I liked Seinfeld and Kramer was my favorite character so I found Michael Richards’ recent reaction to a heckler at the Laugh Factory to be very disturbing. In fact, I would say he handled it as poorly as he possibly could have. Even if the heckler was out of line, Michael turned the rest of the crowd against him with his diatribe of racial slurs.

One stand-up comedian tried to defend Michael’s behavior by attributing it to a lack of experience in stand-up where heckling is common. They’re not used to an audience except for talk shows and theater where heckling is rare.

Besides the obvious lessons of how to not conduct oneself in front of a live audience, I think there is another lesson that those of us who speak in front of groups need to be ready for: handling hecklers. Yes, it happens even to professional speakers. Unlike comedians, we can’t heckle the person back and call them names. Instead we need to remain professional and diffuse or even ignore the comments.

As speakers, we are fortunate that we address audiences who are sober and interested in learning. But there are those rare circumstances where we encounter hecklers. Hecklers that professional speakers encounter are motivated differently than hecklers at a comedy club. Their motivation could be boredom, disagreeing with the speaker, trying to be a “show off” or rebelling against the company or group sponsoring the event.

So how do you handle hecklers? It depends on the situation, but in general you want to diffuse the heckler as professionally as possible. I was at an event where a guy constantly questioned the methods of the presenter — he thought his way was better.  He’d even turn to the audience (most of us were annoyed with him) looking for approval. After a number of these interruptions, the presenter said “let’s let some other people have a chance to ask some questions” and the guy kept quiet for the rest of the event.

On the other extreme when someone has real malicious intent with their heckling, the best thing to do is say something like “I think this is something that you and I see differently on, maybe we could discuss it further privately afterwards.” If the person becomes hostile, you may need to get the event organizer to step in and have the person removed.

 People have bad days so it isn’t necessarily a reflection on you. If the person was reprimanded by their boss in the morning, they may be in a less than productive state when you give your talk later in the day on how to increase sales. If the person storms out or is escorted out, you’ll need to shift the focus back to your talk. Saying something to the audience like “as long as you all aren’t as uncomfortable now as I am, we can move on” addresses the situation using a slight bit of humor.

Dealing with hecklers is tough and only experience will make you good at it. Just being aware of the fact that you may have heckler in your next audience is a step in the right direction. You may even want to have the people you practice in front of heckle you. I tried this with my Toastmasters club once and we all had a lot of fun with it.

A different perspective on Michael Richards

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