Heckling might call to mind comedians, or maybe politicians. They do sometimes get brutal reactions from their audiences.
In a business presentation, mischief-makers are usually more subtle. And, they can still be a challenge. I’ve run into this a couple of times lately; I’ve been thinking about dealing with the doubters.
One woman in a big audience just had to keep mentioning that she disagreed with me. About, oh…everything.
She wasn’t rude, exactly. But she was persistent. And repetitive. I listened to her point of view, found common ground where I could, and moved along. The show must go on and all of that.
It was a typical talk for me—very interactive. I’ve learned, if I let one attention-seeker dominate or derail the discussion, it can keep others from joining. Plus, it kind of sucks the oxygen out of the room.
Then I ran into a trouble-maker in a small training, a guy who couldn’t—or wouldn’t—get with the program. That happens in the world of learning and development. Often because the person didn’t volunteer to attend the session. He was volun-told to be there.
In both cases, I kind of missed my days in talk radio.
You know talk radio callers can be hostile. If they were also entertaining, I might stay silent and let them rant, refusing to give them the reaction they craved. Eventually the rant ran out of steam and they’d start saying, “Hello? Hello? Are you there? Hello???” They wound up sounding pitiful and powerless.
A caller who crossed the line could always be dispatched with the Dump Button. It was the Catherine Johns show, after all, not the Pete-from-Palos-Park program.
Sadly, there’s no Dump Button in a conference room. So when you’re speaking, what do you do about disruptions, derision and rude remarks?
Keep breathing—and remember it’s your show. The rest of the audience is counting on you to command the room. They can relax, learn something and like it, because someone’s in charge. That someone is you.
Forget about funny. Yes, comedians can be hilarious in response to heckling; most of us don’t have their skill. Or their timing. Or their practice (thank goodness!). When speakers try humor at a heckler’s expense, they often find the funny falls flat.
If you’re talking, keep talking. When someone in the audience tries to interrupt you, don’t let them. Just stand your ground and continue with what you’re saying. They’re likely to give up. Trying to talk over you makes them look bad, not you.
But if you’ve invited participation, even if theirs is unwelcome, hear them out. Often people who start out sounding combative will soften when they have a chance to say their piece. If you don’t push back, they’ll ease up.
Everyone loves to be listened to. Give them a bit of the attention they’re seeking. You might actually learn something. Sometimes when one person raises an issue, other people in the room are thinking the same thing but too polite to say so. You might wind up with an exchange that has real value for everyone, including you.
Respond—to the room. If you choose to engage with a critic, make direct eye contact with them as you begin. (This is you, in command of the room.)
Then, as you continue to lay out your point of view, look at other people. And don’t come back to the naysayer, or they’ll take it as an invitation to continue. Finish your thought connecting with someone elsewhere in the room and put your talk back on track.
Put the pest in the parking lot. In meetings, issues are sometimes deferred for discussion—that’s the parking lot. Same thing can work when someone tries to derail your talk.
“You clearly have a lot to say about this; let’s talk after the session when we have more time.”
“I’m curious about your experience, and I need to stay on track for everyone else. Let’s set up another time to talk.”
“Our time is tight today. I’m going to finish my presentation, then you and I can take this up later.”
Be pleasant and polite even if you’re peeved because the audience will absorb and reflect your emotional tone. It helps to avoid taking the scoffer’s comments personally. And it really is true, especially if they get nasty, it’s much more about them than you.
But even if you are feeling hurt or angry or defensive, don’t display it. Stay in your body, sense your feet on the floor and breathe into your lower belly.
Intense emotion can feel like an out-of-body experience, right? That’s why physical sensation helps so much, especially the sensation of being grounded, with our feet firmly on the floor. It keeps us from being beside ourselves. Getting carried away. Flying into a rage. (Isn’t the language fascinating?)
Maybe you’ve encountered someone sniping when you speak. Share your story in the comments below. What did you do? And how did it turn out?