Most presenters won’t ever have to deal with a real heckler, the truly obnoxious jerk who feels entitled to interrupt and openly question your material or your value as a human being. (I suspect this is partly due to the fact that most presentations, unlike comedy clubs, don’t require a two drink minimum.) But that doesn’t mean that you won’t have to deal with disruptive audience members. You will. Give enough presentations (or just sit in the audience) and you’ll start to recognize certain types:
- The fidgeter
- The person who is too important to stop typing on their phone
- The pair who thinks you can’t hear them whispering to each other
- The eye-roller
These are just a few of the people who can throw a presenter off track and make it difficult for the rest of the audience to focus on the topic at hand. Deciding what to do when someone is disrupting your presentation is never easy because you always run the risk of making the situation worse by addressing it. But I think there’s something we can all learn from Jerry Seinfeld’s strategy for dealing with hecklers at his shows. He described his philosophy in a recent Q&A on Reddit:
Very early on in my career, I hit upon this idea of being the Heckle Therapist. When people would say something nasty, I would immediately become very sympathetic to them and try to help them with their problem and try to work out what was upsetting them, and try to be very understanding with their anger.
Challenging a heckler usually only makes the situation worse, puts them in control of the situation, and turns what was a distraction into the main event. But Seinfeld’s “heckler therapy” is aimed at ending the disruption by solving whatever is bothering them. If anything, this strategy should be even more effective in a regular presentation than it would be at a comedy show because the difficult people at presentations aren’t as openly antagonistic.
So if someone is fidgeting a lot, ask them if everything is okay. If they keep typing away on their phone, ask them if they have something they need to deal with. If they’re whispering in the back of the room, ask them if they have something they want to add to what you’ve said. The trick here is to make sure that you sound sincere. Chances are that your disruptors will say that everything is fine and stop causing trouble so they don’t attract any more attention to themselves.
What you don’t want to do is sound sarcastic or defensive. In another post about dealing with hecklers I talked about how important it is for presenters to remember that, in the vast majority of these situations, the audience is on their side and has very little patience with troublemakers. But that can all change very quickly if they think you’re being cruel and trying to embarrass someone.
Take Seinfeld’s advice and try to help them instead.