30June 2024

Public Speaking Tips for Not offending the audience!

We live in a world where it seems increasingly easy to give and increasingly common to take offence.
Sometimes as a presenter or trainer, it feels like the audience is simply waiting for you to say something so they can be deeply offended.   
Unfortunately, if you ever arrive at the point of having to say:
‘That is not what I meant.’ …or…
‘I think you have misunderstood my intention,’
or even worse:
‘I was only joking!’
- it is probably already too late!
My intention here is not to recommend dancing on the head of a politically correct- ‘try to offend no one’ - pin.
It is up to each of us to decide how far we are willing to go in being controversial or avoiding controversy,
which I would suggest, is a fundamental element of free speech. 
Even so, there is a big difference between:
1. ‘This may upset some people, but I am willing to take that chance.’ …and…
2. ‘What have I just said?’
It is not my business to tell you what you can and cannot say,
but it might be my business to advise you to be aware of the consequences.
I have heard some excellent presentations marred by a comment or a casual remark that reveals an attitude that overshadows an otherwise valuable and well-delivered message.
This is true for trainers and it is true for speakers.
In each case, our first job is to deliver a message, and anything that could distract from that message should be carefully considered.
If I wish to set out a message of ‘open-mindedness’ and ‘tolerance’ but allow myself a remark that reveals my own prejudice, that will detract from my message.

I wonder how many of us in trying to intervene to take the edge off an argument, have only to make it worse.
I am reminded of a friend of mine whose favourite mantra after he has felt obliged to comment once too often in an online forum is:
‘I should have left it!’
Part of our job in preparing a presentation is to consider the audience: how they might react, what objections they may have and to make sure that what we mean to say is the same as what they hear!
Debating may be about winning an argument; Public Speaking should also be about winning people.
There is a 4 step process, sometimes wittily referred to as the ‘The 4 steps to misunderstanding’, which shows us how easily a seemingly simple communication can go very wrong, especially if there are enormous chasms between:
Step 1: What you intend to say
Step 2: What you believe you have said
Step 3: What the other person hears and
Step 4: What they feel they have just heard.
And so a simple statement like:
1. ‘Young people have great potential.’ …becomes…
2. ‘Young people should take more responsibility for their own lives.’ …is heard as…
3. ‘Young people are weak and lazy.’ … becomes…
4. ‘You are insensitive to the pressures on young people.’

We speakers are responsible not just for what we say, but also for how it is going to be understood;
Some populist politicians understand this very well and turn it around to their advantage, employing the pernicious impact of ‘dog-whistle’ politics where an apparently innocent statement, like:
‘We all want to live in harmony in a neighbourhood of like-minded people.’
is calculated to resonate with their supporters as:
‘We don’t want any foreigners here.’
in the safety of knowing that if anyone chooses to take offence at their attitude, they can claim that what they said was quite innocent; it is the critic’s ‘misinterpretation’ that is at fault.

10 tips for not offending your audience

  1. Humour

Let us start with the big one.
At work, more people end up in front of a tribunal for a ‘joke’ that went wrong than for any other reason.
I am reminded of the gentleman who told me he had been advised to start his presentations with a joke as the best way of winning over the audience.
Alarm bells rang immediately.
I know I should not judge or assume, but he struck me as possibly not the most subtle communicator.
‘That depends,’ I said.  ‘What sort of joke do you use?’
He said it is a quote from Churchill:
A good speech should be like a woman's skirt; long enough to cover the subject and short enough to create interest.’
I think the best we can say of that particular quote is that it was ‘of its time’.
Today it is more likely to induce horror than laughter.
‘How do the women in the audience respond to that? I asked.
In an attempt to ‘win over the audience’, he had, in an instant, probably alienated at least 50%.
These days I would hope it would be much more than 50%!
It is easy to alienate or offend in the name of humour, because we are so distracted by the ‘funny’ element that we do not sufficiently consider what is implied by it.
So it is important to be careful.
At our local speaker’s club, to broaden the concept of Public Speaking, we introduced a slot called ‘The Joker’, where each week a club member would prepare to stand up and tell a joke.  This went well until one member told a joke that left most of our jaws dragging on the floor.
Simple truth: one person’s joke is often another person’s offence.

  1. Know your audience

I was sitting with a group of friends when one of us made a cheeky comment, to which the reply was:
‘I am not sure you would get away with that in wider society.’
It was a safe environment, no one was offended – it was a consciously flippant comment and was not meant to be taken seriously.
Fine in a group of people who know and understand each other: dangerous if that is not the case.
On the more positive side, knowing your audience not only steers you away from insensitive examples, but might also help you find stories and images that would particularly relate or appeal.

  1. Handle with care

Particularly if your subject matter is controversial, it is extra important to handle the material with care.
If we assume a presentation aims to win over, persuade or inform, it is essential to express ideas in a way that will not alienate.
You have two choices:
(i)            avoid controversy altogether (which might offend your sense of free expression) – or
(ii)           make sure that the material is covered with all due respect to the sensibilities that might be present in your audience.
If your handling of the subject drives your audience away, you have failed in your task as a speaker.
As indicated above, success as a communicator lies less in how the ideas are expressed and more in how they are received.

  1. The host’s introduction

The purpose of an introduction is to gather the audience around and stimulate their desire to listen.
The host of an event is the bridge between the speaker and the audience.  The audience will take their lead from the host. Therefore if you are speaking on a controversial subject or you are known for the strength of your views, it would be worth the host recommending to the audience how they should respond to you.
For instance:
‘Michael will be expressing a potentially controversial point of view tonight.
If you find yourself in disagreement, could I ask you to suspend the desire to instantly reject what you are hearing and listen to what he has to say.  He is speaking from a sincere and honest point of view.
We will have the opportunity to air any disagreement at the end of the presentation.

  1. The speaker’s introduction

We need to be aware of our audience (#2) and create our introduction accordingly.
In all rhetorical structure, there is a special emphasis on the Introduction and the Conclusion, as these are the key moments when we gather our audience, firstly to listen and secondly to accept our point of view.
If I am talking about a woman’s right to make her own decisions about her body to a meeting of ‘a woman’s right to choose’, I need very little craft in my introduction – we are all already on a similar page.
If the following day I am delivering the same speech, the same findings and the same conclusion to a ‘pro-life’ meeting, I will need a much more nuanced and refined introduction to win a hearing from the audience.
I would probably create a Socratic opening by highlighting points that we can all agree upon.
‘We all believe in the dignity of mankind
And we all want to do the right thing.’
(All on the same page so far)
Now I might introduce the idea that my interpretation of those principles might differ to much of my audience.

  1. Pleasing Personality

How many comedians create a cheeking, charming persona on stage so that they can make some appalling
observations and keep the audience onside?
If I cannot help but like you, I am more likely to listen to what you say.
Hence the fact that many politicians surround their remarks with statements like:
‘I am sure every reasonable person would agree.’
(I know I am a reasonable person and if I think you sound reasonable – how can I not agree with your point of view?)

  1. Speak to Time

This might count more as ‘annoying’ than ‘offending’, but a great way to lose an audience or a client is to overrun.  Apart from the implied rudeness of:
‘My time is more important than yours’
there is an overriding sense of disorganisation and lack of awareness, which will act as a turn-off to any listener.

  1. Cultural Differences

Comments, particularly around religion, human rights, and moral codes can stir up negative feelings in an audience.  Speaking as a person from Western Europe, I am conscious of the danger of any implied message of:
‘What we do is better than what you do!’
There is a basic communication principle that can be summed up in the phrase:
‘Don’t make me wrong.’
Whenever you imply that the other person is wrong to think or believe what they do, you are forcing them into one of two positions,
- to withdraw from you because they feel attacked
- to come back at you fighting, to justify their position.
Neither option is good for open, shared communication.

  1. Use inclusive language

Particularly when speaking about mistakes or errors of judgment, there is less likelihood of offending if we talk about ‘our’ mistake and what ‘we’ need to do, rather than ‘your’ mistakes.
‘Together we can do this!’ rather than:
‘Let me tell you what you need to do

  1. ‘If in doubt, leave it out!’

I have a wonderful short video clip I use to demonstrate all the key elements of vocal variety, pace, and emphasis.  As a live example, it is brilliant.  However the subject matter happens to be political and so may jar with some groups and therefore if I am not sure how well the content will be received, I choose not to play that particular excerpt. I do not want my messages about delivery to be lost because someone disagrees with the content.
If you are mindful of the importance of your message getting through, it is always safer to leave out an element of your presentation than to take the risk of offending.
And to complete the circle and return to Tip #1; often the example or story that we really do need to leave out is that funny anecdote that we think is hilarious.  Yes – maybe it does illustrate a point and it might generate a laugh in the process, but make sure there is no danger of the message being obliterated by a lack of attention to the very real offence that the anecdote might cause.

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Michael's superb training style is underpinned by an incredible depth of knowledge and experience. Like all true experts, he delivers what he knows with ease and simplicity, exampling the skills he is teaching as he does so.

Very informative and great anecdotes which illustrated points and provided visual markers.

The most interesting training that I have ever taken part in! Experience + Wisdom + Perfect teaching approach.

The training was spot on. He really listened to us and customised his responses throughout.

Loved the creation of visual examples through the use of body and how relating the experience really helps demonstrate the message.

Very approachable and motivational. So much information, brilliantly delivered.

Loads of great analogies and stories - very friendly and helpful.

Very approachable and knowledgeable and good use of examples to simplify the material.

In just one day Michael was able to teach a class of children how to craft their own personal stories and experiences into powerful and engaging speeches that resonate with an adult audience as well as with a younger audience. It is a marvellous way to help them increase self-confidence and in the process - almost without them even realising it - become natural speakers and excellent communicators.

Michael has a style of speaking which draws the audience into his world, captivates them and leaves them with lasting memories of some of the descriptive phrases he has used and the information he has included. He also has the ability to pass the skills he uses in his own speaking on to those he trains.

Very good rapport, attention to detail, individual support, positive atmosphere and encouragement - a great place for learning.

• Very great example; how to express yourself, how to be engaging and how to match body language with what is said.