In a two-week period when Rep. Joe Wilson heckled the President on live prime-time television, and singer Kanye West interrupted Taylor Swift's acceptance speech at an awards show, I'm not surprised that reader Karen Saverino wants to know more about "handling 'difficult' audience members. Hecklers are everywhere these days it seems!"
Heckling can happen in all sorts of speaker settings and it's good to think through how you'll respond, so you can seize and defuse the heckler's main weapon: surprise. And while you're unlikely to experience the kinds of high-visibility heckling seen in recent days, there are still lessons to learn from the experiences of President Obama and Taylor Swift:
- Let the heckler show you what to do. In the video above, Kanye West inadvertently shares a tip with you: When the heckler turns the stage back to you, take it and run with it. In answer to Jay Leno's question, "When did you know you were wrong...when did it strike you?", Kanye said "As soon as I gave the mic back to her and she didn't keep going..." Smooth answer for Kanye, good idea for Taylor Swift, who might have just said "And now back to our regular programming..." as a television-oriented and gentle joke, or even "As Kanye said, it's an honor for me to be among such talented nominees." In the same vein, if the heckler's rude, you get extremely polite; if angry, you stay calm and pleasant. Take your cues on the fly by paying attention to the heckler, not your distressed audience.
- Keep moving. Admittedly, when you're the President of the United States giving a prime-time talk to a joint session of Congress, this works fine--protocol's clearly on your side. But there are plenty of other formal situations any speaker might experience where protocol supports the "just keep going" theory of handling hecklers (think a major assembly, formal small-c congress of a membership organization, or another highly structured event, ceremony or graduation). It's a gamble that, by not missing a beat, you can marginalize the interruption. Advantage: You look calm and cool. Risk: The heckler will keep at it until acknowledged, requiring a shift in tactics. In this case, you're subtly relying on the combination of the formal setting and audience disapproval to keep things under control.
- Don't debate. Anticipate. You're not there for an unscheduled debate, so don't waste time arguing with or contradicting the heckler directly. Instead of taking the 'bate, so to speak, you'd do better to work the heckler into your remarks on the fly -- "Yes, indeed, tempers are high on this point. But I still believe..." or "That's exactly the kind of anger I'm talking about."
- At the same time, don't be afraid to disagree. Do it calmly and without a show of anxiety or anger, and, if you can, let the heckler say her piece. Then feel free to say, "I hear what you're saying, and I've heard it in many settings. But I disagree, because..." and restate your message. Then move on. (In Q&A sessions, you'll see a more polite version of this, from a pointed questioner who's challenging your central points. Listen, acknowledge the strong feeling, then feel free to disagree--it's a powerful way to underscore your message.)
Finally, if the situation allows for it, making an effort to let the audience talk and contribute might well eliminate the heckler's need to heckle.
Part of the trick here is to defuse the impact of the heckler without doing so in the same tone and manner that the heckler used. While the first impulse might be to argue with or mock the heckler, that just gets you caught up into the distraction. Thinking ahead of time about who might heckle and how, and some calm, controlled ways to respond, are the speaker's best course of action. Related posts: Graceful ways with Q&A