Counterstrike: How To Deal With Hecklers

by drjim on March 2, 2010

Dealing With A Heckler During A Speech Is Like Being Caught In A Dog Fight

Dealing With A Heckler During A Speech Is Like Being Caught In A Dog Fight

Fighting Back

Nothing makes me more angry than when someone is rude enough to interrupt me when I’m giving a speech. I mean come on, I’ve worked hard to prepare to give this speech and here I am dealing with all of the nerves, logistics, etc. that a speaker needs to stay on top of and all of a sudden I have to put up with this? There has got to be a way to get this person to shut up and sit down, right?

Preparing For A Fight

The best way to deal with a heckler is to do your best to prevent them from becoming a heckler in the first place. A heckler can show up in any audience and so part of your preparation to give a speech, you need to spend some time taking steps to defuse the things that might set a heckler off. Judi Bailey has done some research into just exactly what you can do and she’s got the following suggestions:

  • Research Your Audience: The easiest way to invite a hacker to attack you is to not take the time to understand who you’ll be presenting to. A key part of this understanding is to make sure that you know who in the audience will be supporting what you have to say, and who you need to watch out for.
  • Double Check Your Data: The Achilles heel that trips up most speakers when it comes to dealing with hecklers lies in the information that you are presenting. If you aren’t careful and you present information that is either incorrect or out of date, then you will have opened a door for hecklers to attack.
  • Watch Your Time: When are you going to be delivering your speech? If it’s in the morning, then your audience is going to be fresh and ready to listen to more detailed information. However, the later in the day that you go, the less willing your audience is going to be to absorb the data that you’ve based your speech on.
  • Mind Your Purpose: One of the key ways to negate the impact of a heckler is for you to stay focused on what really matters to your audience. By making sure that what you are talking about is what they want to hear you’ll be able to keep everyone’s attention and reduce the chance that a heckler will rise to the surface.

Dealing With A Fight When It Happens

Even with all of the best preparation in the world, you will still get the occasional heckler. That means that you need to have a plan for dealing with them when they show up. Judi has the following suggestions for defusing these volatile situations:

  • Establish Guidelines: At the start of your speech you have a unique opportunity to layout some guidelines for everyone to follow. These guidelines can include telling everyone what topics will and won’t be covered, what people should do if they object to what you are saying, and explaining if there will be an opportunity to ask questions during your presentation.
  • Be Like A Ninja: If you do have a heckler stand up and take issue with something that you’ve said, then you have an opportunity to use your built-in ninja skills to deal with the situation. The simplest way to deal with a heckler is to side-step their comments. This means that you need to deal with the heckler, then step to the side to show the audience that you are moving on and keep on speaking.
  • Take Them On: This is sort of the nuclear option for speakers – dealing directly with a heckler. Clearly there are all sorts of risks associated with this approach; however, it can be the most direct and decisive way to move beyond the distraction that a heckler is causing. Keep in mind that your goal is to deliver the most value to the audience, not to embarrass the heckler. Acknowledge their point, tell them to sit down, and move on.

What All Of This Means For You

Every public speaker needs to realize that hecklers come with the territory. Preparing to deal with them before a speech starts is the key to boosting your odds of successfully dealing with them.

You need to take steps as you prepare to deliver your speech and as you start to talk to your audience in order to minimize the chances of a heckler standing up and causing a disruption.

No matter how you choose to deal with a heckler, they are your responsibility. Realizing that you can’t make them go away, the next best thing that we can all do is to be ready to deal with them when they do show up…

What do you think the best way to prepare to deal with a heckler is?

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

If I asked you to give a speech, how much time would you need to get ready to give the speech (including writing it)? Could you do it if I gave you half as much time? How about if I gave you 5 minutes? We don’t always control the situations in which we are asked to give a speech, knowing how to prepare one in just a few minutes is a key speaker skill…

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