How To Handle A Heckler

It’s rare to get heckled when giving a lecture, yet it’s a top fear for many people. My own advice on dealing with hecklers is in the what to do when things go wrong chapter of Confessions of a Public Speaker.

In short:

  1. Acknowledge them briefly and politely. They want you to step down to their level. Don’t. But do recognize their existence. Everyone in the room knows what just happened and is waiting for you to frame what it means.
  2. Ask them to hold their comments to the end. You are under no obligation to respond to them now, if at all.
  3. Remember you have the microphone. You can always talk over them and they know this. You have more power over the room than anyone.
  4. The audience is on your side. They came to see you, not the heckler.

I’ve given hundreds of lectures and only been heckled a handful of times. It’s very rare. Unless you are speaking to a drunk crowd, the odds are incredibly slim that people will directly challenge you on stage.  Comedians however deal with them more often. Jerry Seinfeld has similar advice to mine but goes much further. Here’s an excerpt from his AMA interview:

Very early on in my career, I hit upon this idea of being the Heckle Therapist. So that when people would say something nasty, I would immediately become very sympathetic to them and try to help them with their problem and try to work out what was upsetting them, and try to be very understanding with their anger.

It opened up this whole fun avenue for me as a comedian, and no one had ever seen that before. Some of my comedian friends used to call me – what did they say? – that I would counsel the heckler instead of fighting them.

Instead of fighting them, I would say “You seem so upset, and I know that’s not what you wanted to have happen tonight. Let’s talk about your problem” and the audience would find it funny and it would really discombobulate the heckler too, because I wouldn’t go against them, I would take their side.

In all cases always remember it’s your show. The audience is with you. If you handle an outburst calmly and in stride, they will too.

2 Responses to “How To Handle A Heckler”

  1. Phil Simon

    Brilliant. I’ve seen Seinfeld do it live. Two years ago, I watched him at Caesar’s in Vegas. He completely disarmed the drunken lunatic.

    Sein said, “4,000 people paid to hear me talk, but go ahead. What’s bothering you?”

    • Scott

      From coaching people on speaking it seems the challenge of hecklers is about confidence. Until you’ve had a heckler or two, it’s hard to respond in the way you want to, as the shock of it rattles people, and they have the feeling, in the moment, that the talk has been ruined and there’s no way to recover. None of this is true of course, but it takes some practice to handle it. It is something you can practice though, and during coaching when people do dry runs, I’ll sometimes pretend I’m a heckler, just to get familiar with the experience.

      For most people who are not comedians the closest thing they’ll get to a heckler is someone yelling out a question, or challenging a fact, mid presentation. In a business environment it’s never going to go very far making it easier than a true heckler at a comedy show who’s persistent and probably drunk.


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