In 1983, Ted Kennedy accepted an invitation from Jerry Falwell, the leader of the Moral Majority, to speak at Liberty Baptist College in Virginia. It could have easily been a disaster—one of the most liberal members of the Senate speaking to a group that was actively opposed to most of what he stood for.
Kennedy may not have changed many minds that day, but he did accomplish something very important: he got his audience to listen to him.
In an earlier article, I proposed a number of ways to earn your audience’s attention. Those techniques work very well when the audience is neutral or favorable to your point of view, but when they are skeptical of your position to begin with, or downright hostile to it, the game changes. In this article, we raise the bar and consider principles for engaging your audience’s attention when they really don’t want to hear your message.
Consider the audience’s state of mind as they’re waiting for you to begin. They already hold a point of view on the topic, that is opposed to yours. Because of confirmation bias and identity, they will have a strong tendency to ignore or actively oppose information that contradicts their beliefs, so the natural reaction against someone who states an opposing idea right up front is to shut down their attention, or to listen only with the intent to refute. That’s not a good place for your audience to be when you are speaking to them. The result is not a dialogue, but two competing monologues, the one you are delivering and the one in their heads which is arguing against yours.
Your first task is to get them to lower their guard enough so that they will pay attention to your message. How did Kennedy get his audience to lower their guard? Although I don’t normally advocate opening a speech with humor, I make an exception with a skeptical audience.
“Actually, a number of people in Washington were surprised that I was invited to speak here—and even more surprised when I accepted the invitation. They seem to think that it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle than for a Kennedy to come to the campus of Liberty Baptist College.”
Humor can help to disarm their defenses, especially if you direct it at yourself. Humor works by putting the audience into a good mood and shows you as a real person. It’s harder to dislike a person than a position. Notice that Kennedy not only poked a bit of fun at himself, but also, by using a reference from the Bible, used the language of his audience.
When you view a video of his speech, you see the audience laughing and clapping, and I’d like to imagine that you can see their minds and ears opening slightly. Sometimes the smallest gap is enough to get a handhold so that you can make the difficult climb to agreement.
What Kennedy said next pried open their minds just a bit more. He went on to say, “I know we begin with certain disagreements; I strongly suspect that at the end of the evening some of our disagreements will remain. But I also hope that tonight and in the months and years ahead, we will always respect the rights of others to differ, that we will view ourselves with a sense of perspective and a sense of humor.”
In this second passage, Kennedy accomplishes two things. By telling the audience that he expects disagreements will remain, he makes it “safe” for them to listen to his point of view. In effect, he’s saying, “Relax, put your guard down; I’m not going to hit you.” He then appeals to a larger principle that they will find it hard to disagree with, that they should respect the right of others to differ.
The third passage demonstrates another way to disarm them: acknowledge their position and concerns.
“The separation of church and state can sometimes be frustrating for women and men of religious faith…”
Kennedy validates their frustration without agreeing with it. You may want to go even further: make their case for them; describe their position and reasoning, and even amplify it.
This does two things. It shows them that you are open-minded and took the time to study and understand their position, and they will tend to reciprocate your open-mindedness. It also surprises them a little, because it is not what they expect. It shows you to be an intelligent, fair-minded individual.
By the time Kennedy gets to this third passage, he is already well into his speech, without yet trying to state his position. While I’ve said frequently that you should “front-load” your message, it can actually be the wrong approach to use when your audience already holds a different point of view. When they hear a challenge to their side before they’re ready, they’re likely to tune out the rest of what you say.
The final step is to find common ground between your position and theirs. Show them where you both agree. Change the color of the argument—instead of black and white arguing against each other, move the discussion into the neutral gray zone where agreement is possible. Kennedy does this by showing how Dr. Falwell himself had been attacked by groups further to the right than his, and then appeals to his and the audience’s common heritage as Americans.
Get them to put down their guard, open their ears, and at least be willing to listen—then and only then will you have a chance to sway skeptics to your side. It requires tact, timing, and nuance, but it’s the ultimate challenge that lets you know you’ve arrived as a speaker.