The Good Heckler

When most of us think of hecklers, we think of bad audience members: people questioning us in a condescending way, people talking over us, people trying to discredit us and people trying to show off. However, sometimes there is such a thing as a good heckler – someone who is enjoying your talk and is so engrossed in it that they feel like they are part of it.

So instead of the person shooting down what you’re saying, they’re reinforcing it – it’s just that they’re reinforcing it every couple minutes by repeating what you’re saying, adding their own two cents or simply completing you. Normally, this wouldn’t sound like a problem but it can be a point of frustration for the rest of the audience. Remember, they’re there to hear your material, not a constant endorsement of you as a speaker.

Yes, it really does happen and it can be a bit of a challenge to deal with. Since this person is a fan and someone who will walk away from your speech singing your praises, you want to handle him or her delicately. With a bad heckler, their feelings don’t matter as much as they’re going to bad mouth you anyway (after all that’s what they’re doing during your talk). But with good hecklers, they have good intentions and are really paying you an honest complement.

So how do you handle them? The first thing to do is to acknowledge them and thank them for their kindness. If you’re holding off questions until the end, then address the entire audience with a gentle reminder that you have a lot of material to cover and that you’re holding all questions and comments until the Q&A portion. If you’re taking questions as you go, then simply address the entire audience and ask if anyone else has a question.

The person may interrupt you again, so just issue a gentle reminder about the question and answer portion. Then toss in a comment like “I really like Tom’s enthusiasm about this topic. It’s not every day that I’m blessed with an audience member that cares so much about this topic that they’re ready to jump up here and give the talk with me.” And then ask the audience to give the person a round of applause for their excitement. Just make sure that you’re sincere with your praise, otherwise you’ll lose the heckler and the audience if you come across as sarcastic.

This strategy serves two purposes. It gives the person attention. If that’s what they’re seeking, they’ve got it and hopefully have quenched their thirst. If they don’t like attention, then it’s negative reinforcement for their behavior. But it also acknowledges the situation and puts a positive spin on it.

Of course, if they don’t get the message you need to address it head on. If you’re doing a training session that has breaks, then you can privately pull the person aside during a break and explain that you appreciate their excitement, but it’s become a distraction for the rest of the audience. Tell the person that they’re not doing anything wrong, but you just want to be fair to everyone else in the audience.

If you don’t have a break within your talk, then you’ll need to address it on stage. Again, you want to be delicate and say something like “that’s a great point and you’ve been a great contributor to this discussion, but would it be okay to give some other folks a chance to chime in?” In some cases, you may need to wave the person off as they’re about to interrupt you or talk over them, but that’s typically your last resort. Remember, you don’t want to turn the person into a hostile heckler. Of course, one way to deal with this up front is to provide all audience members with my “Guide to Being a Good Audience Member” or work these points into your speech introduction.

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