How to win over a hostile crowd during your presentation

For many of us public speaking can be a nervous experience.

If we expect the crowd to be hostile, or perhaps sceptical about our messages, then that fear may strike even the most experienced and accomplished of speakers.

So you have to wonder quite what Home Secretary Sajid Javid was feeling as he prepared to speak at the Police Federation conference this week.

On the face of it this was not likely to be an easy speaking engagement.

Not only is he new to the job but one of his recent predecessors, Theresa May, had been booed and heckled and even met with complete silence when addressing this crowd.

But not only did he emerge unscathed, he also produced a speech which won over some of the audience and generated some positive media coverage and social media interactions.



Here’s what we think other public speakers can learn from his impressive performance, which you can view here at 2.22.50



We tell participants on our presentation skills courses that using humour well can make people appear more likeable and importantly human.

It is also a great way of breaking any tension that may exist.

And it was certainly a tool that Mr Javid had in his arsenal on Wednesday, beginning with a joke about the reception Theresa May had received at previous conferences.

He said: “This conference has quite a reputation. A reputation, I hear, for giving speakers a difficult time; for asking questions that sometimes no one wants to answer; for having the toughest crowd of any speech in the political calendar. At least that is what the Prime Minister told me.”


Established some common ground

It was very clear from the beginning of the speech that the new Home Secretary was determined to establish some common ground and find a connection with the audience.

To achieve this he leaned heavily on the experiences of his brother, Bas Javid, a Chief Superintendent, to act as a bridge to the audience. 

He said: “I’ve been told I am the first Home Secretary with a police officer in my immediate family.

“Over the years I’ve heard what he has had to say about policing. I know the tricky situations he has been involved in. He’s been hospitalised more times by being assaulted on duty than I care to remember.

“I’ve seen the impact the job has on family life.  As you would expect from a brother, he doesn’t shield me from the truth.”



Additionally, he was also able to draw on his own experience of going on a ‘ride-along’ (a term used to describe a civilian going out with the police to observe their work) with his brother in his city centre. He told the crowd he was shocked at the abuse directed towards officers.

He said: “That was the first time it hit me how hard and horrible it can be to be a police officer.”

And notably he used their language, referring to being in the police as ‘the job’.

When you are presenting to an audience who may be opposed to what you are going to say, finding that common ground can be crucial.  


Don’t wing it

Mr Javid may have looked pretty relaxed and comfortable on the stage, but he made no attempt to hide that he was reading from a carefully prepared speech (our presentation training can provide speakers with a chance to use an autocue so reading becomes less obvious).

The best speakers may often appear natural, almost like they have come without notes, but that is very rarely the case.

Going ‘off the cuff’ can be dangerous at the best of times, but is even more of a risky strategy when you are addressing what could be a difficult audience.

This was a speech crafted to tell the audience what they wanted to hear on hot issues and Mr Javid stuck to it tightly.


Sound bites

Coming just three weeks into the job, this was Mr Javid’s first major speech since replacing Amber Rudd.

It meant that not only did he have a tough audience to present to, but also there would be a lot of media attention on his performance.

He managed this by ensuring his speech was full of strong sound bites – quotes that the audience would be able to remember and that would make life easier for the headline writers

He said: “I’m not arrogant enough to turn up here after three weeks in the job and tell you how to do yours. What I will say is that I am listening and I get it. I get that there’s increased demand.”

He later went on to say: “I want you to have the resources you need” and “I will prioritise police funding in the spending review next year.”

Time will tell if he is able to live up to the promises in these sound bites.



Go out on a strong note

There was a conciliatory tone throughout this speech and it was reinforced at the end with a plea for a better relationship between police and a Government which had cut numbers by 20,000 since 2010.

He said: “It’s often said that British policing is the envy of the world. Everyone in this room wants to keep it that way.

“Let’s reset the relationship between the government and the police. I will give you the tools, the powers and the backup that you need to get the job done.

“For those of you who stand on the frontline, be in no doubt that I will be standing with you.”



Questions and answers

The question and answer session at the end of a presentation has the potential to undo the good work that has gone before and it would be amiss of us not to point out that Mr Javid seemed a little under prepared here.

The first question, about whether he had read a report linking reduced police numbers and crime, was met with a slightly uncomfortable admission that he hadn’t.

It is important that presenters who are prepared to take questions spend time in advance anticipating what they might be asked and how they will respond.

Mr Javid was caught out by this relatively obvious one, but the conciliatory tone he had struck earlier ensured he got away with it.

Bridging is a useful tool for speakers who take part in question and answer sessions. While it might be more commonly known as a media training technique, we tell delegates on our presentation training courses that it can be a good way of handling potentially awkward questions and keeping control of the message.




Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 30 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers. 


If you like this blog, read more about our practical presentation skills training courses.



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