How to deal with a hostile audience

Techniques for handling interruptions to your speech

HecklerThere’s a long tradition of heckling at political events in the U.K. and in many other countries where deliberately interrupting public speakers is seen as a legitimate form of protest.

In the 1960s, of course, America saw a number of heated interruptions in courtrooms and conventions to protest the Vietnam War, and this summer we’ve seen the well publicized brouhaha at Democrats’ town hall meetings on health care reform. But disruptions of this kind are rare in the United States, and we’re surprised when they happen.

In corporate settings, too, disruption during executive speeches is an uncommon occurrence. Sure, CEOs presenting at company town hall meetings might have to deal with a few aggressive questions or mutterings of discontent; and yes, unruly crowds occasionally interrupt shareholder meetings or protest outside plant gates. But overall, employees are pretty well behaved, and executives rarely have to worry about heckling and harassment.

But what happens when corporate audiences aren’t well behaved? What should executives do when their listeners speak up and speak out, and the flow of their carefully scripted speeches becomes a backdrop for somebody else’s agenda? The answer is that they should expect the unexpected and be prepared to handle feisty audiences.

You not only need to know what to say in a speech, you need to understand how it will be received by the audience. So what can you do to find this out?

Why presentations go awry

The Greek philosopher Aristotle listed three forms of persuasion available to a speaker: Logos, Pathos and Ethos. A speaker’s failure to connect on any one of these levels, Aristotle said, undermines his or her effectiveness. Faults in logic (Logos) give rise to doubt in the audience’s mind and might lead to pointed questions and requests for clarification. More significant, failing to win the sympathy of the audience (Pathos) or a lack of credibility on the part of the speaker (Ethos) is likely to lead to spontaneous, or staged, interruptions from the floor.

When audience members erupt in an angry outburst, it’s rarely because they find fault with the logic of your argument. It’s more often because of their underlying emotional issues with your message, or because they arrived at the event lacking any respect for you.

Staged interruptions, such as those planned in advance to protest the health care town halls, are extreme examples of a lack of respect.

In any case, it’s important to realize that responding to challenges to your credibility with a logical argument alone will not work. The emotional impact of your message is a far more potent response. To paraphrase a well-known saying, when you have them by their hearts, their minds will follow.


Prepare by researching the audience’s concerns and hot buttons. Check into local issues. Did your plant manager in Oshkosh just fire the local scoutmaster? People in Wisconsin might not be willing to listen to your presentation — no matter how well scripted.

If your research suggests controversy is likely, build in feedback circuits ahead of time by providing an e-mail address or Web site where people can send in comments and questions in advance.
Practice delivering the speech under hostile circumstances. While rehearsing, have someone distract you. Learn how to not get thrown off balance by ringing cell phones, loud noises off stage or loss of power to your microphone. Professional speakers have ready responses to each of these events.


If someone in the audience does interrupt you, don’t just ignore them. Simply acknowledging that they exist will give them a sense of belonging. Once you have responded, quickly move on. You want to avoid getting into a one-on-one discussion.

Stand-up comedians relish their ability to make it painful for hecklers – they can chop people off at the knees. Don’t do this. The sympathies of the audience might well be with the person who spoke out (remember that scoutmaster). If you are too unsympathetic or sarcastic, you risk winning the battle but losing the war.

Appeal to the wider interests of the audience while acknowledging the issue. When a heckler interrupted Obama’s speech on abortion at Notre Dame in May 2009, the president immediately responded: “It’s all right. We’re fine, everybody… We’re not going to shy away from things that are uncomfortable…”

Personal safety

However, if things do get out of hand, remember that discretion is the better part of valor. A lone speaker exposed on stage does not stand a chance against a hostile crowd if things get physical. So get out of there. A graceful exit will serve you better than getting into a screaming match.

[This article was originally published on]

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If a volcano is going off, we do not try to put it back together. Its true that we need to stop, listen and acknowledge that speaker and give value to what they say. Use long pauses to assist in letting that person know that they have all the room they need to blow off steam. Next, let them know you value their point of view and that if they do not have any other feelings or ideas they would like to share, you are most willing to address their questions in a calm manner as best you can.

Another technique for handling this is called the “relay response.”

Here is how it might work. The speaker has someone in the audience stand up and deliver some heated remarks. As soon as you can get a word in edgewise, say, “He/She says XXX.” Then turn to another member in the audience and ask, “What do you think about that?” Or use the audience overview question and state, “How many of you in the audience agree with this comment?”

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