As a presentation trainer, audiences expect me to be a darn good public speaker.
So I’m guessing that one audience had high hopes for me a couple of years ago when I was invited to speak at an industry conference.
Everything was going well until an audience member challenged one of my points. Instead of taking my own good advice by answering his question and moving on, I began to debate him. The moment I did, I lost control of my own presentation. And in so doing, I elevated the audience member to the role of co-speaker.
My presentation was an advanced media training lecture, so I brought up one of the most challenging questions media spokespersons face: the “guarantee” question. I maintained that it’s okay to answer a “guarantee” question by using the word guarantee, but to guarantee only the process, not a result. Here’s an example:
Question: “More than $125,000 of the donations you received last year were used for expensive dinners and first-class travel, not for the programs you promised to apply them to. Can you guarantee your donors that not even a dime of their money will ever be misused again?”
Answer: “Here’s what I can guarantee: We will put into place every available safeguard to prevent this from ever happening again. For example, we’re hiring an expert in fraud prevention to oversee our accounting department, and we are investing in the most sophisticated fraud-detection software on the market. Our donors expect their money to be used wisely, and so do I.”
The audience member disagreed with that advice, insisting that the word “guarantee” was unnecessary and could set the spokesperson up for trouble (indeed, that may be true in some cases, but certainly not in all cases).
After I explained my position, I asked if I had answered his question sufficiently. He said he still disagreed. And that’s where I made my mistake, by continuing the conversation and turning it into an extended, minutes-long debate. As I made my case to that one audience member, I could feel the rest of the audience beginning to squirm. I had lost control.
What I should have done
When the audience member said he still disagreed, I should have retaken the floor by saying something along these lines:
(To the group) “This is a healthy discussion, and every PR practitioner in this room should consider for themselves which approach they’re most comfortable with before answering a “guarantee” question. For the reasons I’ve explained, I believe using the word “guarantee” is the best approach in many situations. (To the man) Thank you very much for raising your point. I’d be happy to continue the conversation with you following the session. (To the group) Okay, moving on…:
In the moment, I forgot a basic tenet of good public speaking: The “win” doesn’t come from winning an extended debate with a single audience member, but from respecting the needs of the entire audience. As a result, a few members of the audience probably left the speech wondering why I had allowed the session to escape my grasp.
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