12 Ways to Handle a Heckler as a Professional Speaker

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12 Ways to handle a heckler has a professional speaker

Heck·le

ˈhek(ə)l/

verb

gerund or present participle: heckling

interrupt (a public speaker) with derisive or aggressive comments or abuse.

The term “heckling” originates from the textile trade where “to heckle” meant teasing or combing out flax or hemp fibers.

The meaning, to interrupt speakers with awkward or embarrassing questions, originated in Dundee, Scotland in the early nineteenth century.

Dundee was a famously radical town where hecklers, those who combed flax, worked hard to earn their reputation as the most hardcore and belligerent laborers in the workforce.

In the heckling factory, one heckler would read out the day's news while the others worked to the accompaniment of interruptions and furious debates.

12 Ways to handle a heckler as a professional speaker

Sounds like fun, right? Maybe, it is. Unless, of course, you are the one on stage.

Whether they are flat-out confrontational, insulting, interruptive, or overpowering, a heckler can throw you off and leave you scrambling to regain the flow of your presentation.

Let’s explore some of the most effective ways to disarm the hecklers and get back on track.

Two kinds of hecklers

There are two main types of heckling you might encounter during your presentations: active and passive.

Active heckling is when an audience member interrupts and starts talking directly to you in the middle of your presentation. This is the worst kind.

Passive heckling is a more mild form of disrespect. This kind of heckling usually takes the form of someone having their own conversation with their neighbor or playing with their smartphone. Although less abrasive, it distracts you and your audience.

Two kinds of hecklers

Hecklers are everywhere. Whether you are presenting at a fundraising dinner, a conference, or a corporate training session, you run the risk of having a heckler in the audience.

It’s very important to note here that there’s a difference between an audience member asking a tough question or making a bold comment, and a heckler.

Are you sure they’re a heckler?

Someone who is asking a difficult question, especially when prompted to during a Q&A session, will aim to be thoughtful and respectful by using logic and reasoning. While they might disagree with you, this stems from their genuine desire to have a discussion as opposed to brawl.  

On the other hand, a heckler will jump right into a rant. They will make things personal and will aim to be insulting. They will poke and prod at anything to get a rise: from your slides, to your clothing, to your ideas.

Make sure you know which kind of individual you are dealing with. If you mistakenly start to “deal” with someone who is just trying to open a dialogue, you risk turning your audience off.

If you want them to accept your ideas, they need to be assured that you are level-headed and reasonable. If you lose your cool because someone questions you, you risk losing your credibility and your audience as well.

Once you are certain you are dealing with a heckler, it’s time to disarm them and get your presentation back on track.

12 tips for dealing with hecklers

#1. Never reward interrupting

What do you do if someone starts to talk over you? Keep talking.

It might take a few seconds, but the majority of the audience will not notice. Ultimately, it will make the interrupter look like the rude party. Nine times out of ten they stop talking.

Once they stop talking, focus on the rest of the audience. Ostracise the interrupter for a few minutes by using body language to exclude them; such as, avoiding eye contact and angling your shoulders away from them. This will help deter future interruptions.

What do you do if someone starts to talk over you? Keep talking.

#2. Don’t try to be funny

Ever watched a comedian take down a heckler in a blaze of glory?

It can be downright hilarious to watch (see some of the top take-downs here) but don’t forget that comedians are very well-practiced and naturally entertaining.

Unless you’ve been practicing stand-up (Christmas dinner with your in-laws doesn’t count), avoid trying to be funny. You spend too much time trying to come up with a response that will most likely fall flat.

While you can still be light and pleasant, it is better to deal with the heckler directly and get back on track as soon as possible.

Unless you’ve been practicing stand-up you may want to avoid trying to be funny.

#3. Manage your own emotional state.

In this kind of situation, most people go into a reactionary mode. This can raise your stress levels, and make you defensive and aggressive.

The risk is that it will be difficult to shake this mindset once you are in it, and this can throw off your entire presentation. Your good energy will dissipate, and you will no longer be able to think clearly.

Take a deep breath and stay calm. Remove your emotional attachment to the situation and deal with it in a level and relaxed way.  

If you can, try role-playing these situations with friends or colleagues. It can be very useful to train yourself to override your impulsive reactions so you can react consciously and calmly.

Take a deep breath, and stay calm. Remove your emotional attachment to the situation and deal with it in a level and relaxed way.

#4. Let the heckler have their say

We mentioned that you should never allow someone to interrupt your session. While this will weed out the majority of interrupters, sometimes you will get a persistent heckler and it can be beneficial to hear them out.

They will continue to interrupt and heckle if they feel they were shut down. Not getting a response may activate a deeper need to be heard.

Let them go on for a few minutes; even if it feels a little bit too long. Once they feel like they’ve been heard, they’re less likely to interrupt again.

#5. Listen to them

You can disarm the heckler by hearing them out, then calmly acknowledging them.

While you don’t need to validate or agree with them, sometimes just being heard is enough to pacify the audience member.

You will seem more reasonable to the audience if you understand where someone is coming from. It can also help you determine whether you are dealing with a heckler or someone who is asking difficult questions.

If you are dealing with a heckler, and they start sounding-off, becoming insulting, or can’t back up what they say; this will become obvious to your audience.

You can disarm the heckler by hearing them out, then calmly acknowledge them.

#6. Respond

Sometimes, it is necessary to respond to comments. When you are responding, it’s crucial to address the whole audience not just the heckler.

Top tip: don’t end your response by looking directly at the heckler. They will see this as an invitation to keep going. Look at a person on the other side of the room as you conclude your response. Then, jump directly back into your presentation.

#7. Don’t let it get personal

Your initial reaction might be to snap back. If you believe that they have gone too far or attacked your integrity, you might be hell-bent on getting back at them.

Don’t.

If you take the bait, you’ll fall into their trap.

The most common result of this tactic is that those who are listening jump up and take sides with the individuals instead of the ideas.

Focus entirely on what is being discussed, and avoid attacking them personally at all costs.

#8. Be gracious

Be courteous, kind, and pleasant; even to the heckler.

Never lose your temper. Even if you feel they have completely ruined your moment, and you are raging on the inside; If you lose control, you will not be able to get it back.  

The best course of action is to maintain a level head, be polite, and get your presentation back on track as quickly as possible. 

#9: Ask them to stop.

If you have a heckler that keeps going (even after you’ve heard them out and calmly responded), make a firm request for them to stop.

Here are some examples:

  • I’m finding it difficult to progress with my presentation. Please, could you hold any more comments until the end of the presentation?”

  • I love it when audience members are active and participating, but I’d like to get back to my presentation. I would appreciate it if you’d let me do so.”

  • Interesting point. We can discuss this further after the presentation. Thank you.”

#10. Get the rest of the audience on your side

Do not underestimate the power of a crowd. Social pressure can have a tremendous effect on a heckler’s willingness to keep talking.

The audience has come to hear you speak, not the heckler. If they wanted to hear a comedian, they’d go to a stand-up show.

Use this to your advantage: ask the audience whether they would prefer to listen to the rest of your presentation, or whether they want to hear more from the heckler.

There might be a moment or two of awkward silence, but most of the time the audience will collectively say they’d prefer you to keep going. Sometimes, you might even get a cheer as they will be just as fed-up with the heckler as you are. In the extremely rare situation that they opt to hear more from the heckler, simply accept it and bow out graciously.

It takes an extremely brave, or foolish, person to carry on heckling against the whole crowd. Hopefully, the heckler will get embarrassed and remain silent for the rest of the session.

The audience has come to hear you speak, not the heckler. If they wanted to hear a comedian, they’d go to a stand-up show.

#11. The last resort: have them removed

In the most extreme cases, none of the above will work. You will be forced to make the tough decision to have the heckler removed from the audience.

Only ever do this if the heckler absolutely refuses to stop, and you are past the point of being able to control the situation.

Ask for security or the event organizer to escort the heckler out of the room.

#12. Don’t dwell on it

After you have effectively dealt with the heckler, it’s time to get back on track.

Take a deep breath and put yourself back into the right mindset. Remember: you are in control.

While you can reference the situation briefly, do not focus on it. Absolutely avoid referencing it more than once. If you move on quickly and gracefully, your audience will too.    

The ultimate goal is to keep your audience engaged with your message.

If you don’t deal with a heckler correctly, they can easily ruin your presentation. If you can’t remain in control, you run the risk of losing your audience's attention and your credibility.

While hecklers are few and far between, the above tools will help you keep your presentation on track the next time one crosses your path.

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