Best ways to respond to hecklers and loudmouths

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We’ve all been there as a speaker, watching (and listening) with a fast-sinking heart as some loudmouth begins asking a question and goes on forever, long after you’ve realized that there is no question in there, just an opinion that won’t stop.

Or worse, you’ve got the heckler who won’t stop throwing in a cantankerous opposing viewpoint that goes way beyond the respectful I-hear-you-but-disagree to the I-won’t-stop-bloviating-because-no-one-ever-listens-to-me-and-I’ve-finally-got-the-floor.

As a speaker, you’re naturally self-conscious, so you probably take the interruption personally. It takes a heroic effort of reality therapy to realize that it’s not about you. You’re just the inciting incident. It’s all about the bloviating loudmouth and his insecurities.

Recently I found myself in such a situation. A questioner threatened to take up the entire Q-and-A session—and more. I pride myself on listening respectfully and being able to incorporate just about any point of view into the dialogue, so my vanity prevented me from interrupting sooner. Eventually it became clear that interruption was essential, unless the building was just about to be set on fire, struck by a tsunami, or leveled by an earthquake.

As none of those outcomes seemed forthcoming, it was time for me to step up and act like the leader. So I did the counterintuitive thing, the move that the chatterbox never expects: I moved toward the person until I was standing next to him.

That made him turn slightly, so that he could keep an eye or two on me, and all that extra effort of shifting his attention meant that he had to shut up, at least temporarily.

So I took that opportunity to leap in, verbally speaking, and take back the night, or at least the speech.

Works every time. Speakers, add this unusual move to your bag of tricks for that moment when someone else threatens to take over your speech.

Here are a few methods for preventing such episodes:

Announce a Q-and-A rule in advance. One of the funny things about speaking to a group is that you create resentment when you single out this or that person for specific rule-making, but if you announce a ground rule in advance, everyone’s cool with it. So, start by saying, “I’m going to ask you please to keep your questions to 30 seconds, because we have a lot of material to cover today,” or something like that.

Use social media. Thanks to the inventions of the digital world, there are now lots of ways to take questions, review them in advance, queue them up, and so on. Use Twitter, Facebook, private chat, whatever.

Do a group exercise. For a truly original approach, do away with the Q-and-A free-for-all altogether. Instead, get everyone to write a speech down in some old-fashioned format like pen and paper. You might ask them to work in groups, and develop their best single question in the small-group format. Then collect, review, and choose a salient question or three.

Appoint a moderator. If you’re really worried about a cantankerous audience, appoint a friendly as a moderator and have all questions directed through her. Just screen the moderator in advance to make sure that she isn’t harboring some secret endless question of her own.

A version of this article first appeared on Public Words.  

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