It’s a nervous speaker’s worse nightmare. You’ve hardly begun your presentation when that difficult person interrupts with a pointed question. Or you’re running a Q and A session and the heckler uses the opportunity to deliver a long-winded diatribe. How do you control the situation?

Luckily, there are plenty of steps you can take to keep your session on track – and even some you can use to prevent the heckler getting started in the first place. Here are four of my favourite techniques for dealing with difficult people in your audience.

1. Set the rules of engagement up-front

This is a pre-emptive strategy which lets you brush aside attempts to interrupt you. Start you presentation by outlining how long you will speak and when you will be taking questions. Then if someone interrupts you, politely ask them to hold their questions until the designated Q and A session.

2. Frame the boundaries of your Q and A sessions

Boundaries are limits. When you are speaking to a potentially hostile audience, you can use boundary setting techniques to communicate which types of questions or comments you are willing to take. For example, you can use the following statements to set clear boundaries before inviting audience questions:

We want to give as many people an opportunity to ask questions today as we can. So I am going to limit my answer to each question to around two minutes.

During the Q and A session I need to stick to issues which are relevant to a broad audience. So I will not be able to answer any questions about personal situations today.

We now have ten minutes to answer any questions you might have about… and…

Are there any topics we’ve covered today which you would like to ask questions about?

I can take around five questions in the time we have allocated.

3. Politely interrupt grandstanders

Some attention-seeking people will use your request for questions as an opportunity to deliver rambling dissertations. Remember that you are in charge of the dynamics of this situation. Your audience will appreciate you cutting ramblers off quickly.

Hold up your hand and interrupt, saying something like ‘Can I ask what your question is?’ Another useful statement to use in this situation is ‘We have several people wanting to ask questions, so I need to interrupt you now. What is your question?’

Project confidence

4. Refuse to take the heckler’s bait

Some hecklers will try to bait you into an argument, by making contentious statements or critical remarks. But you don’t have to be hooked into playing their game. Instead, politely acknowledge that they have different perspective to you. Then move on to a new topic. Here are some useful phrases to use when handling baiting comments.

That’s an interesting perspective, which we don’t have time to pursue right now.

That’s not an argument I’d want to defend myself.

Your comment reflects an interest in… which unfortunately is not a topic we have time to explore today.