The Hassle Of Hecklers

by drjim on February 2, 2010

There’s No Love Like A Heckler’s Love

There’s No Love Like A Heckler’s Love

Just What Is A Heckler Anyway?

Just imagine your next presentation. You’ve studied your audience, researched your topic, created a speech, and practiced, practiced, practiced. You take the stage and start to smoothly deliver your speech. Just a few minutes into your speech, you become aware of someone, gasp, talking. We’re not talking about quiet whispering here, we’re talking about someone in the audience standing up and shouting things at you. Congratulations, you’ve got a heckler

Why Do People Heckle Us?

It’s in the world of stand up comedy that I suspect we are most accustomed to seeing hecklers in real life. That environment has an explosive mix of edgy humor, alcohol, and an audience who desperately wants to show off for friends and participate in the fun. Hecklers are an everyday part of that environment. But what about when you are giving a speech?

Just exactly what is a heckler? I’m going to define a heckler as being anyone who chooses to interrupt your speech with their own comments. More often than not, a heckler is motivated by deep-set emotions: hostility, resentment, or even simple anger. Whatever you are talking about has set them off and they’re not going to be quiet about it. Oh, and there’s one more thing – they just might be disagreeing with what you are saying.

As bad as all of this is, there is one more reason that you may have attracted a heckler – they may not like you. For whatever reason, there are people out there who will simply set their minds to not liking us for some unknown reason and during our presentation they’ll just stand up and let us know about it. Talk about poor timing!

The Best Defense Against A Heckler Is…

The now classic case of how NOT to handle a heckler was demonstrated by Michael Richards (“Kramer” on the TV show Seinfeld) when he was performing at comedy club. A table of Afro-American and Hispanic audience members started to heckle him and he responded by trying to “out heckle” them by using racial slurs. Needless to say this didn’t work and the fallout from this event is still being felt by him even today.

When it comes to dealing with a heckler, a speaker’s options are somewhat limited. What is going on here is a power play – you own the stage, but the heckler is trying to take over your audience. The big unanswered question is which way will the audience go – will they side with the heckler or will they side with you, the speaker.

In order to win your audience over to your side, there are three different things that you can do:

  • Ignore: It takes a great deal of courage to be a heckler. If the speaker doesn’t acknowledge the heckler and he starts to get disapproving looks and “shsss” sounds from people sitting around him, then his courage will start to fade quickly. By simply ignoring a heckler, you can often get them to sit down and go away quietly.
  • Respond: another way of saying this is to meet force with force. If your heckler is simply unable to restrain themselves from asking a question, then answer it and go on. If your heckler is being insulting, insult them right back and tell them to sit down and shut-up.
  • Joke: Humor is a very powerful tool for speakers to use. If you take a moment, and then use humor to either deal with the issue that the heckler has raised or to deal with the heckler himself / herself, then you can defuse the situation and move on.

What All Of This Means For You

At some point in your speaking career, you will be confronted with a heckler. It’s how you choose to deal with this interruption that will define how good of a speaker you are.

It’s all too easy to over react when someone has been rude enough to interrupt your speech. You’ve got a number of options from ignoring them to using humor to deflect the interruption. How you handle it will depend on the circumstances that you find yourself in.

The ultimate goal is to keep the audience on your side and not have them bond with the heckler. If you treat every interruption with dignity and style, you’ll have won the audience over and you’ll be seen as the great speaker that you can be.

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

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

Did you know that when you are delivering a speech, there is always another conversation going on? No, I’m not talking about your rude audience (although they may be talking also), instead I’m talking about your body – it’s having its own conversation with your audience. Maybe you should know what it’s saying…?

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Ethan Rotman February 7, 2010 at 5:38 pm

I agree that hecklers can be a problem. Handling them effectively is important for the speaker to maintain (and improve) their credibility.

I respectfully disagree with your three methods though, as in my expereince, they generally will not work. Ignoring, responding in kind (the Kramer example you gave is excellent) or humor, does not address the issue. Rather, you are giving fuel to the heckler (“Why won’t you address my question?”)

Rather, having a system in place to deal with difficult questions or hecklers is essential. Dr Jon Hooper (jhooper@csuchico.edu) has developed a three part system for this situation.

It is an approach that will work to diffuse the hecklers energy while acknowledging and addressing their concerns.

It involves collecting more information from your heckler, agreeing with some part of what they are saying (not entirely) and then disagreeing negotiability. I encourage you to contact Dr. Hooper as he is a great guy and offers workshops.

I use his system all the time and watch it work wonders. I am happy to talk with you more about this as well.

I appreciate your article and thank you.

Reply

Dr. Jim Anderson February 14, 2010 at 12:34 am

Ethan: Hmm, looks like I’ll have to check out Dr. Hooper’s technique. However, based on how you describe it, I’ve already got some reservations. The key to handling hecklers is to realize that the audience (most of them anyway), showed up to hear you talk. The more time that you spend dealing with a heckler, the more off track you may get. The key is to quickly get things moving once again. I’ll have to check on this technique, but it seems like you may be giving too much “air time” to the heckler…

Reply

Ethan Rotman March 3, 2010 at 5:07 pm

Jim;

Clearly you are correct – the audience does want to hear you speak. There are times when just letting the heckler heckle is all they need and then you can move on. Other times they will be persistent as their goal may be to damage your credibility. Remember, the speaker has to play by different rules than the heckler.

Hecklers give the speaker the opportunity to improve credibility by demonstrating professionalism. Leaving questions unanswered or issues unaddressed (regardless of the intent of the questioner) may injure your credibility.

I think it is important to recognize there are different types of hecklers with different goals in mind. Hooper’s approach helps the speaker find the intent of the question or heckle, address it and move on.

Personally, I prefer when the audience all stands and showers me with money and applause – but I prepare for whatever they may throw at me.

I appreciate your comments.

Reply

Peter Bowler March 3, 2010 at 12:04 pm

My advice to speakers confronted with hecklers is simple. Be polite. Be professional. Keep presenting…and then take questions when you are ready and on your terms. Your audience will sshh the heckler into submission very soon.
Peter

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