Responding to Hecklers

Responding to Hecklers

Not all audiences are as nurturing
as Toastmasters clubs.

 By Mary Ward Menke, ATMB


Consider the predicament comedian Michael Richards found himself in last year. The former Seinfeld star was performing his stand-up routine when a table of African-American and Hispanic customers jeered him, shouting, “You’re not funny!” Richards responded with a tirade of racial slurs, appalling the audience and abruptly bringing the performance to a close. A few days later, following much media scrutiny, Richards apologized, saying his comments were fueled not by racism but by anger at being heckled. Those involved refused to accept his apology, insisting that heckling is commonplace and that performers should be able to deal with it.

But it’s not just comedians who have to deal with hecklers. Most professional speakers have a story about a keynote address they delivered to a dinner crowd where they felt more like the main course than the entertainment.

What, exactly, is heckling and why do people do it? One definition of “heckle” is “to harass and try to disconcert with questions, challenges or gibes.” Michael R. Edelstein, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and author of Three Minute Therapy, defines it as “interrupting with derisive comments.” He says hecklers often act out emotions such as hostility, resentment or anger. Or they simply disagree with what the speaker is saying. They’re thinking, “I’m right, you’re wrong and you must see things my way.” Another reason is that they just want to show off and impress the audience.

Dr. Helen Friedman, a psychologist in St. Louis, Missouri, agrees: “Some people may just want to participate with the performer, to give them something to bounce off of and add humor to the show.”

Another contributing factor is the influence of alcohol. Some people become loud and uninhibited when they’re drinking and don’t realize they’re disruptive.

“And then,” Dr. Friedman says, “there’s always that one person in the audience who just doesn’t like you. These people sometimes take great pleasure in undermining the speaker.”

If most people agree that Michael Richards’ response of racial slurs left much to be desired, then what’s the right way to deal with hecklers? Edelstein suggests that speakers respond in a manner that is comfortable for them. He offers three suggestions:

  • Ignore the interruption and continue
  • Respond in kind (i.e., in the same manner as the heckler)
  • Use humor, such as good-natured joking

Scottish comedian Billy Connolly offers an example of how to combine responding in kind with humor. During a performance, a heckler kept interrupting the comedian. After a while Billy got fed up and stopped in the middle of the story he was telling and said, “Hey, you, stop telling me how to do my job. Do I come to your work and tell you how to do your sweeping up?” The audience roared with laughter and the heckler was silenced.

Tony Brent, “The Money Magician,” was performing in Orlando, Florida, a few years ago when a female patron became disruptive. “Early in the show, she decided she was the funniest person in the room,” Brent recalls. “Now, normally if a heckler is yelling stuff that is actually funny, I will roll with it and use their comments to get them on my side and still keep the show moving along. Stopping and having a conversation with a funny ­heckler can turn into a great thing if handled correctly,” Brent says. “My style is to begin asking questions to the heckler in a non-threatening tone as opposed to simply yelling insults back at them.”

In this particular case, though, the woman wasn’t funny. When she started cursing at him, Brent tried to quiet her down without making the situation worse. The woman stood up, “flashed” the audience and then stormed out of the room. “Fortunately, the rest of the audience could tell that she was out of control and they didn’t hold it against me,” Brent said. “Had I started insulting her at the beginning, the audience might have gravitated toward her side, not realizing the confrontation wasn’t my fault.”

Sometimes speakers are faced with an audience member who keeps asking questions. In many cases, the person isn’t trying to be disruptive; he or she may genuinely wish to understand what the speaker is saying. The speaker should try to answer the questions without taking too much time away from the rest of the audience. If appropriate, the speaker might suggest a meeting after the program or during a scheduled break.

Then there are those who disagree with the presenter’s point-of-view, especially if the topic is controversial. Friedman was once presenting such a topic and a woman in the audience kept raising her hand and refuting everything she said. At one point, the woman said, “I’ve read books that say...(the opposite of what Friedman was saying).” Friedman took the opportunity to lean into the lectern, smile and say, “I don’t know what kind of books you’re reading, but...” The audience laughed, the tension was broken and she was able to continue with her presentation.

Many seem to think that Michael Richards’ choice of response ruined his career. Friedman cautions that we shouldn’t be too quick to judge his behavior, saying, “He was probably trying to be more outrageous than the heckler, which you don’t want to do because it usually backfires.”

Does she think his career is over? “Hogwash,” says Friedman. “We all make mistakes.” Citing the inappropriate behavior of other celebrities that once grabbed media attention, she says, “This, too, will soon become yesterday’s news. Nothing lasts forever.”

Ultimately, confidence in your speaking skills and your knowledge of the material are crucial to maintaining control of your presentations. A speaker’s objective when faced with a disruptive individual or individuals, Friedman says, is “to be sympathetic and get the audience to bond with you, not with the heckler. You must be able to put the hecklers in their place without bashing them.”


Mary Ward Menke, ATMB, is a writer and editor in St. Louis, Missouri, and a member of South County Toastmasters.


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