Manner of Speaking: How to Handle a Heckler
When someone tries to ruin your performance,
react with composure and quick wits.
By Frank King and Jan McInnis
So you want to speak in front of millions of people...but for crying out loud, you don’t want them to speak back to you! Being heckled, or treated rudely by audience members, is a top fear of any comedian or speaker. What if they say something I can’t handle? What if they take center stage away from me? What if they make me look foolish? So many worries. And rightfully so, when many speakers can still remember that video of actor Michael Richards (Kramer from the U.S. TV show Seinfeld) at a Los Angeles comedy club attempting to handle a heckler – but instead, having a meltdown and torching his career. And by “meltdown” we mean Richards went from telling jokes to using racial epithets faster than you can say “self-destruct.” It went sort of like this: set up, HECKLE, punch line, HECKLE...XXXXX?#$%@&^%$.
The good news is you probably won’t ever have anyone heckling you the way Richards did. But if you ever speak outside of the supportive environment of a Toastmasters club, you can count on some “interruptions” in your perfectly practiced program. Jan and I both do corporate comedy and we’ve certainly experienced our share. Someone will push a 6-foot-high, cascading chocolate-fondue fountain into the room during your speech (happened to Jan), or the company president’s table will be the loudest table in the room (happened to both of us). If you lose your cool, you lose. Here’s how to win.
First off, when something happens that isn’t in your “script,” don’t respond with what amounts to a comedic nuclear strike...namely, by exploding on the audience. You do have to acknowledge the unexpected, otherwise you’ll lose half the group to wondering, “Does she know that an elephant just walked into the room?” But you can do it tactfully.
Whether you need to quiet down a group, or respond to an outright heckle, start with gentle ribbing and escalate only as necessary. For example, Jay Leno has a favorite, gentle line he uses with hecklers: “I’m sorry, sir, but we couldn’t afford a microphone for everybody.” If the heckler persists, ratchet it up a notch. “Hey, do I come down to McDonald’s and knock the French fries out of your hand when you’re trying to make a living?” And if he keeps going, hit him harder. “Sir, have you ever seen an idiot wrapped in plastic? Well, pull out your driver’s license.” And so forth.
Develop your own strategies and “lines” in advance. A couple of techniques for handling difficult interruptions include:
• Stop talking. When the loud talkers realize they’re the only ones talking, they’ll (usually) shut up.
• Make a connection between the person and her profession. When we’re scheduled to do a corporate performance, Jan and I always research the group in advance, which is a life-saver. Last year Jan had to stop a show in front of 2,000 nurses in order to get a woman to stop videotaping her; when Jan did so, there was dead silence. Luckily, Jan had done her homework and knew there was tension between doctors and nurses. She looked at the crowd and quipped, “I don’t know how you discipline a nurse. Call her bad names, like doctor?” It got a huge laugh and the audience moved on. Had Jan lost her temper, it would’ve been a long 60 minutes.
So use what you know about the audience. If, for example, you’re speaking to lawyers and you know that lawyers bill in 12-minute increments, then when you’re interrupted, you can say something like, “Thanks, sir, let me finish this thought and in 12 minutes I’ll work on your case.”
• If a person shouts something, thank that person and deem him or her your “speech writer,” “comedy helper” or some other funny designation. During a joke in which Jan made fun of a particular company, a woman shouted at her, “Hey, that’s true, I know people at that company.” Jan called the woman her “research assistant.” It got a good laugh and she moved on.
• Hand over the microphone. We’ve both had to deal with people who insist on talking on their cell phone during our presentations. Just walk up behind them, lean over and listen to their call. The group will laugh, and the person usually gets the message.
• Get their attention/have some fun. Jan once had to perform at a corporate show where the sound was bad (even after the sound check sounded fine), and a group of loud, drunken men were in the back having their own discussion. They didn’t care if she stopped talking – it seemed they preferred it – and Jan really didn’t want to give them more attention by talking to them. It got so bad, she just wanted to quit. But instead she decided to have some fun. What did she have to lose? So she dragged a chair to the middle of the room, where the sound was better, and delivered her act there. Being right in the middle of the audience got everyone’s attention, and she finished strong. The meeting planner couldn’t complain that Jan hadn’t tried everything to get the audience on her side.
Which brings us to another point: Handling hecklers is an exercise in group dynamics and you must get the audience on your side. At the beginning of the show, it’s you (the speaker) and them (the audience). And when a heckler fires his first round, he’s still one of them. If the situation is handled properly, then by the last round with the heckler, it’s us (you and the audience) against the heckler.
Playing Right Into Your Hands
It should be said that people who loudly interrupt you can sometimes give a boost to your performance. Frank was working on a cruise boat, halfway between San Diego and Hawaii, and during a question-and-answer period, a darling little old lady yelled out, “Are you going with us all the way to Hawaii?” Frank did a slow take, turning and looking out the window at nothing but water for as far as the eye could see, did a slow turn back and said to the old gal, “Lord, I hope so.” It killed.
At which point an experienced comic knows the best thing to do is end on a high note. Pointing at the woman, Frank said, “Thank you very much; that’s my time.”
Frank also did something else. He noticed that the woman had realized what a silly question it was, and was so embarrassed that she had her hands over her face. So he rushed over and gave her a hug, and while still having his arm around her shoulders, turned to the crowd, pointed at the woman and said, “Another round of applause for my assistant.” If you have had some fun with someone, try to acknowledge them when you’re done, so they feel good about the interaction.
And, of course, one last note: If you don’t have the chops to handle a heckler, don’t. Just keep going. Stand and deliver. We’ve both done shows (especially in the beginning of our careers) where we were the only person paying attention. Frank’s buddy Steve Kelley was once doing standup, opening for a headbanger band called Bad English, and all through the opening minutes of Steve’s set the audience was chanting, “Bad English! Bad English! Bad English!”
After several minutes of that, Steve made the call to give up the money. He stopped talking, which actually got their attention and shut them up for a moment. At which point he said, “Bad English? Okay, you win: ‘Ain’t.’” Exit stage left, with his self-respect intact.
Those of us who make our living in the speaking business realize that a live speech is, well, live. Which means you can’t control all the variables ahead of time or do a re-take. You have to go with the flow and handle things as they happen. Responding quickly and appropriately are the keys to your success.
Frank King is a Certified Speaking Professional with the National Speakers Association (NSA) who has been performing corporate comedy for 22 years full time. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jan McInnis is a corporate come- dian and comedy writer. Her jokes have been featured on The Tonight Show. Reach her at Jan@TheWorkLady.com.
If You Lose Your Cool, You Lose
Here’s how to win:
- Know your purpose. Back when we worked comedy clubs, our purpose was to put the heckler down at any expense so that we were the funniest people in the room. But at corporate events, that annoying person shouting something could just be the CEO. You don’t necessarily want to chastise him. . . just quiet him down so others can listen. Tailor your comebacks accordingly.
- Respond only if everyone in the audience heard the heckler. Many times it’s just one annoying person sitting at the foot of the stage making comments to you. If you start even gentle ribbing, you’ll come across as the bad guy.
- Go after someone in his group. Use peer pressure by focusing attention to someone in his group, for example, his wife. The wife, who does not want to be in the spotlight, will get him to shut up. Don’t be mean (see below)...just give the person some unwanted attention (“Hey, are you really married to this guy?” “What made you want to date this guy? His non-stop talking?”).
- Don’t try to be funny, witty, or get the best of him. That’s where most speakers and comics mess up because they’re trying to come up with something on the spot that’s hilarious. Instead look at him/her and make a statement about what comes to mind. Is he wearing a weird shirt? Does she have a bad hairdo? Is there a 12-pack of empty beer cans on the table? Then make a quick connection... “I can’t see you to respond because your orange shirt is blinding me”...Just pointing stuff out will make it funny.
- Don’t lose your temper. It is very hard to get back to your speech when you’re the one who melted down. Don’t take it personally; just handle it and move on.
- Don’t be afraid. Fear fuels hecklers. Instead pretend it’s a conversation with your friends.
- Be extra careful of women hecklers. There is a double standard. People have to be really, really annoyed with the woman before you can even start gentle ribbing.
- Have a “safe” word. If you really think you’ll get heckled, then pick a word ahead of time that signals the meeting planner that you’re done with this person and the meeting planner must intervene immediately. Many moons ago, the standard was for the comic in the club to order a “gin & tonic” and the heckler would then go bye-bye.
- If all else fails, stop the speech, alert the meeting planner that you will not continue until the heckler is either quiet or gone. If nothing is done, take your self-respect and boogie.