Public Speaking

Bill Clinton shows us how to handle hecklers

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:

Having them before “Hello” – Effective Speech introductions

Many speakers make the mistake of not creating an introduction to their speech (by this, I mean the introduction that is typically read by someone else before you being speaking). A good introduction can warm up the audience and get them excited about your topic before you take the stage.
An introduction has several benefits:

  • It tells the audience who you are and why you’re speaking.
  • It allows you to inform the audience of your achievements and accomplishments without looking like you’re bragging.
  • If you’ve written a book or are selling products at the event, you’re introducer can inform the audience (and you may even get an endorsement).

Quick tip #4 – Prepare for a speech using audio & video

Whenever you’re giving an important speech (such as a keynote) it’s important that you practice. Practicing out loud in front of a mirror is good. Practicing in front of a test group (such as a Toastmasters club) will help you get some feedback.

If you really want to improve your speech quickly, record it. Audio only is fine because it’ll force you to improve the speech’s content. You can also listen to it in the car, at work, while you jog, etc… so you’ll have the content of your speech perfected and memorized. If you have the ability to edit audio and create CDs, that’s even better as you can sell the recording at the event.

A different perspective on Michael Richards

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.

Quick Tip #3: Stagetime

If you want to quickly improve your public speaking skills, you need to get up in front of an audience as much as you possibly can. Each time you speak, you gain experience and expand your comfort zone. If you ask for and receive feedback, then you’ll improve even faster.

Toastmasters is good for this as it provides you with opportunities to speak. I recommend joining or visiting multiple clubs because you’ll address different audiences. You may get comfortable after speaking multiple times to the same audience so it’s good to mix things up. Also, different audiences will provide you with different feedback.

The Unexpected – it can be good or bad

A few weeks ago, I came across a web site that had the audio of speeches from the 2006 TED Conference. TED stands for Technology, Education & Design and the organization behind it describes the conference as an “invitation only event where the world’s leading thinkers and doers gather to find inspiration.” I listened to two of the speeches – they we each by a well known person that I know quite a bit about. I really liked one speech and really disliked the other, which I expected would happen. What I didn’t expect was that each speech had an effect on me which was the complete opposite of what I expected.

Obey the Time Limit

One common mistake that many novice and some “expert” speakers make is to ignore the time limit. Most offenders only go over by minute or two where others wait until they’re practically booed off the stage to finish up.

In general, this is very poor practice and if you’re being paid to speak or even speaking for free for a non-profit, it unlikely that you’ll be invited to speak for them again. If you’re giving a presentation at work, your co-workers may feel become annoyed at you. Think about when you’ve been in the audience and the presenter went way over time. It’s never viewed positively.