Jerry Seinfeld On Hecklers: Kill Them With Kindness

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.

Jerry Seinfeld’s Reddit Q&A

Comedians’ Advice For Dealing With Hecklers

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Commencement Speech Season 2012

Jane Lynch at Smith College 2012

I’m not usually a big fan of inspirational speeches. They tend to make me roll my eyes a lot. But there’s something that I love about commencement addresses. A really great commencement speech employs a combination of gravity, personal storytelling and humor that I just find really engrossing. Watch enough of these and you’ll start to get a pretty good sense for how speakers adjust the formula of these three ingredients to make their talks work for an audience.

Here’s a collection of commencement speeches put together by The Atlantic. I’m not sure it’s fair to say that the overarching theme of these speakers is that they managed to succeed without trying. It seems to me that their point is more like Conan O’Brien’s from last year, that life is full of surprises. But it was nice of The Atlantic to put them all together in one place for us.

How to Become a Famous Commencement Speaker Without Really Trying

Advice for Dealing with Hecklers

It should probably go without saying that comedians, presidential candidates, and other public speakers probably shouldn’t all use the same strategies for dealing with hecklers or difficult audience members. Their objectives are very different, for one thing. Comedians are trying to entertain while public speakers and politician are hoping to persuade and win votes. Still this article from Slate does have some good advice for speakers, despite the fact that the comedians reviewing the performances of the Republican candidates don’t always seem to understand that politicians’ goals are different from their own. The advice that Rick Santorum “should have thrown the mic down and walked off” seems particularly tone-deaf.

Unless it’s a joke, of course.

But I really like Paul F. Tompkins’ analysis of how Mitt Romney deals with a heckler:

“He handles it like a pro,” says Tompkins. “You don’t cut the heckler off. You let her go. Give ’em enough rope. Use the time she’s babbling to craft your comeback. Then BAM. You unleash your zinger with a smile. They come at you again? Same thing. Keep indulging her until the crowd completely turns on the heckler. Which they will—you’ve been smiling the while time, letting her say her piece, right? The crowd can’t be mad at you—you’re just being polite in a funny way! But just insulting enough that they taste a little blood in their mouths! THIS WOMAN MUST BE SILENCED AND THEY WILL GLADLY DO THAT FOR YOU! GUARDS, SEIZE HER!”

Most public speakers and politicians (Newt Gingrich excepted) probably aren’t focused on “zinging” their audience members. But letting the difficult audience member or heckler keep talking can be a great strategy. It often lets them dig themselves a hole without you having to do anything and, as Tompkins points out, turns the rest of the audience against them.

Dealing with a difficult audience member is never, well, easy. But it helps if you can remember that most of the audience is probably on your side.

Slate: Let me Finish