You might not have someone jeering and poking fun at you during a presentation, but you better be prepared when someone challenges your authority or asks you a question with the intent to derail you.
In today's podcast, learn "How to Deal with a Heckler."
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In a world where everything is competing for our attention, it can be next to impossible to get, much less keep, an audience engaged in what you're saying. Welcome to Soundcheck. The podcast that gives you practical tools to help you command the room, whether you're speaking to groups of 10 or 10,000. This is the podcast for speakers by a speaker. Now your host, Sari de la Motte.
Hey everybody! Welcome to another episode of Soundcheck, and today we're going to be talking about 'how to deal with a heckler'. Hopefully, you are not dealing with people in your lives or giving presentations or speaking where there are tons of hecklers, heckling you. But, I believe that every speaker must have some tools in their back pocket, so that they're never caught off guard, should this happen.
So let's talk about what I mean by a "heckler". So this is someone who hopefully, isn't heckling you like, if you're a comedian up on stage and making fun what you're saying or trying to get your goat. But what this is, is someone who, in the middle of your presentation or otherwise, even in the question and answer part, challenges you in front of the audience. I think it's really important that you know that this can happen. And that you know how to deal with it should it happen. Because, you never want to get caught off guard in front of your audience. In fact, you've probably heard me say this before, 'the number one thing that an audience wants from its speaker, is to know that you've got this'.So that includes, not just having confidence as a speaker, but having confidence in how to deal with a heckler.
So I'm going to start with a story of my own, and if you've followed me for years, you've probably heard me tell this story many times before because it's just legendary. But I think it's the first time that I've actually talked about it on a podcast, and it's just a great example of how to deal with a heckler. So, I was asked to deliver one of my signature courses called, "Don't Shoot the Messenger" it's all about how do you deliver negative information and basically, not get shot by the person you're giving the message too? So we have a lot of nonverbal things that we teach in this seminar. Where to sit and what to look at and what to have in front of you. And I was doing this at a law firm, this is even before I was doing a lot of work with trial attorneys, I was still in corporate training. But I had been asked to do this training at a big law firm up in Seattle.
So, what this training was is that this law firm brought in a bunch of the top people, there was 13 people for training, they do this a couple times a year. From all over the offices around the United States. And so, these people, most of them had been working for this law firm, I would say 20 plus years. And they all knew each other quite well. And so, when I arrived the Human Resources Director she says to me, "I have to warn you about our COO." And I thought, "Uh oh." Anytime someone needs someone else running ahead, of them warning people about them, we know we don't have a great communicator. But I listened and I said, "Okay, tell me what's up?" And she said, "Well, he is a loud mouth. He will just ... He's a live cannon. He will just shoot off his mouth at anytime and I just want you to be prepared for that."
Now note that, this is normally not a warning that you will get. So I was very lucky to have this information ahead of time. Later in the podcast, I'll show you some ways of how you can know that this might be coming. But, I have this great information ahead of time so at least I had that, so I wasn't caught off guard, I wasn't surprised. And so, as I set up the training, I thanked her and I started plugging in my laptop and getting everything ready and here these ... There was about 12 people in the room at this point. They were all saying "hello" and giving hugs and getting their morning pastries and getting ready for this kind of fun event that they do twice a year, bring in different speakers. And here this man comes in to the doorway and he shouts and says, "How many times did I tell you to shut this door? We can hear you all the way down the hall!" And I thought, "Well there he is." The entire group just got super quiet. And I thought, "Ah, he has made himself known."
Well here we are, middle of the training, it's a three hour training, I'm about an hour in, hour and a half in. And as I said, there are 12 people with him it made 13. So, everyone is working in pairs, he's refused to participate. He's sitting in there with his arms crossed kind of, watching the whole training very smugly. And I get to the part in the program, or in the seminar, where I talk about how you want to put the negative information, whenever possible, on a visual and then use that visual as the bad guy. Using particular nonverbals there's a way to do it, so that when the person becomes upset, they direct it toward the visual and so that you remain clean. You are the person that is offering a solution as you both kind of look at this third thing, which is the problem. In fact, a lot of this work in "Don't Shoot the Messenger" comes from Ury & Fisher and a lot of their, Getting to 'Yes' and Negotiation Techniques.It's very standard stuff in other words.
And so I'm in the middle of talking about this particular skill and the COO says, without raising his hand of course, he just kinds of barks it out and he says, "If anyone were to give me information like that, I would think they were a coward". So, that is the kind of heckling that I'm talking about. That's what I want to help you be able to handle. You may not have someone who, in such a small group, confronts you in such a huge way. But, you definitely will if you do enough speaking, from time-to-time, have someone in the audience who's going to challenge you on your information or even you yourself, and you should have some ways to handle that.
So what I'm going to show you to do, and I know I'm going to have to finish my story. I've got you on the edge of your seat. But let me share you with this first is, talk to you about what I call, "Power Nonverbals". Now, power nonverbals are basically, our authoritative nonverbals on steroids. Now, I know I haven't talked about authoritative nonverbals yet, so let me tell you what those are real quick. Authoritative nonverbals are when you have the weight over both feet. If you're gesturing, the palms are facing down. The head is very still and it doesn't nod or tilt. And the voice, as you can hear my voice right now, curls down at the ends of statements. So, power nonverbals are basically, authoritative nonverbals on steroids. In that, you will still be standing with weight over both feet. You will have those palms facing down, and your voice will curl down. But in addition, you're going to do a couple of things. One, you're going to tip the chin down, but keep the eyes focused on the person. So this should bring your eyes high up in the eye sockets. You're going to slow the voice down. Just like I did right now. So you start to speak slower. You're going to use a quieter voice, so you're going to bring it down kinda like I'm doing right now. And you're going to breathe like you have never breathed before.
Now, a caveat. You don't always need to use power nonverbals when you're dealing with a heckler. In this case, the person I was dealing with was a bully. Now, how did I know that he was a bully? Outside of the fact that, he was loud and rude and interrupted me. Those things by the way, are all things that I noticed and in fact, this is where a lot of speakers tend to go and go off the rails because we tend to think whatever we feel, whatever we're noticing as the speaker, that's how things are. But I want to caution you, and I'm going to do a podcast on this coming up in the next month or so. I want to caution you because, it's never about what you think reality is. It's about what your audience thinks reality is. So I don't get to decide in other words, if this guy is a bully or not. The group gets to decide whether he's a bully or not. And I just, as a speaker, need to read what the group is telling me.
Now, the reason I knew this guy was a bully is because, when he came in the door at the beginning before I'd even started, and he said. "Hey! It's really loud in here, shut the door." Everyone looked down. That's your first indication that the person is a bully. Now, if they had done something different. If the group had rolled their eyes and kinda chuckled under their breath and all kinda made knowing glances to each other. I would have known that this guy wasn't a bully, he was more of an outlier. Meaning the group doesn't take him seriously, so there's nothing that I really need to take into consideration. I can really deal with him however I want to deal with because, the group gives me permission to do that. But because they looked down ... And secondly, they stopped breathing, they all held their breath. That told me this guy was a bully, and that they did not feel safe.
So, my first thing is, I've got to gain control of the situation to keep the group safe. Now I know that this is a huge consideration for you speakers in that, we tend to think, "If I handle this guy the way I want to handle him, then, the group may see me in a certain way or I may look like I'm being too aggressive or not aggressive enough" or whatever it may be. Just always remember that the group is what determines, or they should determine, how you handle your heckler. So in this case, because the group was unsafe, I had permission to create safety in the room by shutting the bully down. And that's when you want to use your power nonverbals.
So, back to my story. When he said, "If anyone were to give me information like that, I would think they were a coward." I stood up real tall and straight, I got in an authoritative stance. I tipped my chin down and looking directly at him, I slowed my voice down and I said very softly. "That's because you love to argue." And then I just let it hang. Now in that moment, it was a very important moment because, everybody kinda sucked in their breath like, “Oh holy hell, what is going to happen now? This guy is going to explode,” that's what they're thinking. But what happened next was kind of amazing, because what he did next just surprised the entire group. He looked straight back at me and he says, "That is so true! I love to argue. I can't believe you figured that out about me!" And he kind of laughed, you know? Kinda elbowed the person next to him and the person next to him was like “hahhaa” kinda of nervous laugh like, oh my God! I can't believe I didn't explode.
So, let's kinda deconstruct that for a moment. The reason why that worked is because, number one ... I mean, number one: I was not attached. Now what do I mean by 'attached'? I mean that, I wasn't personally offended when he heckled me. I mean, how could I be? The HR Director said when I arrived, that this guy was like this with everyone. It literally could not be personal, this is just how he was. But notice how if I thought this was personal, if I got offended, if I started to hold my breath up in my chest. Notice how that changes my tone, now I'm snarky and rude and if I would have said to him, "Well that's because you love to argue!" Boy! Now a fight would have been on. So I cannot emphasize enough, how much the breathing and how much the non-attachment has to be present before you use any kind of power nonverbals in any situation of your life. Because, what you're communicating when you use the power nonverbals with the low breathing and the non-attachment is, this is how things are. Not, this is your problem, I'm offended. This is, you know, let's get it on.
That's what you're saying. You're just saying, "This is how it is" at least from my viewpoint. You are not attached. It's almost like you put it out there and if the other person chooses to pick it up, that's their choice. In fact, when we talk about leadership and when I talk about power and leadership I always say that, "Leaders will use power if they need too. But not if they don't have too.” Meaning, they're willing to go there but, they're not going to use power just to use power. In this situation, I didn't use power because I was personally offended. I used power because the guy required, his behavior required that I go there. Meaning, he was the one that made the choice for me and I had those tools in my back pocket. It wasn't like, “Hey I'm going to like rain power down on this guy's head because, he's so annoying and he's embarrassed me.” Totally different things.
You think about attachment and non-attachment this way. In that, when I'm asking you to not to be attached, I'm not asking not to care. I'm not saying, you shouldn't feel embarrassed or offended, maybe you do feel those things. But what I am suggesting is that you not act from that place. That, when you are embarrassed or offended, that you put that aside and you deal with the matter at hand from a place of non-attachment. Which says, "This isn't personal. This isn't about me, I have my audience to think about. This guy is one guy, he does not represent the group. And therefore, I'm going to do what the group is telling me that they need.”
Now, there are other cases for example, where you don't have to shut down the person, right? So, what you can do in those situations is always watch the group.So for example, I had someone come into my office once and they said, "I need some help, this is what I want to coach on today. I run these meetings and the problem that I'm having is that my boss continually takes over the meeting. And so, I need to learn how to get it back." And I said, "Well, I can teach you how to learn how to get it back. But, the first question for me to answer is, what does the group think?" And she said, "Well what does that have to do with anything?" And I said, "Well, if you're boss takes over the meeting and he or she is saying something that the group is really jiving on and you try to get it back, now you lose permission with the group. Meaning you have less receptivity with the group. But, if the boss takes over the meeting and the group is annoyed with the boss, and you don't try to get it back. The group is also annoyed with you, and you lose permission. So it's always about what does the group want? And they'll tell you.” So for example, if you have that person ... This is really what we should have started with is, how to know if you have a heckler or not. Basically, anyone who challenges you is not a heckler, necessarily. Meaning, they may be the voice of the group. So for example if someone raises their hand and they say, "Blah, blah, blah." And they challenge you on some of your content, instead of focusing all of your attention on that particular person, look at the group. What is the group doing? If the group is rolling their eyes and going, “Gahh! This is so stupid this person taking up our time. We love the speaker.” Right? That kind of thing. They're breathing fine. Then you have the group's permission to shut the person down. You don't necessarily need to use power nonverbals like I did. If the person's not a bully, you don't need power nonverbals.
All you need to do is say, "You know what? See me after. That's a great conversation, I'd love to talk to you about that afterwards." You don't have to answer it in front of the group. Now notice how you have to use that authoritative voice pattern you can't say, "You know what? That's a great question. So, why don't you come and see me?" That's called the "Approachable Voice Pattern" and that's not communicating the message that you want to send. You want to use the authoritative voice pattern that says, "Don't do this again." You're doing it again with good breathing but you're saying. "Great question. Let's talk about that after the break." Curl that voice down.
Now, if the person asks the question and you see that the group members are breathing fine and they turn and they look at the person. That's a question they want you to answer. Even if you personally, think that answer is stupid or that question is stupid and you don't want to answer it. You have too, because the group is telling you. Now you might be asking, "Well, how the hell can I tell if the group is breathing?" Like I said, we're going to be doing a lot more podcasting on how to read your group. Right now I just kinda, want to raise your awareness that these things are back there and hanging out there. One way you can tell is just basically, how the room feels. You know, if you've done enough speaking, when the "air gets sucked out of the room" it just ... The whole room changes the feeling. Something you say, maybe offends someone, I know that I've done that before, as you might imagine. And the room just changes. The other thing you can notice is that people kinda have this stiff body language it's like, where they were ... Sitting there still, kind of drinking their coffee, kind of moving around, taking notes. Suddenly, everyone's body gets stiff and you know that people have stopped breathing. So that will tell you a lot as well.
The point is, is that dealing with a heckler really has to do with what the group wants you to do, not what you want to do.So we've talked about three different scenarios. First,you have the bully. You know they're a bully because the group looks down and stops breathing. That bully, you definitely have permission to deal with with power nonverbals. Make sure that you're breathing and not attached. It's never personal, guys. Even when it feels like it, it's not. Second,you have the situation where you have the person whose kind of the outlier. They've asked a question that really, nobody wants you to answer. You have total permission to shut that down. Use your nice authoritative voice pattern, curl the voice down, good breathing, tell them that you'll talk about it at the break or after the seminar. Thirdone is the person who's asking a question that you personally would prefer not to answer, but they, the group. is saying, "Hey, we're interested in having you answer this," and you know that because, the group's breathing fine while looking at the speaker. That one you have to answer, even if you personally don't want to answer it.
So I hope that's helped. There's lots more we can talk about with heckling, but I wanted to just give you an introduction, so to speak, on how to deal with this. And I think it takes practice, you know? It really does take practice to be the person at the front of the room, being authoritative and shutting the person down because, it feels scary. But remember, the group is giving you permission if you know what to look for.
Alright! Well, I hope this has been helpful. And until we meet again, I invite you to find your voice and amplify it. Talk soon.
Want to take your speaking to the next level? Head over to saridlm.com for more resources to help you prepare your presentation and deliver it with confidence. That's saridlm.com. This has been your podcast for speakers, by a speaker and we'll see you on the next episode of Soundcheck.
Sari de la Motte is the host of "Sound Check" a podcast for speakers looking for tips on how to increase their "executive presence" and ability to confidently connect with their audience.