How to deal with heckling during a presentation or training

You’ve planned and prepared your presentation, or training workshop, in detail.

You’ve anticipated every eventuality. You arrive early, get set up and are no more than five minutes into your presentation when it happens – someone in your audience starts to throw out unsolicited comments.

These are the type of comments that aim to catch you out, to make you look bad. You’re being heckled. What do you do? How do you handle the heckler?

Eric Fitzpatrick from Toastmasters International has had to handle many hecklers in his career as a speaker and trainer, and he says that the good news is that there are many ways to handle Hecklers. The bad news is that there is no one way that will work every time.

Having a good feel for how the presentation is going will help you decide the best way to deal with the heckler. It’s also important to know which type of heckler you are dealing with.

According to Eric there are four types of hecklers:

1) The talker / know it all
This is the eager beaver, the show-off. They are well informed and want everyone to know it.

The way to handle this person is to thank them for their input, explain that the issue they have raised will be addressed later in the presentation or get the audience to comment on the issue that has been raised by the talker. Once the audience has had enough time (you choose the duration) you then take back control of the presentation and bring the content to where you want to be.

2) The Griper
This person has been sent to your presentation and doesn’t want to be there and they’re going to take it out on you. They might think they know as much as you and will air they views or will stop listening altogether.

The way to handle this person is to ask them to be specific when they offer their opinion. Ask them questions to illicit more information. If they have useful information, use it and include it as part of your presentation. Give them the credit. Make them feel important. Make sure you also restate the purpose of the presentation and the benefits to the attendees.

3) The Hassler
This person is insecure, aggressive and has a lack of interest in what you are presenting.

The way to handle this person is to ignore them initially but find some merit in what they are saying and throw it open to your audience for discussion or for them to correct what the hassler has said.

4) The Whisperer
This person either doesn’t understand your presentation, or is bored or is being deliberately mischievous.

The way to handle this person is stop talking so that the only sound the audience can hear is the whispering. Then using non verbal communication (looking directly at them) ask their permission to continue. The whisperer will stop talking because they don’t want to be the centre of attention.

There are a few other rules that can be applied when dealing with hecklers:

1. Do not shoot down a heckler the first time they interrupt your presentation. It’s vitally important that you have the audience on your side when you do. This means that you might have to let the heckler have their say three or four times before you handle them.

2. If you get asked antagonistic questions, throw them back to the audience for discussion. Getting the audience to answer the question does two things: first it allows the audience to throw out answers (and they might give the answer you are looking for) and second, it gives you time to think so that you can come up with the answer you need.

3. Find a way to have a quiet word with the heckler. This could mean asking your audience to carry out a group activity and calling the heckler to one side during this activity to ask them to quit their heckling.
4. If all else fails (and you are 100% certain you have the audience on your side) ask the heckler to leave your presentation. Explain that they are spoiling it for everyone else and that you and your audience are not prepared to accept their behaviour anymore.

“As a trainer I have had cause to use these techniques on more than one occasion and they have always served me well. Dealing with hecklers is just another eventuality that a presenter must prepare for. A presenter who knows how to handle hecklers will be perceived as a confident professional – and these techniques will help you.” says Eric.