While the signs in public speaking are not as clearly visible as the ones posted when you hike through a natural preserve, they are just as critical to heed.

Here are two examples from my recent trip to Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve in San Diego and their parallel in the world of making presentations.

“Caution. Falling Rocks. Keep back at a distance.” This sign appears as you enter the magnificent beach area, with huge cliffs overlooking the Pacific.

uh173-aba8b9f7-2fcd-4121-ad1f-bdc1347c1196-v2“No Drones Zone.” This warning was placed next to the entrance to a popular trail.

You never know, despite the most careful of planning, when your words and position on a topic are going to elicit angry or stony-faced responses. Or equally awful, when something buzzes through your room over which you have no real control.

What do you do if this happens?

I do not recommend that you ignore the equivalent of falling rocks on your presentation. If you are fully prepared and feel as though you are an authority, ask questions of your audience about their reaction. “I can see some of you were upset about what I just related. What part specifically did you feel strongly about?” Or, “Would you please share what statement or statements you felt were not what you expected or with which you do not agree?

Then, listen without interrupting. That may be tough but it’s vital. Empathize with their responses even if you do not agree. Acknowledge their anger, frustration, fear, or whatever else was expressed. Keep your own emotions in check.

Ask specific questions based on their response. “What if it were this way … or How would you feel if this happened …?” Recap what you heard and if the mood has not shifted, repeat the process until you feel as though you can go on with your message.

Now, what about those “drones” or their equivalent, the loud buzz that blazes through your audience without uh173-f3d0413e-6028-447d-918c-ba809147d48a-v2warning? If you have no idea what’s going on, it’s okay to ask! Reach out to someone in your audience who looks friendly and point blank, inquire about what’s happening. It could be breaking news – like the recent Pulse massacre in Orlando, or something going on overseas or even with a popular entertainer or musician. To continue as if nothing is happening is going to doom you to a failure to connect.

On a more positive note, your comments can also stir laughter you did not anticipate and a round of applause for a statement or declaration that propels your listeners into clapping, hooting or hollering! That result feels wonderful, doesn’t it?

You can respond with confidence and stay on point no matter what happens during your talk, when you are ready to ask key questions, listen carefully, use empathy and stay calm.

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