Brian McCarthy

How to make a presentation to a hostile audience.

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“False beliefs, it turns out, have little to do with one’s stated political affiliations and far more to do with self-identity: What kind of person am I, and what kind of person do I want to be? All ideologies are similarly affected.” (New Yorker)

There are a few key things to keep in mind when you are making a presentation to a hostile audience. A hostile audience is one that you know is not in agreement with the main argument of your presentation. They may not even agree that the problem you are addressing is in fact a problem.

Firstly, research has shown (see New Yorker article) that people’s beliefs are weakly related to their political affiliations and more to do with self-identity. Thus, when you area in the important phase of preparing your presentation, which necessarily invokes researching your audience, don’t just investigate their stated positions on the topic. These “positions” are like political affiliations. They are what we like to tell ourselves and our friends. However, much more important are the beliefs and needs of the audience.

It is by addressing these beliefs and needs of our hostile audience that we will increase our success of persuading them. However, be aware of the practical limitations you have to work within. If you are addressing a deep-rooted problem, the audience is hostile and you have only been given 15 minutes to speak to them don’t set your hopes high that you will have changed their mind by the time the Q&A session is over. What you can at least aim for is to plant a seed of doubt in their minds. A doubt that will impel them to contact you for more information, or research the matter further for themselves, or soften their hardened rhetoric on the matter.

A practical word of advice on how to structure a presentation to a hostile audience – you should aim to spend the first half of your talk (at least) outlining the position of your audience before starting to outline your own position. Work hard on this part in your preparation, as it will be the hardest part. It is always difficult for us to put ourselves in the shoes of our opponent. And be careful of making an easy target at which take aim – of simplifying your opponent’s position. Explain their position so precisely, forcefully and succinctly that they themselves wished they had explained their position in those words. And if possible, tell them whose ideas you are referring to, name their heroes and do justice to their ideas. It is only once the hostile audience feels that you fully understand their position that you can go about offering a different point of view.

Here is excellent advice on how to compose a successful critical commentary, outlined by Daniel Dennet in his book “Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking”:

1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.

2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).

3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.

4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.