The Nuts and Bolts of Intimidation
Susan de la Vergne
In a recent Presentations and
Persuasion class, we got to talking about the
challenge of facing intimidating
audiences—powerful people who argue with you,
impatient executives, or just pushy colleagues
who know a lot and think you don't know enough.
One participant in the class said she was about
to face an audience of intimidators the very
next day, headed by a notoriously demanding exec
known to shoot first and ask questions never.
“Everyone who’s been in front of
this guy says he just takes them apart. I’m
really dreading it!” she said. “What can I do?”
Before we can answer that
question, we need to take a closer look at what
intimidation actually is.
Intimidation and Discontent
Intimidation is making normal
people feel inferior or (worse) threatened.
Intimidation can appear as blame, unfair
treatment, being denied opportunity—anything
that works to intentionally attack confidence.
During presentations, intimidators attack
confidence by interrupting frequently,
criticizing, arguing until it gets personal, and
making their impatience and exasperation
Sometimes these behaviors spring
from preconceived notions lurking in your
audience—that is, people who already have their
minds made up about what you’re going to tell
them. For example, you’re going to explain to
your audience the problems you’ve been having
with a critical vendor who hasn’t delivered. As
a result, you need to extend the project
deadline. You’re about to explain all this to a
roomful of stakeholders who have no patience
with delays and are ready to pounce. That’s a
There’s not much you can do to prevent people from interrupting or criticizing. If they want to “go
there,” they will. That doesn’t, however, mean
you have to go there. That is to say, no
intimidator—even a powerful executive, a head of
state, or the most fearsome power monger you can
thing of—can succeed in intimidating you if you
won’t be intimidated. As Eleanor Roosevelt once
famously said, “No one can make you feel
inferior without your consent.”
On the surface, that makes
sense. Imagine that someone tells you something
that’s intentionally insulting—“You’re
worthless!”—and you, in your heart of hearts,
don’t believe you’re worthless. No harm done.
The insult-slinger can say that all day long,
and you won’t be affected. As Mrs. Roosevelt
observed, he needs your consent in order to make
you feel inferior.
But just understanding that
doesn’t solve the problem. We have to
internalize the understanding to make it work
for us: how do we withhold our consent?
Otherwise, despite our best intentions, we’ll
just do what we always do when intimidators come
at us—we’ll retaliate, confront, let ‘em have
it. Or maybe we’ll do the opposite—cower,
stammer, and withdraw. These reactions take no
thought, planning or analysis whatsoever. We
just do it, and it usually gets us nowhere. Even
well-played retaliation is just escalating the
power game. It doesn’t solve the problem of how
to handle intimidating audiences.
Instead, let’s think about where
intimidation really comes from and what outcome
we want after we face it.
Perspective and Tactics
We have, then, two reasons
people in your audience try to intimidate you:
They want to be sure you know they’re
powerful, either because they’re used to being
in a power role, or they very much want to be
seen that way.
They come in with preconceived notions
about what you’re going to say—that is, they’ve
already decided (before you begin) that they
disagree or don’t like it.
In the case of #1, it’s often true that the intimidation has little to do with you personally. It could be anyone up
there presenting, and they’d do the same thing.
So don’t take it personally. Don’t even take it
professionally. And, though our normal tendency
in these circumstances is to tense up, do the
How on earth do you do that when
someone’s coming at you with criticism,
argument, even anger?
For starters, take a breath.
Notice that you’re breathing. It’s easy to
overlook that, since we’re breathing all the
time, but it’s actually a really great technique
for keeping your cool.
Then observe the person who’s
using these intimidation tactics. He’s
distressed, I guarantee you. Unhappy.
Distraught. Even if you were to make the
tightest, most polished and agreeable
presentation imaginable, he’d still be unhappy.
When this presentation is over, he’ll take his
unbalanced state of mind with him, and you’ll
move on. Who would you rather be? Yourself, or
the guy who’s intimidating you?
Often an intimidating person is
someone who’s eager to demonstrate power and
control, who’s stressed out, insecure, agitated
or anxious. Use your analytical ability to see
the situation as it really is. When you have
clarity about what’s driving intimidating
behaviors, it’s much easier not to be run over
If it’s #2, the preconceived
notion, start by acknowledging the opinion of
those you expect will disagree with you,
especially if you expect them to argue and
interrupt. Intercept it at the outset. For
You, as a fairly junior member of a project team, have been asked by the project manager to make a presentation recommending changes to your testing process—adding more steps, more
documentation and more rigor. You have evidence
that testing shortcuts have been costing time
and money. You’ll present the proposed changes
to colleagues and senior technical people, many
of whom have a lot of experience at your company
and are senior to you. They feel that more
quality checks are just a waste of time. They
trust themselves and distrust process, and they
plan to let you know that.
Start the presentation by
anticipating the dispute and respecting their
to propose some changes to a process that I know
many of you believe is working just fine the way
it is. I appreciate that you’re here to discuss
this today. You guys have a lot of experience
here, and I have some data to look at I’d like
to get your take on….”
Acknowledging what’s on their
minds will go some distance towards intercepting
and dismantling intimidation.
When a presentation is over, and
you’ve been facing a senior or knowledgeable
person in your audience whom you’ve found
intimidating, what outcome do you want?
Ideally, you want the audience
to be won over by your material. But if that
doesn’t turn out to be the case, you want to
leave the session intact—with a balanced state
of mind, not argumentative, not defeated. What
impression have you left with your audience?
That you were argumentative and defensive
because you’re easily intimidated? Or that (even
if your presentation had shortcomings) you were
confident, respectful and you managed the
That takes a different kind of
planning, the kind that involves thinking ahead
about why audiences are intimidating so you’ll
have clarity in the moment and will know what to
do when they are.
Susan de la Vergne is a
writer who worked in software development and
Information Technology leadership for a very
long time. Her new book,
Peaceful Under Pressure,
will be out in January. Other books by Susan,
Engineers On Stage:
Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals,
are available from Amazon. More about Susan at
Comments may be submitted to