How does that children’s rhyme go?
“Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me”.
Bull! If there is one thing that presenters dread more than forgetting their lines, it’s having someone add to their speech without an invitation. Unlike President Obama we don’t have a flock of Secret Service agents at our beck and call who can fan out into an audience and cart off an unruly heckler.
What should you do when someone in the audience starts to deliberately take away from your carefully rehearsed speech? Start crying and go home is always a possibility; however, I’ve got some better ways to deal with this situation for you…
What Is Heckling?
Maybe a good place for us to start this discussion is to make sure that we both fully understand just what heckling is. There are two types of heckling that you WILL have to deal with during one or more of your presentations: active and passive.
Active heckling occurs when someone in the audience starts talking back to you right in the middle of your speech. For a public speaker this often feels like you’ve just hitÃ‚Â a speed bump in your speech while you were going 80 miles an hour. Talk about surprising!
Passive heckling is much closer to disrespect. This often shows up as people having their own conversations during your presentation. Normally this is their own call and you don’t really care, but if they are loud enough then it becomes your problem. Talking onÃ‚Â a cell phone or having a huddle at the back of the room are common ways that this shows up.
No matter if you are speaking at a wedding, a graduation, or a business function, hecklers will ALWAYS be in the audience and it’s just a matter if they decide to speak up. First off, we should talk about what you should NOT do…
What Should You NOT Do?
I sorta like to think of this as the North Korea problem – man they are annoying, but they are so small as to not really count in the big scheme of things. Likewise, when you are faced with either an active or a passive heckler, you need to make sure that you don’t come out with guns ‘a blazing. Here are a few things that you should NOT do when you are trying to deal with a heckler:
- Don’t try to be funny: this is the #1 response that trips up most presenters. They spend too much time trying to come up with a funney response to the heckler on the spot and it falls flat. A serious response will shut him/her up most of the time.
- Don’t Lose Your Temper: I don’t care if you were just coming to that point in your speech which causes everyone to burst into tears and now this rude heckler has spoiled the moment. If you lose your temper, then you’ll never be able to get back into your speech after the moment has passed.
How To Correctly Handle A Heckler
Some hecklers are a one-shot deal – they make one comment and then they’ll go away forever. However, depending on what they’ve said, even this type of heckler needs to be dealt with. Dealing with all types of hecklers correctly is the key to being a successful public speaker. Here are 5 ways that you can deal with hecklers during your speech:
- Silence: Somewhat surprisingly the simplest solution is often the most effective. If you stop speaking and turn and stare at the heckler, everyone else will turn to see what you are looking at. In 95% of heckler cases this kind of social embarrassment is all that it takes to shut a heckler up.
- Tie Your Response To The Event: This is a clever way to remind the heckler why everyone is at the event. For example, if you were speaking at a breast cancer awareness event and started to have problems with a heckler, a great response would be “Hey, I’m talking here – unless you’ve discovered a way to beat breast cancer, how about if you just remain quiet”.
- Add The Heckler To Your Team: This technique turns an unexpected interruption into what appears to be a planned part of your speech. After the heckler has said what they are going to say, pause for a moment and thank your “speechwriter / joke writer / etc.”. The audience will laugh with you, the heckler will beam with pride, and you can go on.
- Give Them The Mic: This is a fairly drastic tactic, but it can pay great dividends. Walk over to where the heckler is sitting and offer to hand them the mic. Generally they will decline the offer and will get the point that this presentation is not all about them.
- Think Outside The Room: Certain hecklers, such as loud groups at the back of the room, can resist all efforts on your part to overcome them. This calls for innovative thinking. One way to handle this is either for you or your audience to move. You can move out into the center of your audience and deliver your speech “in the round” or you can have them move their chairs in order to be closer to you.
When I’m starting a speech, I always try to keep in mind that there are two groups in the room – me and everyone else. A heckler poses a unique problem in that if not dealt with correctly, he/she can drive a wedge in between me and my audience.
Ultimately what a great speaker tries to do is to separate the heckler from the rest of the audience so that there are three groups in the room: you, the audience, and the heckler. If you can accomplish this, then you’ll be able to silence the heckler while at the same time intimately connecting with your audience and make an lasting impact in their lives.
Questions For You
How big of deal are hecklers for you during your speeches? Have you ever had to deal with active / passive hecklers? How much “force” did you have to use? Did it work? Leave me a comment and let me know what you are thinking.
What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time
If you think about it, there are a lot of different types of speeches that we can give: humorous, informative, motivational, and of course, ones that are designed to get your audience to start thinking a particular way. Oh yeah, this last type just may be the hardest type of speech to give…