Disarming a Challenge

As you prepare for a specific speech, you will sometimes become aware of a situation that could cause challenges. This can create anxiety as you face the uncertainty connected with a possible negative impact on your presentation. I have found that the best way to meet such a challenge is to creatively mention the possible problem in the opening three minutes of your presentation.

For example, in some parts of the country, especially in the northeast, audiences think I have a Southern accent. To keep it from being a distraction, in the beginning I will say, “I know you probably think I talk funny! Well, I married a Southerner and I have picked up some of her accent. You’ll get used to it in a few minutes.” By saying this I get a smile and an affirmation of what they are thinking, and they will make more of an effort to listen to my content.

In the South, on the other hand, I often speak too quickly in comparison to the slower speech Southern audiences are accustomed to hearing. I start out by saying, “I know I talk too fast, but I can’t help it. I grew up in Indiana, and I can’t get past my Yankee upbringing. So listen closely and I’m sure you can stay with me.”

Another technique is to mention the negative possibility as you introduce your points. If the time is late afternoon and you know the group has been sitting for several hours, you might say, “I have three points to make and I will work hard to keep these interesting, understanding that you have had a long afternoon and are looking forward to the outing planned right after my presentation.”  Saying aloud what the audience is experiencing will encourage an audience to overcome the obstacle because they know you “feel their pain.”

A common time to speak is after a meal. Heavy desserts such as pie and ice cream, cheesecake, or chocolate chip cookies can be deadly for the speaker who speaks after such a treat. As you begin, mention the delicious lunch and then add, “Those chocolate chip cookies were really good! I know you will work especially hard to rise above the heaviness you feel and give good attention, and I will do my best to earn your attention by the content of my message.”

The final suggestion is to acknowledge the challenge by mentioning the physical surroundings of the speech. I might say, “I’m delighted to speak in this spacious facility. I know those behind the posts near the center may want to move to their right to have a maximum view of the PowerPoint presentation.”

Although these are specific possible scenarios that I have dealt with, the larger point is to acknowledge the potential challenge instead of ignoring it. Addressing the challenging situation will enhance both your ability to remember the content of your message and the audience’s ability to pay careful attention.

Steve Boyd
Steve Boyd
Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Professor Emeritus of Speech Communication, College of Informatics, Northern Kentucky University, near Cincinnati. Steve won the Toastmasters International Speech Contest in 1970 and was chosen Outstanding Professor of the Year at NKU in 1984, among other awards and honors. Since retiring, he volunteers with nonprofits, spends time with family, travels, preaches occasionally, and enjoys reading and writing. Contact Steve at (859) 866-5693 or at steveboyd111@gmail.com.


  1. Tom Hailey says:

    This is very helpful. Thank you.

  2. Mac Reeves says:

    I find this quite practical and something that truly helps us connect with our listeners. Thank you for pointing out the fact that sometimes its the “little things” that make such a huge difference toward being effective in our speech.

  3. Sean Jones says:

    Great advise Dr. Boyd. Sometimes I get so focused on delivering the message and hesitate to point out potential interruptions believing this may create a distraction. I agree putting it out there first will ease their minds and assist with attentiveness, I’ll be sure to utilize. Hope you are well.

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