There’s a step by step process you can use to effectively handle a heckler.
1. Manage your own emotional state
This is the first prerequisite to be able to handle a heckler with dignity. You can manage your emotional state by managing your thoughts. If you believe that a person who interrupts you is rude, that if they contradict you they are wrong, and that if they talk for more than 3 seconds they’ve gone on for too long – that’s going to come through in your response and make it difficult for you to handle a heckler calmly.
It’s easy to deny these thoughts when you’re calmly reading this post on your computer. It can be very different when you’re standing in front of a group stating your opinion and wanting their approval. Anybody who contradicts you in that situation is the enemy! Your brain is telling you “You must make that person shut-up or you’re going to be deadmeat”.
It takes a genuine deep-seated belief that different points of view can be valid to overcome your natural defensive/aggressive reaction to the heckler. Role-playing these situations with colleagues is incredibly useful in training you to override your natural reactions and react calmly.
2. Let the heckler have their say
The first time somebody interrupts let them go for a bit. It will probably feel far too long for you, and you may even see some people in the audience getting restless, but this is the most effective preventative method to stop them continuing to heckle. They will continue to interrupt and heckle if they feel they were shut down. If you interrupt them the first time they try and speak, they’ll be like a jack-in-the-box for the rest of your session. The best way to prevent is to let them go on – just a little bit too long. They’re less likely to interrupt again.
3. Use reflective listening before you respond
Reflect back to the heckler what they said. This means expressing in your own words your understanding of what they’ve said. You may think that this technique looks transparent, but the heckler will most likely be totally oblivious – they will simply feel “you’ve listened to me”. Or if your understanding is wrong, they’ll correct you and then you can have another attempt at reflecting back what they’ve said.
Once again, this is prevention. Responding thoroughly and fairly to the heckler the first time means it’s more likely to be the only time they interrupt.
Respond if it’s appropriate to do so. Address your response to the whole audience, not just the heckler – though don’t avoid eye contact with them either. But, unless you want to continue the conversation with the heckler, don’t end your response by looking at them. This invites them to either agree or disagree with you. So look at a person on the other side of the room as you conclude your response. Then smoothly segue back into your prepared presentation.
5. Subsequent interruptions
If the person keeps interrupting and it’s starting to detract from your presentation, it’s time for the next level. I use an assertiveness formula that I remember with the mnemonic OAR: O stands for Observe, A stands for Affect, and R stands for Request:
Make a simple statement of what you observe happening. This statement should be devoid of judgement about the person. Just describe their behavior using neutral language. For example:“You’ve made a number of points.”
State how it’s affecting you. Many people shrink back from doing this, because it makes you feel vulnerable. But that’s precisely why it’s so powerful. Your unexpected vulnerability will shock most people back to seeing you as a human being rather than a speaker to be attacked. Here’s an example: “I’m finding it difficult to progress with my presentation.”
Politely and firmly make a request:“Please could you hold any more comments till the end of the presentation.”
Most reasonable people will respond to this approach, but for those who don’t there’s…
6. The last resort
Ask the audience whether they would prefer you to carry on your presentation or want to hear more from the heckler. Most of the time they’ll say they want you to carry on – they’ll be just as fed up with the heckler as you are. It takes a brave person to carry on heckling against the expressed wishes of the majority of the audience. And in the rare situation that they want to hear from the heckler, accept it and bow out graciously.
At the Presentation Camp in LA last year I facilitated a session on handling a heckler. Lisa Braithwaite’s husband videoed the session, but we didn’t have microphones so the audio is very faint. But you may find it useful, so I’ve included the video below.
Olivia Mitchell on how to handle a heckler from Lisa Braithwaite on Vimeo.
How to Tame your Fear of Public Speaking
In this video-training series (plus workbook with transcripts) you’ll learn:
- The three things you must know BEFORE you begin to tackle your fear of public speaking
- Why the positive-negative thought classification doesn’t work for fear of public speaking
- The two powerful self-talk tweaks that can make an immediate difference.
Olivia: Thanks for the post; you always provide positive suggestions on improving my speaking. You point about keeping your emotions in check (point #1) is certainly key. It helps to take a deep breath, make eye contact and address them directly. Many times just validating that you hear them is all it takes to get them on your side (hopefully)!.
Thanks Mark – glad you find my suggestions helpful. Being able to manage your own emotions is key to effective speaking. Olivia
This is my first time visiting your blog and I am impressed with your insight and writing ability.
Your comments and suggestions were absolutely right on, and thanks for voicing them. This (Hecklers) is a subject that came up in a Twitter Hashtag community called #Eventprofs this week.
The majority of the folks participating felt we should find a way to silence Hecklers, or alienate them from a conversation. I was one of those that disagreed, for the very reasons you cited in this article. I was actually getting ready to write a follow up blog post when I came across your article.
Thanks for providing this information and I am sure many people will use it. We would love it if you would join us on one of our Eventprofs chats. They occur on Tue night from 8-9pm cst and then again on Thursdays from 11am to 12noon cst.
Excellent, practical post. I love the O.A.R. steps and the last resort. I remember a friend of my who went to do teacher training – I asked her once – “do they train you on how to handle misbehaviour in class?” She said that the guidance was to “avoid giving an ultimatum that you cannot execute”. e.g. “If you don’t stop then I will stop this class”. I love the “last resort”. It is the right way of showing that you are speaking for the audience, not just to look good for yourself.
Great post, on a topic that most presenters try to avoid thinking about! It is so important to ensure that anyone with any interruption or complaint believes that you have heard and understood them. Cutting someone off will only make the situation worse. And as a presentation should be all about the audience, showing other members that their opinions matter will only make them respect you more.
Great stuff Olivia! I am also a speaker and I think that as speakers, we will all *eventually* encounter someone who heckles to some degree. Handling it well can be the difference between coming off stage feeling elated or deflated.
Even if your heckler isn’t nasty, it can still derail your presentation if you let it. I use the same techniques with those who attempt to dominate the presentation with multiple questions at inappropriate times, as if you’re doing a one-on-one consultation with them. (had this happen last night actually) 🙂
It’s the speaker who can use a unique combination of remaining respectful, calm, and smooooooth that wins the day!
I was just glancing at your website because I just recommended it to someone here in Scandinavia who asked me if there was anyone else doing presentation skills training whom I like. (I said, well, not generally, but there is this one woman way out in New Zealand who is really good.) What I like about your approach is, that you are always very specifically helpful, rather than just generally informative. Your article on handling hecklers picks up a number of different techniques which can be used in different ways, but then you model it into a very useful, step by step process. Nice work again!
Thanks John, I appreciate your feedback! Olivia
Thank you so much for this article. I have a class coming up and was warned that there will probably be a few angry people in the group. I think your approach is going to work well, thanks for sharing how you handle them. Keep your fingers crossed for me!
That sounds challenging. The more you can find out in advance about the people and why they’re angry, the more prepared you can be. Since you have prior warning, it may work best to acknowledge and address their concerns early on in your class. Go well.
Thanks for the personal response Olivia, I’m happy to report that all went smoothly! I wish you continued success,.
thanks, very fine techniques for handling hecklers you have written. ok fine, we hope more from you.
Liked your article but prefer a different approach. I love hecklers as they force the audience to pay attention especially if the heckler is witty.
The thing that stood out here for me was most people had rigid presentations (I hope not powerpoint) and any interference was upsetting their flow. I personally like delivering presentations that engage the audience from the start and often it is a heckler that gives them the permission they need to communicate.
The best tool is confidence for without that a clever or angry heckler will destroy your techniques. Confidence come through experience so face the fear and just do it. I fronted bands in Bars for twenty years which was a fantastic training ground for dealing with difficult people.