fizzle out.

The Snowman

No matter how much you talk to a Snowman (in real life, or in your audience), they won’t respond. Snowmen are often socially anxious and will avoid participating in workshops or interactive parts of speeches. At the same time it’s important to know your audience of snowmen are very aware of how a speaker behaves towards them, even if they struggle to give you eye contact.

How to handle the Snowman audience type:

  • Don’t assume: You won’t get too much immediate feedback from a room full of Snowmen, but it doesn’t mean they’re not enjoying what you say – don’t be put off by how quiet they are.
  • Be welcoming: Try to warm them up by welcoming them into the room, smiling, creating a positive atmosphere and starting gently with any interactivity.
  • Ask them for insights: Snowmen are often the most reflective members of an audience. Because of their detachment from the group, they can offer useful insights into your topic, if you directly ask them for their opinion.

The Black Cloud

The Black Cloud is characterised by their negative body language, such as frowning, poor eye contact, folded arms or slumped shoulders. They hold a resigned, ‘can’t-do’ attitude around your subject matter – perhaps thinking that it’s a tricky, boring or irrelevant subject, or thinking that they’ve ‘seen it all before’. If you have an audience full of Black Clouds you’ll notice a thick atmosphere that feels difficult to shift.

How to handle the Black Cloud audience type:

  • Get creative: If you know your audience are Black Clouds, try to find new and Fresh ways to engage them in your material. Show them how you’re different. Get them involved.
  • Be enthusiastic: Bring some sunshine to your Black Clouds by showing extra enthusiasm towards your subject, so they get carried along. Sometimes it helps to recognise that the subject may be difficult for them and offer reassurance that you can change that for them.
  • Be supportive: Once on-board offer affirmation and encourage to the Black Cloud – they may be battling through difficult territory with you, so be patient and supportive.

The Unwanted Panellist

This is the ‘expert’ in the room who hasn’t been asked to present. The Unwanted Panellist tries to add to your knowledge by trying to teach the audience from his or her own experience. This can sometimes be a deliberate attempt to win business or respect from the audience, or it could be a genuine desire to ‘help’. Unwanted Panellists are a potential danger for a speaker’s credibility, but the good news is that your audience probably also see them as irritating, pushy, or distracting.

How to handle the Unwanted Panellist audience type:

  • Set expectations: You can manage any potential Unwanted Panellists by setting clear expectations of how you want your audience to behave at the start of your talk. Try setting expectations like “Let’s come to this room with an open mind and leave whatever outside knowledge & experience we have outside the door,” or “Let’s agree to give everyone an equal chance to talk in the room. Nobody should hog the floor space too much.”
  • You’re in charge: If your Unwanted Panellist continues to perk up, be confident that you know your audience’s needs and act on them. Do what is needed to get the best result for the whole audience. If he’s causing prickles of frustration in the audience, calmly & firmly remind him that you are the speaker in the room and that if he has more to say you’d be happy to discuss it afterwards.

If you focus on sharing an authentic message that you believe in no matter what, you’ll find that your audience members  WILL connect with you. If you’re true to yourself you will attract the right people who can benefit for your message. And those negative ones… well, they wouldn’t have liked you anyway.

How to be Brilliant at Public Speaking is available in bookstores and on

It’s time to rip up the rule book and forget what you think you know about the perils of public speaking.

Whatever the occasion, subject or situation, and with the right advice, anyone can be an entertaining, interesting and inspiring public speaker – you just need to know how.

Using my expert tips, tricks, tools and techniques you’ll quickly develop the six simple qualities necessary to banish your nerves, feel relaxed, connect with your audience and really wow them.

Whether you want to overcome your fears and take that first step, or if you’ve already had some practice and want to polish your performance, Sarah will help you build your confidence to deliver your next talk naturally and with style and sophistication.

Anyone can speak in public – even you. Here’s how to do it brilliantly.

Ginger Leadership Communications

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