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?
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…?