Speak for Yourself

Claire Duffy's blog about public speaking and communication (in real life). Speak well, do well!

How to handle hecklers and interrupters

arguing panellistWhen I ask trainees to voice their concerns, the top one is ‘nerves’. Their next worry is dealing with a difficult person, especially  someone who interrupts, is overpowering or confrontational.

In some  speaking formats, interruptions  are part of the deal. If you’re an elected official or you are involved in public meetings, you’d better expect to be heckled and shouted at. But if you are an interviewer, a presenter, an MC, or even a making a speech at a well soaked dinner, the unwanted interruption is still something you’re likely to face – and frustratingly, you won’t know when.

It is a problem, it disrupts your control over the room and your train of thought, and in cases where you’re prone to stage fright, the ‘break’ that an interrupter creates can be enough to trigger your nerves.

The most normal kind of interruption comes when you are  in some kind of official ‘controller’ capacity, as a discussion leader,  facilitator or panel moderator, and a speaker talks over you, or over another panellist. These interruptions, while often in the pursuit of a good point or a worthwhile discussion, shift the balance of power, and put the interrupter in charge. You need to get that role back. Depending where you are it can be tricky – the social dynamic  may need to be carefully navigated.

Here are four tips:

First: the most important thing is to not reward interrupting. Audiences and panellists  learn very quickly when something works. If you allow one interruption you’ve established a precedent that will be hard to break. So don’t let even one get  through.

If somebody speaks over you, keep talking. It can feel uncomfortable – you were taught not not do this at your mother’s knee, but though it will seem you’ve both been in a cacophony for minutes – in reality it’ll be a few seconds, the crowd will barely notice, and it will ultimately make the panellist seem ruder than you.

If this is too uncomfortable for you, you can repeat their name like you’re trying to get their attention – when they  breathe or break rhythm, use that pause to cut in and say something like “we’ll have to move on now” or “we’re out of time for that issue.”

When you’ve got them to finish, turn away and ask someone else for input –  by name. Ostracising the interrupter,  using body language to exclude them, and avoiding eye contact for a few minutes should shut them down.

Second: Say something  directly about what’s going on, in order to regain control. A strong response is critical to maintaining your position and authority. A few video examples to illustrate:

Watch Britain’s Minister for Justice seem to cave in by sitting down while the Speaker deals formally with the public nuisance.

Contrast George Bush  who remains calm and unconcerned in the Australian Parliament while the Speaker throws the interjecting Senator out. Bush takes over with a wry remark.

Sarah Palin isn’t known for her oratory but watch her retort to this heckle. It’s swift, concise, and relevant. It gets the crowd back on side and returns the ball to her.

Third:  if all this fails and the interrupter is still at it, don’t let your event go down the gurgler, remove them. Ask for security or an event manager to take care of the problem for you.

Fourth and finally, don’t dwell on it. Take a deep long breath and remember that you were – and are – the one in control. Don’t make more than one reference to the incident, and within sixty seconds it will be as though it never occurred. It may take you much longer to feel totally recovered, but don’t let the audience see.

If this is all too civil for you, watch it done (with four letter word) by Ricky Gervais.

My thanks to EGS for help on this post.




2 comments on “How to handle hecklers and interrupters

  1. Pingback: Public Speaking Tips and Techniques #97

  2. Pingback: Public Speaking Tips: Weekend Review #97 - Galaxy-Speakers | Galaxy-Speakers

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