How to handle a heckler in a presentation

Hecklers suck!

Trolls are to the Internet as hecklers are to speeches. However, hecklers are a special breed. Internet trolls hide behind the protection anonymity offers. Hecklers shout, “Hey, look at me. I’m a giant ass!” in a room full of people. They’ve got an opinion and more importantly, they aim for attention whore status.

The good news is that hecklers are a rare breed. Most people aren’t willing to be jerks in a group of people – in fact most people are terrified of even asking a question during Q&A. Even though trolls are rare. my fabulous coaching clients ask, “How do you take take down a heckler?”

Here are my 3 easy steps to handle the rare but pesky heckler.

Step 1: Heckler discernment

There’s a huge difference between a tough question or comment and a heckler.

The tough questioner is thoughtful, respectful, and backs up his/her question with logic, reasoning and even evidence. They respectfully disagree, but their end goal is to have a great discussion. An answer to this may strengthen your ideas.

A heckler is hell-bent on making it personal. If he’s ranting about how your presentation sucks, you have no new ideas and are generally insulting you, your work and your intelligence, yep, that’s a heckler.

You’re dealing with the ad-hominem king or queen. It’s time to shut that crap down.

Step 2: You have the power

You have the microphone. You are on the stage. Take control of the conversation.

Let’s face it, heckler Joe may be on a roll. Just let him rant, and at the first sign of a breath, jump in. Ask “Do you have a question?” This typically takes them back. They’ll stumble, mumble, “No, I’m finished now” and sit back down. If they do ask a smart-ass question like, “Why do you suck so much?” Answer back with “Why do you suck at asking meaningful questions?” You’ll get a laugh from the audience. When the center of the universe realizes that the audience is laughing at him not with him, he’ll shut up.

On occasion, this disarms the heckler. The rant becomes an honest question. The dialogue shifts. The person feels heard and understood. The tenor of the Q&A changes.

Step 3: Empower the audience

What if step 2 didn’t work? It’s time to use your secret weapon – the audience. They came to hear you speak. Not some joker who didn’t get enough attention from mommy growing up. If they wanted to hear a heckler, they’d go to a comedy club.

Simply ask the audience if they want to hear more from your heckler. An awkward silence usually follows where you can hear the clock ticking loudly in the background. Some brave soul might shout out “Sit down!”

Social proof is powerful. When the audience doesn’t want to hear more – the heckler gets embarrassed and slinks off.

Don’t let the heckler shake you. It’s time to turn your focus back to your presentation and creating great value for your audience.

I’ve never been heckled during a presentation. I’ve witnessed it though. It’s as awkward for the audience as it is for the presenter. Remember, as the speaker, YOU have the power. Use it and handling a heckler is a snap.