A couple days ago, Bill Clinton gave a speech to people supporting his wife’s campaign. Some guy, dressed as a robot, interrupted his talk, demanding an apology for some rapper, and threw papers around. Clinton, in a calm manner, told him “you need to find more environmentally responsible ways to protest” and “you can disagree with me without killing trees.”
Now, Clinton had the audience on his side (he’s obviously very popular among his wife’s supporters), but he did several things right that we can learn from when we’re heckled during a talk:
- He remained calm and wasn’t thrown off. Being President for eight years (and all the prep work to accomplish that) gives you ample opportunity to deal with hostile audiences and people who disagree with you.
- He appealed to the audience with his response. People that support his wife are big on the environment so being able to quickly respond the way he did was impressive.
- He was clever in his response. He turned the tables on the heckler by making him look like the fool. Contrast this with “Were you invited to speak here?” which Hillary used on a protester during a speech in LA a few weeks back. It didn’t have quite the effect.
- He didn’t pretend that the heckler wasn’t there. Doing so would have made him appear weak.
Hecklers are a fact of life for all speakers. Some are just trying to appease their egos by showing off or upstaging the presenters. Others may disagree, dislike or even hate the speaker and their objective is to send their message to the speaker regardless of how foolish they may come across.
I recommend that speakers who are prone to protesters and hecklers (politicians, activists or anyone who is presenting a controversial perspective) practice with hecklers. Get a mock audience together and ask a few people to act as hecklers. Practicing dealing with this will not only help you develop some polished responses, but they’ll give you the confidence to stay calm and composed.
Regardless of your opinion of Bill Clinton, I recommend checking out the video of him dealing with the heckler — it’s a great example.