Speaking at a conference is valuable, or people wouldn’t do it. Even if a conference doesn’t pay speakers directly, there are financial benefits. People who routinely speak at conferences have a higher profile in their niche, which can directly lead to job offers and other types of opportunities. Speaking can also be a useful way for the speaker to promote her own projects or to bring attention to a cause she feels strongly about.
But speaking in public comes with its own drawbacks. For many people reluctant to get up on stage, one of the reasons may be that they’re afraid that listeners will think that they got something wrong. It’s a legitimate fear, made even more so because there are always people in the audience willing to tell you after the fact that you should have done something differently.
The Adrenalin Rush After a Talk is Done
Giving a talk can be an intimidating process, but finishing a talk often feels exhilarating — you still have the adrenaline rush from standing in front of a group of people staring at you, but once you move down from the podium the situation is less scary. There are often members of your audience waiting to come up and tell you how much they enjoyed your talk or ask your expert opinion on some detail. Those few minutes afterwards can make you feel really great about your speaking experience.
Unfortunately, they can also make you feel awful. Those people rushing up to speak to you do sometimes want to critique your talk. I’ve had audience members come up to me after a talk, telling me that I had screwed up by not covering some tangential topic, as well as comment on social media about how poor a choice for a speaker they thought I was. I’ve seen even worse than that happen to other speakers. After a friend of mine spoke about strategies for bringing more women into tech jobs, I saw an audience member approach her after her talk and specifically explain to her that she was wrong to even focus on that topic — that there was really no gender diversity issue in technology. He was relatively civil about telling her that she couldn’t possibly know what she was talking about (there was no yelling or anything like that), but he was going to get his message across even though he was obviously making her feel uncomfortable.
I’ve seen this situation occur far more often at tech conferences. I know speakers who are aghast when they hear that an audience member would follow up in such a manner, but they speak on topics like travel and finance.
Smiling, Nodding and Sneaking Away
What may bother me the most about my friend’s situation was not that an audience member told her to her face that she shouldn’t talk about gender issues in technology, but that she stood there, smiling and nodding, for several minutes as he vented. There’s a sense that as a speaker, you have an obligation to listen to everyone’s responses, even if they are incredibly negative or argumentative. The easiest way to deal with such situations is to just try to wrap up the conversation pleasantly and get away from the situation, even if that means taking some verbal abuse.
The situation is reflective of many related gender diversity issues. While conference organizers are consistently asking what they can do to find more women to speak at their events, it’s hard to find conferences that go out of their way to create a safe speaking environment. No one sets up mechanisms to prevent these sorts of situations from occurring in the first place, let alone trains female speakers on what to do after their talks are over. Smiling and nodding is an easy solution because it’s often the only option.
If conference organizers want to be known for choosing good speakers (regardless of gender), it’s crucial that there are mechanisms in place to show that those speakers have the support of the event -- and that they’re not there to listen to miniature lectures on how they couldn’t possibly know anything regarding a topic about which they were invited to speak.
Preparing for Possible Confrontation in Advance
Whether or not a speaker has the full support of the event at which she’s presenting, it’s important to have a strategy to follow to deal with those uncomfortable after-session talks. Sometimes you may be able to avoid them entirely, but even just being able to exit with your dignity intact will feel like a big win. That does mean, however, dealing with the prospect of confrontation.
Everyone has a different threshold for dealing with confrontation. Some people, no matter how much advice they hear to the contrary, just don’t feel safe or comfortable confronting someone — even to leave an aggressive conversation. Others are willing to start fights any time it seems like someone might be pushing too hard. Neither extreme is exactly ideal for someone who speaks in public: Timidity makes aggressive behavior seem okay, while being confrontational in return can make a speaker less welcome at future events.
To balance out those extremes, you need to understand what your options are and practice using them. One of the reasons that confrontation is so difficult is because one rarely knows what to expect. It’s rare that a conference attendee will respond to a disagreement in any way but with words, especially when you’re in a public hallway or other setting. But when still on edge from speaking in front of a group, it’s hard to remember that fact. That makes knowing what to do and say in advance even more important -- the decisions you make in the moment may not be as good as those you have time to think about.
Preparing for problematic situations is the most useful strategy for any speaker, no matter whether you’ve had to deal with antagonistic audience members in the past or not. Consider practicing such conversations, preferably by role-playing sample situations. I know that the first time someone came up to me to tell me about a detail they thought I had gotten wrong, I was completely surprised, to the point where I didn’t know what to say. Of course, I came up with pages of great responses after the encounter was long over. By practicing dealing with such situations, however, you can come up with some responses when you aren’t under pressure or coming off the high of speaking publicly.
There are any number of scenarios you can try acting out, especially if you have someone to team up with:
- Someone disputing a fact in your presentation
- Someone asking an unrelated personal question
- Someone verbally attacking your work or your qualifications
Try out different responses and see how comfortable you are with each of them. If you need to, write out ideas for responses and practice them specifically, until you’re able to deal with a variety of situations.
You may feel like you’d rather avoid any argument; after all, some people will look for an argument no matter what the facts are. A simple response -- like “Thanks for sharing your concern with me” or “I’ll take that under advisement” -- and leaving the conversation may keep you from getting caught up in an argument you don’t want to pursue. For some of your audience members, your acknowledgement of their point of view may be enough to satisfy them.
Especially if you’re talking about a topic that may be controversial, being able to point out research that supports your position can provide you with an easy response to in-person questions. You can respond with a suggestion that they look at your source list, which you can make available online. Even if that strategy, in and of itself, isn’t enough to end a difficult conversation, you can defer the process by suggesting that someone follow up with you via email after checking out your sources.
If a conversation still seems to be escalating beyond where you’re comfortable, you do have options to try to bring it back to a manageable level: As long as you are calm, you acknowledge that you’ve heard the other person’s point of view and that you’ll look into the counter-arguments they’ve offered. You also have the option to leave a conversation — whether or not it may seem rude to do so, walking away can be the best way to resolve a situation where you don’t feel comfortable.
It’s All About the Exit Strategy
As you’re practicing your responses, remember that walking away is a valid option. There are very few speaking gigs that specifically require you to make yourself available to attendees after you’ve spoken — and that’s a detail that you can negotiate, if it’s suggested.
It may be considered rude to just turn and walk away, but don’t eliminate it from your list of options automatically. There’s always the option of looking at a clock and saying that you have a pressing engagement elsewhere — more than once, I’ve told someone that I just had to be somewhere else. At a conference, finding somewhere you have to be immediately is often just a matter of picking another speaker’s session to attend.
Another option is to arrange for a conference buddy, someone who will keep an eye on your discussions and come rescue you if you need some help. From my experience, many people find conference buddies as a matter of course — having someone to eat with or discuss sessions with is a must at most events. You might want to be closer acquaintances to be able to ask for prospective rescues, but even someone you met recently will probably be willing to intercede in an awkward conversation.
Preparing multiple exit strategies is ideal, if you can. You may find yourself in a conversation you enjoy, but you may also want to leave as quickly as possible. Practicing your options, just as you might role play your responses, will make them easier to actually use in a situation where you don’t feel comfortable.
Tips for Conference Organizers
Different conferences have dramatically different cultures: For some conference organizers, having speakers attend their colleague’s sessions is very important. For others, it’s a higher priority to provide spaces where speakers can continue discussions that their talks sparked. Either way, no conference organizer sets out to create a culture where arguing with a speaker or belittling her is appropriate behavior.
Unless a conference organizer specifically works against such behaviors, though, it’s easy for them to creep into the culture of an event. There are, unfortunately, plenty of regular conference attendees who will assume a given behavior is okay unless told or shown that it isn’t. Consider the social media conferences: almost every event has its own hashtag, letting attendees converse about the event across Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Google+, and a dozen other websites. Many conference organizers put a high priority on responding to customer service issues via social media, but a lower emphasis on discussing the actual talks going on — it’s easy to miss a tweet or two about a particular speaker.
An ideal best practice is to have someone checking social media coverage of the conference across as many platforms as possible and to have that person also responding to any comments that may be out of line. It’s ‘ideal’ because many conferences don’t have the resources to assign someone to watch social media channels constantly. The same holds true for having conference staff going through the halls, checking up on the discussions that take place between speakers and attendees: It’s rare that there are enough people available to pay that level of attention.
That doesn’t mean a conference organizer should ignore such situations. Instead, the situation requires recruiting other attendees. Asking them to report situations both online and off where they see a problem can help reinforce the idea of a welcoming culture, if only because attendees will be aware that the matter is a priority for the conference’s organizers.
After a good talk, there are usually at least a few people milling around to talk to the speaker. While people waiting their turn to follow up with a speaker may not care what their fellow audience members have to say, they may be the best chance that speaker has for ending a conversation and getting out of an uncomfortable discussion. But without even a casual request to be aware of such situations, most people will try to avoid eavesdropping on conversations, so be sure your conference buddy knows to pay attention to your cues.
Many conferences have started establishing policies of zero tolerance towards any sort of harassment and have asked attendees to report any problems they see. Conference organizers and attendees alike might benefit from a reminder that speakers can face harassment.
As a speaker dealing with those after-talk conversations, consider the other people waiting for a minute with you as your back-up plan. Not only can you draw them into a conversation to avoid dealing with an argumentative audience member on your own, but you can end one follow-up conversation by suggesting that you do need to move on to the other people who are waiting.
A Speaker’s Obligation to Respond
It’s easy — too easy — to say that if a speaker is dealing with negative responses to her talk, it’s just a matter of growing a thicker skin. When dealing with legitimate criticism, having a thick skin is useful, but it’s always surprising how many people will burst out of their seats, eager to dispute something because they don’t believe the speaker is an expert. That sort of doubt is not always a question of gender: age, ethnicity and even an accent can be enough to set it off.
Every speaker has to decide for herself what sort of response she’s comfortable with, particularly when dealing with an audience member in person. But that comfort level shouldn’t just be a question of growing a thicker skin: it should be an acknowledgement of what responses she’s obligated to make and when she can just walk away from a discussion. That sort of agency is crucial to ensuring that there are more diverse speakers at different events, as well as to ensuring that conferences are welcoming environments.