By nature, presenters take a vulnerable position in front of a crowd. They share information, express opinions and hope audience members approve. Common etiquette calls for the audience to sit quietly or offer support through applause and laughter, but that doesn’t always happen. A heckler in the crowd can ruin the whole experience.
No one is immune to rude interruptions. Even though heckling during formal statements in the Rose Garden is highly unusual, President Obama found himself under fire while announcing his administration’s decision to stop deporting illegal immigrants who came to the US as children. In the middle of Obama’s statement, Neil Munro from the Daily Caller shouted a question asking why Obama favored foreign workers over Americans. A rattled Obama held up his hand and responded “It’s not time for questions. Not while I’m speaking.” Munro continued to interrupt. Obama later reprimanded Munro by telling him that next time he needs to wait to ask questions until the formal statement is complete.
When you find yourself in the awkward situation of being heckled, the first priority is to manage your emotions so you can handle the heckler with dignity. No doubt being interrupted will make you angry and want to say something to make the person shut up, but bite your tongue and try to keep your cool. Role playing prior to the event may help you fight natural reactions and remain calm.
Practice the following levels of interruption to prepare yourself for differing decrees of heckling:
- Level one: Someone shouts a comment or question at you during your speech. Allow the heckler to continue on a bit because interrupting the interruption will only make the person pipe up again. Ignore the comment and continue on with your speech.
- Level two: The heckler yells something else to grab your attention. Respond with a short phrase such as “Got it” to calm things down and stop the interruption. You can also add a “shhhhh” and gesture with your index finger held to your lips. Continue with your speech.
- Level three: The heckler continues to badger you. Now you need to respond to the comments so the person will stop. Make your response brief and, most importantly, look away from the heckler to address a different part of the audience. This gesture breaks the conversation, so after your response you can continue on with your speech.
- Level four: The heckler does not stop interrupting. Try to shame the offender by saying “You’ve made a number of points. I’m finding it difficult to proceed with my presentation. Please hold your comments until the end.” Again look away from the offender and continue with your presentation.
- Level five: The persistent heckler wants more attention and keeps interrupting. Now it’s time for you to turn the audience against the offender. Ask the crowd whether they want you to continue or they want to hear more from the heckler. Most audiences are fed up at this point and clearly choose you. The heckler has no choice but to stop. On the rare occasion when the crowd picks the heckler over you, leave the stage graciously.
When have you experienced heckling and what did you do about it?
[Image Source: Rotten Tomatoes]