Dealing with the Heckler
To round out our series on presentation issues, (here and here) I thought I’d talk about a chestnut – the disruptive audience member. They may not be throwing rotten fruit at you but they are effectively doing the same thing – interrupting your flow and making the rest of the audience uncomfortable.
If you are not a veteran on the speaking circuit, these interruptions are very off-putting. Since you’ve spent your time preparing your presentation rather than how to respond to these audience cherubs, I thought I’d give you a heads up on how to cope.
Are they just not thinking?
First off you need to figure out if they are in fact trying to put you off, or if they are just not thinking at all (which is more likely). Are they trying to open a noisy bag of chips? Or are they the office clown, not deliberately out to put you off but that person who craves being the centre of attention.
Eyeball them, and then question them
Do you ignore them and hope they stop or do you keep plugging away at the presentation? It depends on the above? If they are just unthinking but paying attention to you (the noisy eater for example), give them a very pointed stare and see if that helps, if they are a real heckler though, hoping they will stop and eyeballing them most likely won’t work. Now it’s time to take it further. Without criticizing and without sarcasm (this will be tough) ask them if they have a question. If they do, ask them to stand up and introduce themselves and then ask the question. There is a risk in this approach you have given them the floor, but you may have called their bluff. By getting them to stand and say who they are, they are on show for everyone to see and it may quiet them down very quickly. On the other hand, they can say what they like. So it’s over to you to judge if this would work. However, if they have asked a question and it’s easy to answer, give a brief reply. If it is tough or you need to stall, say something like: “That is a question that needs some extra thought, I will finish the presentation and we can discuss at the end.”
Spare the rest of the audience
If the heckler is still giving you grief, make sure the rest of the room knows that you are trying to get back on track without letting the heckler take over. Saying something like: “We have a lot of information to cover, so any questions or comments can be saved till the end when I can give them my full attention.” The heckler wants to be heard and by giving them an opportunity to shine later on, it may appease them. Make sure you do in fact get back to them at the end, even if it’s the last thing that you want to do.
Stay above it
Depending on the tone of your presentation you can meet them with a joke, or you have to take the high ground. A joke would lessen the tension, but only in certain situations. You may just end up giving fuel to the heckler, so you will need to judge – based on their comments – if you think a joke would work or backfire. Even if you feel embarrassed and flustered you have to show the audience (and the heckler) that you can rise above it and you’re taking it in your stride.
If all else fails
If all else fails and they are just won’t give in, you can either ask them to leave, or challenge them to an arm wrestle at the end of the presentation.
Remember, if your presentation is solid and you’ve worked on your presentation … you have the ability to control your audience. Be confident and lead from the helm, you’ll be fantastic!