4 Strategies for Handling Hecklers While Giving a Speech

Which is worse, hecklers or trolls?

handling-hecklersWhile they have a couple of things in common, such as mean and offensive language, 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.

Identifying Hecklers

Before you go about waging war against hecklers, you should first know how to differentiate them from an audience member with a valid question or just someone with a different opinion. Both skeptics and tough questioners are polite in voicing their thoughts, but hecklers don’t care about manners. They have an opinion and they’re going to voice it — one way or another. To hell with decorum!

Skeptics back up their opinion with evidence and logical reasoning. Audience members with tough questions 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 make everything personal. They rant about your poor speech, presentation skills and intelligence, not the validity of your ideas. Hecklers need to be shut down. Skeptics and thorough questioners need to be convinced and won-over, and when you do, the skeptics actually make you a better presenter.

The Public Speaker’s Guide to Annoying Hecklers

1. Avoid shooting them down prematurely.

Find out what exactly they’re complaining or arguing about by asking probing questions. You can ask questions like, “What exactly are you trying to accomplish or point out?” or “How is your opinion on (topic) relevant to _____?”

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.

2. Involve the Audience in Fighting Hecklers

Sometimes, a heckler just wants to enjoy the limelight. Ask the audience a question about your topic, then point to the heckler for answers. 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 quiet for the rest of your talk.

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.

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’ will give the heckler will surely keep them quiet.

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, 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.

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 a tough question is to use facts and statistics to prove that you are right, but this will often backfire.

However, stories and examples have a powerful way of disarming the negative heckler. An example, especially one 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. In the Fearless Presentations® class, we spend the better part of a half-day helping participants master this technique, because a speaker who can use this skill to quell hecklers will always be seen as a powerful and poised public speaker!

Michelle Riklan is president of Riklan Resources and an instructor for The Leader’s Institute® in the Northeast region. She is based in Trenton, NJ but she also conducts public speaking classes in New York, Boston, Philadelphia and other Northeast cities.

Author: Doug Staneart, Date Published: 10/13/15

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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