Public Speaking Nightmare | How to Shut Down Bullies and Hecklers


I’ve dealt with my fair share of hecklers as a Facilitation Warrior. They used to devastate me in my early career. It happened in front of 5, 20, or even 600 people, with the audience interrupting, pushing back, belittling, or simply roasting me. Back then, I had a hard time dealing with hecklers because I bought into the myth that the heckle was all about me. It never was, and I’m here to tell you that it never will be.

My favorite encounter with a heckler took place four years ago. During a client workshop where 15 vendor partners were tasked to work together for a client, a competitor of mine named Wolfgang sat across from me. Although Wolfy was the oldest, most experienced, and longest-serving participant, I was asked to take the lead and provide insight. Throughout the morning, he repeatedly interrupted me, stifled my ideas, and, at one point, rolled his eyes and let out a verbal sigh. I was completely aware of what was going on with this man while challenging (code for: I was pissed). He was terrified of being perceived as a “lesser” by the client, so his only option was to make me look bad so he could look good. To make his shine brighter, he was blowing out my candles.

I would have allowed him to get my goat 20 years ago, and I would have reacted. However, during this experience, I realized that his behavior had nothing to do with me; it had everything to do with his fear of becoming obsolete and his belief that he was being ignored, if not outright dismissed.

A heckler is someone who intentionally interrupts and is (consciously or subconsciously) looking for attention. Anger, frustration, internal inadequacy, boredom, hurt, or fear are all emotions that motivate this person or group, and they all come from an outside source. The heckler is reacting to their inner voice with some disturbance, regardless of their emotion or noise.

Hecklers are bullies. We’ve all heard enough about bullies to know that when they give in to their emotions or noise, they lash out and hurt others. They’re distressed, and their only option, in their minds, is to take it out on someone else. Hecklers are no exception. When we are confronted with the heckle in real-time, it is critical to understand and remember this.

Here are five strategies for dealing with hecklers:

1. Recognize that it isn’t you.

Please take a deep breath and remember that the person who is getting in your way is in pain or afraid and is doing everything he can to feel good or safe. Shift your perspective and ask yourself, “I wonder what this person is really going through?”

2. Allow for venting as needed.

Heckling can also take the form of a gang. Allowing participants to vent can be beneficial if it does not become a source of distraction or derailment. Rather than being afraid of it, embrace it. It’s critical to allow venting when there’s an elephant in the room that’s bigger than your message. This will enable the audience to be more open to your message, and you will gain their trust as a result. As you listen to your participants, acknowledge verbally, nod, paraphrase, confirm, and validate. When it’s time to return to your goals, thank them for sharing, acknowledge their pain again, and ask permission to resume your work.

Read: How To Recognize Profitable Business Concepts

3. Include a sidebar

Pull them aside during a break and have a sidebar conversation if the heckler persists. Now is the time to acknowledge their actions by simply asking, “Hey, what’s up with you?” This will give the participant a better chance to open up, and you can then work through the challenge together. You may need to ask him/her to leave the experience altogether if the emotion or behavior is too debilitating. It’s critical to have this conversation in private; it’s respectful to the person you’re speaking with.

4. Recognize and diagnose

When you’re speaking in front of a group of people, and a heckler insists on interrupting and you can’t sidebar, you must not let him ruin your performance and must deal with the situation immediately. Recognize the heckler’s emotions without agreeing with them. “You have every right to feel that way, Charlie,” say something along those lines. Again, you are not agreeing while acknowledging. After you’ve acknowledged the heckler, try to figure out what’s going on. Within the time limit, use questions, observations, and your intuition to investigate the heckler’s reality. “Charlie, what’s going on for you?” as a sidebar question, then drill down with open-ended questions. Demonstrate active listening and assure the heckler that you are aware of his or her situation. If the heckler persists and you are unable to move to the sidebar, ask, “From where did you get your data?” The heckler is then forced to prove what is most likely his own limiting belief. Keep the questions open-ended to force dialogue and diagnose the situation’s reality, or ask a final question to confirm that it’s okay to revisit the subject later in the day. “Gerry, can we agree to shelve this topic until after the break, and then we’ll pick it up again?” for example. Technically, you’re demonstrating a high level of expert coaching techniques. While I don’t recommend using this technique in front of a group, it may be necessary at times to ensure you get to the root cause of the heckler’s action while maintaining control of your message.

Read: Four (4) Secrets To Becoming a “Presentainer” Who Grabs An Audience’s Attention

5. Physical presence

Suppose the heckler is making snide remarks to others or simply having side conversations during a group event. In that case, it’s the perfect opportunity to use the space by moving close to them. Your mere presence will address the situation. When you’re standing on top of a heckler, it’s difficult for them to heckle back.

How did I deal with Wolfy? During a morning break, I requested a moment alone with him and informed him that I needed his assistance. I acknowledged his valuable experience and the importance of his viewpoint to the group. I asked if he would be willing to share, and I offered to set it up so he could add value. His face lit up like a child on Christmas morning with that ‘ask,’ and he stopped bothering me.

While it took every fiber of my being to keep my mouth from saying what I wanted to say to Wolfy, the shift in perspective and use of the sidebar were enough to get the job done. Every. Single. Cell, to be exact.

A heckler is impossible to ignore. You’re sending a message to a group that their experience is less important than the person interrupting you and possibly that you’re weak or scared if you don’t address the situation. It would be best if you acted quickly, respectfully, and purposefully.

In a nutshell, hecklers are bullies with big bodies. Handling hecklers is a challenge you will face at some point. The key is to be prepared with a few techniques, stay calm in the face of perceived conflict, and keep in mind that it isn’t about you.


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