8 Tips to Help Communicate a Controversial Topic

Many people tend to shy away from speaking about controversial topics, fearing that the audience will not receive the message well, or that conflict and confrontation will arise.  Although sometimes communicating a controversial topic can cause the audience to respond in a negative way, it doesn’t mean that the only outcome is conflict. When you find yourself needing to communicate a controversial topic, using methods that promote open minded, positive discussion will go a long way to diffuse any conflicts. In this post I have compiled a list of tips that can help communicate the facts and create a positive environment for your next presentation.

Jeff Isom arguing with an umpire

1. Be prepared and make sure that you are well versed in the subject matter.

Speaking about any subject requires that you do your homework beforehand. This is even more important when you are speaking about a topic that the audience finds controversial. Before you reach the stage or podium you need to do your homework so that you understand what are the facts are and what is propaganda. Consider what information might be difficult for the audience understand and prepare yourself to be able to explain those parts. Think of analogies or anecdotes to help explain the topic while avoiding unnecessary jargon or technical terminology. Furthermore make sure that you are well versed and prepared with the subject manner not only in a rhetorical way. Chances are that the audience will want to discuss the topic afterwards, and research has shown well prepared discussions by those participating usually turn out successful. 2

2. Think about the overall outcome or desired result for your presentation.

Before you start speaking you will need to think about what the goals for your talk are. Do you want to change people’s mind about a topic? Are you just simply informing them of the other side? Are you trying to promote a willingness to work together despite differences? Taking time before you speak to the audience to think about outcomes will help you craft a logical and coherent story. Write down your specific goals or results and brainstorm how you can achieve those. For example you can present supporting facts, information, and visuals to help get factual information across. Or you can take time to debunk common myths held by the public. Whatever you choose to do, just make sure that you are always working towards a logical outcome.

3. Know your audience.

In order to have a successful delivery, it is important to take into account the constraints of the presentation (e. g. timing, subject matter, etc). 3 Knowing the knowledge level and experience of the audience, and whether or not you will have a discussion will go a long ways to help the audience understand the subject matter. 3 Since you already know that your topic is controversial, think of how the audience will react to the content of the presentation. Consider how people will disagree with you. What sort of counter arguments might they bring up? How will you deal with a vocal minority? How will you resolve and diffuse conflict? When you think about the audience, the key is to anticipate what problems might arise for them and already have plan to put into action. Think about what points someone might make who disagrees with you, and work your answers to them into the presentation. Plan ahead on how the audience will perceive the content and what might lead to internal or external conflict. Taking time before the presentation will make it easier on you, so you don’t have to scramble for a solution on the spot.

 4. Establish Credibility.

One of the more important tasks as a speaker is to establish credibility with the audience. By establishing credibility you build trust and trustworthiness in your message. In order for the audience to respect what facts and information you are bringing to the talk you need to establish yourself as a credible source. Becoming a credible source will also help reduce the chances of conflict in the audience since they can trust what you say as factual. Make sure to establish your experience and skills early on in the presentation by sharing stories or facts about yourself as a topical expert. Think elevator pitch, you need to become a credible source quickly in a concise fashion so you can build trust early on.

5. Acknowledge that a topic is controversial.

The more direct and honest with the audience you can be, the more likely they will trust you and your sources of information. Acknowledging the “elephant in the room” will allow the audience to relax a bit by knowing that you are taking the issue seriously. This works similarly to the acknowledgment of an awkward situation and will help relieve tension. Saying literally that you know this material is controversial and that you respect people’s opinion will go a long way to building trust.

6. Ask what the audience already knows about the topic.

Take time either in a rhetorical sense or a discussion setting to ask what preconceived ideas and information the audience already has. This allows the audience to feel as if they have a voice in the conversation about the topic. It is important to remember that each person in the audience will likely hold a slightly different point of view, and that being respectful of each other’s viewpoint will go a long way to fostering positive discussion. This doesn’t mean that you need to give people the opportunity to voice incorrect or biased points of views, but rather that you are acknowledging in a respectful environment that everyone has a voice. Make sure that people are heard and addressed respectfully but make sure to keep things reasonable and on topic. For example, you can voice your opinion about the government because freedom of speech protects you, but you cannot yell fire in a crowded theater because in endangers others. Use common sense here to allow the audience to feel heard but not to derail the talk into a shouting match.

7. Present both sides of the argument.

It is important to take both sides of the argument into account even if one is blatantly wrong. The reason is that some of the audience may hold the wrong point of view, and by acknowledging it you are able to logically debunk it with factual data. Avoid saying things like “you are wrong” or “the wrong way to think is”. Use language that will be more persuasive to the other side like, “some may hold X opinion, but we are going to explore why the evidence is pointing to a different take”. It is important to remain as neutral as possible about a topic, not letting your own bias enter into the facts of the topic. 1 There is a tendency for people to unknowingly assert their own beliefs into a topic and this bias can influence the audience. If you want to encourage discussion and open minded knowledge transfer, then it is best to allow the audience to review the information and make their own decisions. Remember, you may not convince everyone in the audience, but even if a few people change their minds it is a positive outcome.


8. Encourage open minded discussion.

Depending on the kind of presentation you are giving, encourage thoughtful discussion at the end of your presentation. In some cases it may be appropriate to say “since this topic is controversial, I want to remind everyone to be respectful of others” making sure to lay the ground rules for the discussion and diffuse conflicts before they arise. Remember in most of these cases you are going to be the moderator and need to be able to cut people off if they begin to ramble. Often this can be done politely by mentioning time constraints. Finally if the end goal is to come to some common agreement or negotiation then remind everyone that there needs to be a resolution at the end of the day. Keeping your audience on task by commenting that they are working together to improve the situation through respectful discussion can also help in these situations.


1. Cotton, D. R. (2006). Teaching controversial environmental issues: Neutrality and balance in the reality of the classroom. Educational Research, 48(2), 223-241.

2. Hess, D. E. (2002). Discussing controversial public issues in secondary social studies classrooms: Learning from skilled teachers. Theory & Research in Social Education, 30(1), 10-41.

3. Stradling, R. (1984). The Teaching of Controversial Issues: an evaluation [1].Educational Review, 36(2), 121-129.

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