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Jun 03

Pulblic Speaking: Hecklers

This may seem a bit incongruous to the public speaking arena and more associated with comedy clubs, but it does happen. But even in the comedy club market heckling doesn’t happen as often as some people think that it does. So in the corporate environment I’d have to say that it happens even less than that. Although in after dinner situations where alchohol is involved some audience members want to “join in”.

The are different reasons why people heckle.
More often than not alcohol is involved. Sometimes an audience member feels that they can do a better job than the person they’re listening to. Where that logic comes from I don’t know.

I saw a speaker once doggedly go through a 20 minute speech whilst the whole time he was being ruthlessly heckled. He had failed to find a subject that connected with the audience. As a result he lost them half-way through and the audience lost interest. One took hold and the speaker ignored him.

Then another took hold and the speaker ignored her too. Then the hecklers began to argue with each other. By this point we were post dinner and the audience had consumed a lot of alcohol. All they wanted was to be entertained and not lectured.

Whilst this is a rare occurance, as you can see, it does happen. Initially ignoring a heckler can be a good move. Generally you are starving them of the attention that they desire and sometimes they stop. But what can happen with this approach is that sometimes they think you haven’t heard them, so repeat themselves. Or they think that you are scarred and cannot deal with them.

That’s the point where you must respond. You don’t have to come down on them like a tonne of bricks. Acknowledge their existence. Thank them for their contribution and move on. What you can do is repeat the heckle back to the heckler so that everyone knows what has been said.

This is important because sometimes the whole audience might not have heard the heckle, so you let them know what was said. Otherwise it could come across like you’re just berating a member of the audience and, therefore, you’ll seem confrontational and you risk two things:

1) the audience ignoring you
2) the audience turning on you, with another heckler joining in in defence.

Another reason to repeat the heckle back is that it provides you a bit of thinking time to come up with a response. Then the heckle becomes a set-up line for your punchline. Your punchline simply being your gut response to what has just been said to you.

Try to remain professional and have a sense of decorum. You have to be careful in a business environment because obviously there are still some words that you can and cannot say.

I asked my comedy colleague, comedian Steve Roye for his thoughts on dealing with a heckler:

“If someone heckles me, the very first thing I do is I stop and look at them. As a matter of fact, I will step in their direction on the stage. Why? I want the heckler (and the audience too) to know that they have gotten my attention. I am NEVER in a hurry to address a heckler”.

This is important because you are the speaker so you are in the position of power. From there it’s best to start gently becuase with any luck they should stop. Suffice it to say you do need to deal with a heckler quickly and professionally.

For a great resource for creating humorous material and dealing with hecklers check out Steve’s Fast Start Guide.

There’s also a product out now that can help you to verbally eat hecklers alive.

Note: There are affiliate links on this page which means that if you purchase the product through my link I will get paid a commission. This is how I help pay the bills. If you’re happy with that please go ahead and use my link to make your purchase.

1 comment

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  1. Nick R Thomas

    Hi Jason,

    Interesting post. Unless a speaker is at some sort of political function, I have to say that heckling is much rarer – and much more good-natured – at dinners, say, than in comedy clubs where it is almost expected as part of the evening’s ‘entertainment’!

    You can avoid certain types of function or audiences that are well known for being rowdy anyway (for example, specific occupations, in particular those where little or no educational qualifications are needed to get in, or any where people have to keep their feelings bottled up all year with the public or their superiors and then all hell may break loose with the speaker!)

    Whereas a good improvisational comedian may throw away their prepared material altogether and make use of the heckler, I have noticed with speakers (and comedy performers in folk clubs, too) that unless heckling is really destructive, the usual practice is to plough on through and simply ignore it! Speakers generally have set material to get through and cannot be diverted too much.

    We should bear in mind also that unlike comedy gigs where punters come in off the street, audiences for speakers very often know each other. The mildest rebuke (however much deserved) against one of their own may suddenly turn the whole room against you.

    I find that I get good-natured banter and joining in. Anything else is extremely rare and I ignore it.

    There are still many people who subscribe to the old belief that heckling a guest speaker is the height of bad manners.

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