Britain is having a referendum on 23rd June for the voting population to decide whether or not their country remains in the European Union (EU). The question is known in the press as Brexit — an abbreviation for Britain’s exit. There are plenty of arguments — economic, social, and political — for and against Brexit. As with any major political decisions affecting not only the global economy, but a nation and its people the discussions get emotional pretty fast. This video of the UK’s Prime Minister – David Cameron and UK Independent Party (UKIP) leader – Nick Farage, for and against the issue taking audience questions captures some of that emotion. There is a great deal of cross-talk in this video, but note how readily people will turn questions about immigration or trade into personal matters.

There is a lesson there for anybody who needs to engage in public speaking to audiences that may pose hostile questions. At Communispond, our method is to respond to the issue rather than the personal concerns that may be driving it.

You will probably not be attacking or defending the EU in front of an audience, but if you are trying to persuade an audience to, say, embrace a proposal, there is always a possibility of hostile questions. Deal with a hostile question by first listening for the issue. Always respond to the issue, never the hostility. Note that hostile questions frequently include the word “you.” Don’t rise to the bait. Bring the discussion back to the issue without treating it as a personal attack.

The most common question you will get is “Why are you proposing this?” The issue, of course, is not why you are making your proposal. The issue the questioner is trying to address is most likely one of five:

  • Priority (“Why are you proposing this and not something else?”)
  • Feasibility (“How can we hope to accomplish this?”)
  • Cost (“Why should we spend money on this?”)
  • Timing (“Why should we do this now?”)
  • Competence (“Who are you to propose this?”).

You may have to listen carefully to get a sense of which issue the questioner is addressing. But if you name the issue and then read it back, you can make the question neutral:

Question: Why are you proposing this when we have so many other problems you should be addressing?

Rephrase: Why should we pledge limited resources to this proposal?

Explain, neutrally and briefly, why your proposal (in this case) should take priority over other projects, and conclude the answer on a positive note, like, “We’ve never been better prepared for a program like this.”

Your answer needs one more thing. Tie it to the benefits you are promising the audience: “That’s how I think it will ensure the future of this company.”

By rephrasing the question and responding to the issue in a positive way and then relating the answer to the benefits, you can neutralize almost any challenging or hostile question and reinforce your persuasive message. Above all, don’t ever lose your temper. You may not be campaigning for or against the EU, but the audience is evaluating your proposal by evaluating you, and anything that makes them uncomfortable increases their resistance to being persuaded.


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