If the Audience Isn’t Ready for Your Message Look Out for the Tomatoes

You’ve probably never been on the receiving end of rotten tomatoes thrown at you by a hostile audience. But most presenters have had the unfortunate experience of starting to speak and sensing the audience’s hostility. It’s palpable. So do you ignore it and just push ahead with your presentation?

Timing is Crucial

Timing is Crucial
Timing is Crucial

If you’re ever in a situation where you know you’re losing your audience by their body language and lack of responsiveness, it’s pointless to keep going with the presentation you had planned.

Some time ago I had that kind of experience. We were asked to present to a group of Brazilians who were in the U.S. for a conference. The audience of some 200 business executives was sitting there with their arms crossed, grim faced and obviously not the slightest bit interested.

I put away my notes and said, “It’s too early in my presentation for you not to like me. Can you tell me what’s wrong?”

We learned that their plane had been late, the airline had lost their luggage and their hotel rooms weren’t ready. They were in a very bad mood, to put in mildly. We gave them time to vent their frustrations before proceeding. After letting loose, they became very engaged in the discussion we had planned.

You can’t force an audience to like or accept what you’re saying. The timing has to be right for them to be receptive to your message.

In another situation, a colleague and I were asked to facilitate a team building exercise with a dozen executives. They made it clear they were required to be there and weren’t interested in team building.

We described the training modules we could present and allowed them to pick the ones they wanted. At the end of the two days, one of the participants said to us, “If they gave out Oscars for trainers, you would get them.”

You can’t teach people who aren’t teachable. That’s what too many companies forget when they try to communicate news about a “vision” for the future.

Forget About Vision

How to avoid rotten tomatoes
How to avoid rotten tomatoes

When rumors are rampant about layoffs, it’s pure folly for a CEO to make a corporate video about what a great future the company has. Employees won’t buy-into the vision if they fear they won’t be around to be part of it.

If your company is going through a difficult period don’t make it worse with an ill-timed message. Have empathy for employees and what they’re going through. You can’t force a vision down someone’s throat.

Clearly, CEOs are paid to make hard decisions. It’s how these decisions are made and communicated. Success is all about timing and execution.

Rightsizing is Downsizing

We did a training for a company some years ago that had laid off a large number of employees. On the taxi ride from the airport to their office, the driver told me his three cousins and aunt had been let go. He said you couldn’t find a family in town that hadn’t been affected by the downsizing.

Companies often try to sugar coat bad news by saying it is “rightsizing” the company as if that was good for the people were going to be laid off.  That’s not the way to deliver bad news.

There has to be honesty. Like any bad news story, get it all out at once. Inform your employees once you’ve got your plan in place. Get out in front of the story. Don’t let the rumor mill go wild.

Show your empathy for the employees who are leaving. Tell them how sorry you are and  that each of them will get any benefits due them. Reassure them that they aren’t just going to be thrown out in the street.

Use all channels to communicate your message – from internal videos and memos to social media networks.

How to Avoid the Awful

If you’re an outside speaker, do advance research. Start by asking your internal contact if she is aware of anything that you should know about that could spell potential trouble.

Do an Internet search for news about the company. Be especially wary if the company has just had a layoff or announced a layoff. If that’s the case, suggest to your company contact that you postpone your talk until you have a more receptive audience.

There is no point in ducking tomatoes from people who have absolutely no interest in what you’re saying.

Do you have stories you can share about how you handled an audience that didn’t want to listen to your presentation? Please tell us about them in the comment box.

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One Comment

  1. Fact: The most knowledgable, passionate, and critical opera audience in the world is the residents of Parma, Italy. If someone gives a poor performance or makes a ghastly mistake while singing, they boo, jeer, yell, and throw tomatoes, eggs, and other foodstuffs at the person.

    Fact: There is something that you and I wouldn’t even notice that Pavarotti just couldn’t learn to do no matter how hard the world-leading tenor tried. The Parma audience, of course, would spot it in a second that Pavarotti was missing some notes.

    Fact: Pavarotti refused to sing in Parma.

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