Handling Hecklers

Whether you’re standing in front of an audience of thousands or your colleagues in a meeting, handling a heckler is no fun, but it can be done with aplomb.

In various studies conducted over the years, public speaking has ranked number one as the most feared activity.  In some studies, almost 30% of respondents have indicated that they feared public speaking more than death. Jerry Seinfeld may have put it best when he said, “Most people would rather be in the casket at a funeral, than giving the eulogy”.

Since public speaking can encompass delivering a lecture, standing up in class or a meeting to express an opinion, there are any number of communications opportunities that get missed due to fear. In fact, fear of public speaking can have a negative impact on your career and can undermine success in life if you do nothing about it. The good news is that you can do something about your fear.

There are tried and true methods explored in Trips, Sniffs and Nerves and in Body Language that can help you to overcome everything from your hesitation to sweaty palms. However, there are other things that can go wrong that have little to do with your preparation or nerves but can make you reluctant to speak. Although it doesn’t happen often, every once in a while you will come across someone who wants to challenge the authority of the speaker.  They may have an agenda of their own and are looking for a forum, they may be holding a grudge. They may simply be cranky. Whatever it is that motivates this verbal bully, you can manage them just as you do other aspects of your presentation.

The first thing that you need to remember is that you are in charge of you and your presentation. There are tips out there for taking on a heckler and perhaps having a battle of wits, but that doesn’t seem like much fun for you if you’re nervous about public speaking and certainly, no fun for the audience unless you’re a professional comedian.

I enjoy public speaking. I happily abandon the stage and walk in and among the audience when presenting. Hecklers don’t phase me and I generally try to incorporate them into the presentation…to a point. If practice makes for a better presentation, then taking on an additional presenter in the middle of delivering is hardly going to improve your performance. Instead, avoid grandstanding and deal with a heckler by taking a deep breath and allowing the heckler to deliver their message. In most cases, the audience will be more annoyed than you are by the interruption and let the heckler know it, but that can only happen if you let them have their airtime and keep your cool.  Once they have said their bit and you have responded (to the group, not just the heckler), they are generally prepared to be quiet.

If that’s not the case and they persist in disrupting you or being rude, consider the following tips:

  • Acknowledge what they are doing, consider saying, “You’ve made many points or asked many questions.”
  • If that isn’t sufficient, then let them know how they are making you feel. This is not an opportunity to be rude, accusatory or judgmental. Try saying, “I’m having a hard time completing my presentation.” or “I’m having a hard time finishing.”
  • If the heckler just really wants to keep going no matter what you do, solicit the aid of your audience by asking them through a show of hands what they would prefer, the rest of your presentation or an impromptu presentation by the heckler.  If you have been patient and have allowed the heckler to say their piece and have responded, the audience will vote them off the island.
  • If you are in a meeting consider thanking them for their input and saying no more or ask them if they would like to continue the conversation privately later.

During the Question and Answer Period

  • Challenge a negative premise.  The world isn’t always doom and gloom. Worst-case scenarios are interesting, but not the only eventuality. Addressing worst-case scenarios or “what if” questions will typically lead to you saying things better left unsaid.
  • Use reflective language to ensure you understand their point and to let them know you were listening, try saying,  “So you are saying…” This approach also works if you get a heckler on your blog.
  • When you do respond, don’t repeat baiting words – use your own words or risk being quoted later with words you never intended to utter.
  • Remember to remain calm yet assertive.
  • Don’t speak on behalf of others.
  • Keep your own opinion to yourself if you are representing an organization. Any comment you make will be recalled as being organizational. Even if you state it as a “personal opinion”
  • If you can’t answer a question, give a reason why you can’t answer and move on. Don’t guess or speculate. Consider saying, “I would rather not speculate and I can’t answer your question.”
  • Break up multi-part questions in your answer.
  • More than anything, remember that you’re in charge of your reactions.

Have you ever run across a heckler online or in person? How did you manage the situation? Have you ever seen anyone do a great job of dealing with a heckler?  What did they do?


28 responses to “Handling Hecklers

  • Doug Parcels says:
    May 14, 2013 @ 09:24 am

    A few examples of anti heckler professionals :Steve Martin ” I remember my 1st beer too” Eddie Murphy ; Raw, Delirious, The Klumps…,
    Sam Kinnison .always….

  • winnercat says:
    May 14, 2013 @ 11:06 am

    Good video and suggestions Debra. Don’t agree with you when it comes to hecklers online, though, as you know:-)

  • I love this. I am not so afraid of my speaking engagements once I’ve started. It’s the before that really gets to me… LOL. I know my subject and that is not what I fear. Because I am dyslexic, I sometimes get flustered when I am thrown off my gate and will muddle my words. I have learned to slow down, take a breath and pause when I find that happening and then I am able to regain my composure. (One thing, I never forget the use the restroom before I speak… LOL.) 🙂

  • Jeri Walker-Bickett (@JeriWB) says:
    May 14, 2013 @ 03:25 pm

    I don’t think I would ever articulate these tips so well, but a teacher definitely incorporates all of the above that you outline when dealing with cantankerous students! The last point about being in charge of your reactions is so simple, but one that took me at least a year to become totally aware of, and another year to fully embrace. That’s when teaching got so much easier. Now that I’m not teaching, I often wonder what it will be like whenever I try my hand at any form of public speaking again.

    • What a great point. Teachers must be pros at managing hecklers. Not only do they have to regain control and discourage further disruption, but they have to do it in a way that doesn’t destroy fragile egos. Talk about a juggling act.

  • When I’m not blogging, I run a kickball league so I run into hecklers (haters) all the time. Especially in online forums like Facebook. I find it best to either: a) answer their question with as much knowledge as possible, if it’s a serious question, b) give a tongue and cheek or self-deprecating answer because, sometimes, people are looking to get a rise out of you. This shows that you aren’t phased or c) if the comment is insulting enough, don’t respond or respond offline. I firmly believe you should only give people as much respect as they are giving you.

    • I’ve been reading a fair bit about haters online recently and I have to say I am relieved to say I have not encountered any yet. I also think its just a question of time. 🙂 I don’t expect everyone to agree with me, the world is a big place and we all have different experiences that shape the way we see things. However, if someone just wants to be obnoxious, I don’t feel any compelling reason to respond and online, that option is there. I like the suggestions you have included, none of them involve getting down to the level of the hater.

  • Isn’t it a shame that some people just like to annoy others? The world would be a better place without them. At least the ones I’m thinking of …

    • I’ll guess that you’re thinking of the online trolls. I simply cannot understand what would possess someone to spend their time online sharing unpleasantness. If I don’t like a blog, I move on to one I do like. It’s fast, efficient and no one gets hurt. 🙂

      • I agree with you Debra. I did have one fellow blogger actively comment on my posts with condescending stuff like “Great post, however you might not have thought of…” and proceed to write his own thoughts on the topic, usually building a paragraph response to one line of my blog. I started to wonder if he read what I wrote at all or just wanted to blog ON my blog! Needless to say, his comments didn’t get approved. He went away when he saw I wasn’t playing his attention game.

  • I love your suggestion of “voting” off the heckler. I think hecklers need to be the center of the attention and want to one up the presenter. I believe the best practice is to maintain your professional manner.

    • I agree Elizabeth. It’s much more about getting attention or control for themselves than it is about you, which of course means it’s also not about the audience.

  • Voting off the hecklers sounds good to me. Hecklers are really vying for attention. Another good way to stop them in their tracks is to invite them onto the stage and ask them to give their opinion and why they think that their way is the best way. Then when they get their own group of hecklers they made think twice. Good article as always

    • If you have the time to give them and it doesn’t throw you off your game, I agree, bring the heckler to everyone’s full attention. Most hecklers will whither under the spotlight. It’s easy to be condescending or disruptive from the cover of darkness or a crowd, but building a coherent and constructive argument takes time, thought and work. Thanks for commenting.

  • Some good ideas there for dealing with hecklers. As you say, in public speaking it’s not often, but you have to deal with it. Often ignoring it only makes it worse. I like some of your ideas on how to deal with it, as it is something you need to be prepared for.

    Obviously you have a lot of experience in this area so thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks Ashley. There are lots of good ideas for dealing with hecklers out there. I’ve seen people successfully argue a heckler down or ridicule them into silence. I may have done it once or twice myself, but I always regret it. Not because I don’t manage the heckler, but because if you can end on a win win scenario, why wouldn’t you? Besides, it takes bravado and quick thinking to pull off challenging a heckler successfully. When you’re in the middle of a presentation or even just nervous about the process its hard to switch gears, so for most encounters I suggest, stay calm and let the audience do the work for you. 🙂

  • Depending on the situation, to deal with a persistent heckler who was not adding value to my presentation, I think I would try to enlist the other audience members by saying something like, “I have addressed your question/statement/whatever”; however, I believe the people here came to hear me talk about x.y.z”, so I will ask them, “Please raise your hand if you would like me to move forward in my presentation?” If the audience supports you and the person won’t shut up, then they are possibly pathological and it might be an issue for security although clearly asking for help to remove someone would be a last resort.

    I liked the way President Obama dealt with the “You lie” guy during his first State of the Union. He kept the high ground and made the heckler look like a rube—-IMHO.
    (Found you on BHB).

    • Great points Suzanne. The audience is there for you and will help you to manage the heckler, but there are times when the challenge is not yours and security needs to step in. Unfortunately, security is not always readily available and in those cases, I still think the approaches you outline work well. They alert the collective to the problem and organizers will generally move to get help.

  • I’ve been working on my public speaking – I used to be quite frightened, but now I enjoy giving public talks, albeit with some trepidation. I haven’t had any hecklers, however.

    My husband was once at a talk where the speaker had a pie thrown in his face. The pie thrower, I believe, was taken away by security. The speaker did a wonderful job of smiling and making a fitting joke. Being able to find humor in difficult situations is quite a skill.

    In some situations, I might have agreed with the basic premise of the heckler. However, the method of disagreement via heckling does not do justice to the heckler’s cause. How to get a difficult and controversial message across is a skill that few people seem to master.

    • Glad to hear you’re enjoying public speaking. It’s something I had to grow into. I used to shake like a leaf and still get an occasional tremor, but enjoy it.

      I couldn’t agree more with you on the problem of the heckler’s approach, it’s hard to have your idea seen as legitimate when you’re using a disrespectful approach to deliver your message.

  • becc03 says:
    May 19, 2013 @ 10:10 pm

    I am in the category of people who fear public speaking. I have in the past had to do it on numerous occasions and lets just say, it wasn’t for me. I had never experienced a heckler, probably because you could smell, see and taste the fear in me 🙂
    I do value this advice though, because I know I will soon enough receive the lovely input of hecklers on my blog.

    • I would say that you are in the majority in your dislike of public speaking. It’s definitely not everyone’s cup of tea. One of the things that I love about blogging is that it gives people who would never normally speak publicly an opportunity share their views. Unfortunately, the downside is that there are people who SHOULDN’T speak publicly and they too get to share their views, but only if you let them. I haven’t received any messages from trolls yet, but unless someone has a legitimate difference of opinion, something that contributes to the exchange, then that’s what the delete button is for. 🙂

  • Personally enjoy public speaking and handle hecklers the in the ways you suggest. It’s a pity most people suffer from low self esteem and are afraid of giving speeches and handling hecklers.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *