4 Tips on How to Handle Hecklers (Like A Professional)

Doug Staneart  |  04/21/19
last updated

4 Strategies for Handling Hecklers While Giving a Speech

If you practice great presentation skills, and focus on designing your presentations on what your audience needs and wants, the last thing you will have trouble with is hecklers. However, it only takes a single mad-at-the-world heckler to quickly turn your presentation masterpiece into modern art. So, when you are rudely interrupted in front of an audience of strangers, you will want to have a strategy for how to handle hecklers. That is, one that calms the heckler and makes you continue to look like the expert in the room. Throughout my years of experience in public speaking, I’ve had my share of hecklers, and one of the most important things you can do is to remember that you’re a professional speaker. Rather than getting worked up and losing your cool, the best thing you can do is respond professionally and with class.

One of the more recent occurrences in social media is the birth of “internet trolls.” While internet trolls and hecklers have a couple of things in common, such as offensive language and negative comments, internet trolls are able to hide their real identity in fake online accounts. The majority of them aren’t really mean in real life. Hecklers, on the other hand, are braver in a way that they’re confident in attracting negative attention to themselves without masking their identity. Online trolls can be ignored. Ignoring a heckler while giving a speech is not so easy, though, and can cause you to lose credibility in front of your audience. So below are four strategies for handling hecklers while giving a speech.  (By the way, if you’re here because you’re a stand-up comedian, you might find that the main points down below will work in comedy clubs, too.)

Make Sure Your Heckler is a Heckler—Not Just a Skeptical Audience Member.

Before you go about waging war against hecklers, you should first know how to differentiate them from a skeptical audience member. In many cases, an audience member with a valid question or just someone with a different opinion may interrupt your presentation. Both of these types of skeptics may ask a tough question, but they will likely be polite. Hecklers, however, don’t care about manners. They have an opinion, and they’re going to voice it—one way or another. To hell with decorum!

The Difference between being skepitcal and being a heckler

Skeptics back up their opinion with evidence and logical reasoning. These audience members with tough questions will listen to what you have to say and are interested in having a thought-provoking discussion. They ‘attack’ your ideas, not you as a person. Hecklers, however, make everything personal. They hurl personal attacks at you, not the validity of your ideas. Hecklers need to be shut down. Skeptics and thorough questioners need to be convinced and won-over. When you do, the skeptics will actually be your best ally and will make you a better presenter.

1. Avoid shooting them down prematurely.

A good idea is to find out what exactly they’re complaining or arguing about by asking probing questions. The best course of action can be asking questions like, “Before I answer that, just out of curiosity, why do you ask?” or “Could you give me an example of that?”

If you listen closely, their answers will reveal why they’re heckling you in the first place. Sometimes it’s a grudge, sometimes it’s misplaced anger, other times it’s just to vent. Whatever their reason, you’ll be more prepared to address the problem once you know what’s really happening.

In most cases where I don’t have a history with the heckler, the reason for the hostility is misplaced anger. The heckler isn’t really mad at me. He or she is often mad at a situation that predated me coming into the picture. Last year, I was asked to conduct a day-long team building activity for a company in Houston. The meeting was being run by three executives who were at the same management level within the company. It was very easy, being an independent third party in the room, to see that although each of the executive were superficially respectful to one another, there was a lot of tension between them.

Before asking how to handle hecklers, ask yourself if there isn’t something you can do to help

Ask them questions to get to the issue

Each of them had a #2 in the room as well. Since I encourage interaction and discussion throughout my workshops, one of these assistants began to become vocal and even talk over some of the other participants. A speaker’s natural assumption would be that the person was a heckler and just trying to cause trouble. However, in this case, the company structure was causing competition and tension among the three departments. The participant was voicing that hostility during the discussion, but the he was really just upset about the situation and voicing his point of view. It was the proverbial 800 lb gorilla in the room that no one was talking about.

After the second interruption, I just paused and asked, “Just out of curiosity, why are you asking that question?” At first, he was a little evasive. I rephrased the question and waited. He nervously responded with the real problem. Once he did, the dam broke. Many other people in the room had been equally frustrated, but just never voiced their opinion. That discussion altered the content and delivery of my workshop dramatically, and we were able to better focus on fixing the root cause of the frustration. (And I never had to actually answer the heckler’s tough question.)

2. Involve the Audience in Fighting Hecklers

Sometimes, a heckler just wants to be part of the show. Next time, try asking the audience an opinionated question about your topic. Not only is this a great tool to have in your audience-interaction toolbox, but it’s a clever way to stop a heckler in a professional manner. By the way, if you feel uncomfortable asking questions to your audience, make sure to visit 9 Reliable Ways to Add Audience Participation to Your Presentation.

Let the heckler speak up in a controlled environment

By asking questions in the beginning, it it gives your heckler (or potential heckler) the chance to speak up in a more controlled way. In most cases, a brief stint in the limelight is all it takes to shut them up. After that, attention seeking hecklers will often be more cooperative and less likely to make any snide remarks for the rest of your talk.

Rather than in the middle of a speech, I typically use this technique very early in my classes. I will ask the opinion of the audience members and try very diligently to get everyone to participate. It sets people at ease and gets them on my side. This works really well because even the most critical audience member has had a chance to voice his/her opinion, and that opinion was validated. The trust level increase dramatically with both the heckler and the rest of the audience.

3. Silence. Dead Silence.

Most people don’t want to be embarrassed in front of a crowd. In the case of hecklers, some of them are brave enough to speak out and demand attention. But their confidence wavers when the crowd actually turns around to pay attention to them. Here’s what you can do as a last resort when all else fails:

Stop talking and stare directly into the heckler.

Don’t stop staring until a good part of the audience turns to stare at him or her. The puzzled and somewhat annoyed looks other audience members’ can cause the heckler quite a bit of discomfort. Saying nothing will keep you looking professional. Not only that, it works better than 99% of “killer put-downs” that might make you look uncool. After they feel the pressure from the whole audience, your heckler will likely think twice before trying it again.

4. An Example or Story Can Stave Off Hecklers

The absolute best way to deal with hecklers is to use examples and stories to explain your opinion. (In fact, we spend quite a bit of time in the Fearless Presentations® public speaking class getting participants to master this technique, because it is so powerful.) When people are argumentative or angry, facts and data will often just escalate the argument. That’s because when you respond to the heckler with an indisputable fact, you are basically saying, “Here is a fact that proves I’m right, you’re wrong!” This often just makes the heckler dig in and try to put you into your place with… guess what… an additional negative question.

Use Personal Stories as Evidence

We like to think of facts as being indisputable. But in fact, facts and statistics can be manipulated by creative people to prove their points. This happens because any fact can be disputed with another fact. The old Mark Twain quote, “There are lies, damned lies and statistics,” is very true. So, a speaker’s natural response to tough questions is to use facts and statistics to prove that you are right. However, this will often backfire.

How to handle hecklers? Tell them something they can’t refute!

However, stories and examples have a powerful way of disarming the negative heckler. A true story where you, the speaker, was an eye-witness, is indisputable. The heckler can’t respond by saying that your story isn’t true or giving a series of facts that prove that your story isn’t true, because the story is yours—you were there!

This technique takes practice, but it works almost 100% of the time. (And don’t forget to use humor when you can!). In the Fearless Presentations® class, we spend the better part of a half-day helping participants master this technique. Why? Because a speaker who can use this skill to quell hecklers will always be seen as a powerful and poised public speaker!

author Doug Staneart
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Doug Staneart is the CEO of The Leader's Institute. LLC and founder of the Fearless Presentations class. He is author of Fearless Presentations, Mastering Presentations, and 28 Ways to Influence People.

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