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

Presentation Skills: Keep Moving Past Your Mistakes

Presenting in front of an audience makes almost everyone a little bit nervous. After more than 20 years of teaching and training I still feel anxious right before I’m supposed to start. Unfortunately, fear tends to fluster presenters and cause them to make the very mistakes they’re worried about making. They stammer, say the wrong word, skip an important idea, or forget how to use the remote control for their slides. Any of these things can feel like a disaster when people are watching you. But chances are these issues feel like a much bigger deal to you than they do to the audience. Honestly, they might not even notice.

If you’re already nervous, the worst thing you can do is draw attention to your mistakes. Take a lesson from the kid in the video above and keep moving past them instead of getting upset. Improvise a solution (like he does when his cymbal breaks just after the one minute mark in the video) or quickly correct yourself if you’ve said something factually incorrect. Salute if you think it will help! But don’t dwell on what’s gone wrong. What you want to do instead is get to the next part of your presentation that goes right. That’s what will make you look good and help accomplish your goals.

Cymbal dilemma

Presentation Planning: Be Ready For Detours


Many speakers, whether they realize it or not, plan their presentations like a lawyer’s argument. They start by laying out the background, set out the evidence that supports their position, summarize it for their audience, and suggest remedies and next steps. Building presentations this way makes can be very effective, especially when you have lots of information to deal with or you need to overcome strong objections. It’s an approach that feels logical and familiar to both speakers and to audiences raised on courtroom dramas and CSI procedurals.

Unfortunately, like so many good ideas, this one doesn’t always work out as planned. If you withhold too much from your audience for too long they may feel confused, then resentful, about being there at all. Presentations should not be mysteries, I like to remind people. You’re not Agatha Christie. Get to the point before you lose them.

And sometimes you build a long, beautiful, air-tight argument only to find that no one wants to hear it. I know I’m not the only one who has prepared for an hour-long presentation only to have the executive I’m meeting with announce that they now have only 30 minutes for me. Or 15. Or 5. Sometimes their schedule has changed. Sometimes they’re just the kind of person who always wants the bottom line. Sometimes they’re just rude. It’s hard to plan for the rude people–they’re just too unpredictable. But spending a little time learning about your audience in advance can be a great investment if they turn out to be bottom-liners. Walking into a meeting and being able to say “I know we’re scheduled for an hour, but I’m only going to take 15 minutes of your time today,” can make a great impression.

And if you are a lawyer and you’re giving a presentation as momentous as appearing in front of the Supreme Court, it’s important that you’re so well prepared that you can recover when they cut off your carefully constructed argument and ask you to take a completely different direction.

That’s what happened to both sides at this week’s hearings on California’s Proposition 8. (You can read or listen to them here.) As Paul Clement and Ted Olson each started laying out their arguments, Chief Justice John Roberts cut them off. He didn’t want to hear the background of the case; instead he wanted both sides to address whether the plaintiffs even had standing to appeal. Luckily, both of these lawyers had the skills to recover. Ted Olson was even able to get a good laugh out of it. When Roberts interrupted by saying, “Mr. Olson, I cut off your friend before he could get into the merits,” Olson quipped, “I was trying to avoid that, Your Honor.”

A sense of humor is a good tool in a potentially frustrating situation like this. Flexibility is even better.

Proposition 8 Supreme Court Arguments

Yoga Instructor Fired Over Cellphone Ban: Can You Control An Audience?

Photo From SFGate

Maintaining control over an audience can feel a bit like trying to calm the ocean’s waves. Just ask Alice Van Ness, who lost her gig as a yoga instructor at Facebook after admonishing her students to turn off their cell phones and focus on her lesson.

If I had my way I’d insist that there were tiny lockers where people had to leave their electronics outside of each conference room. But that’s not going to happen; people are far too devoted to their devices. Everyone who teaches, trains or speaks in public has to deal with distracted and inattentive audiences, and figuring out how address the issue is a real problem. I personally think that humor works best. Kidding someone about their inability to tear themselves away from their iPhone is a good strategy, but humiliating them is not.

As with most public speaking challenges, it all comes down to being aware of the relationship you have with your audience. I’d be entirely comfortable insisting that an employee of mine turn off their phone, but I’d never do that with a client. I was teaching a class once where the president of the state bar association fell asleep while sitting in the front row. There was no way I was going to embarrass him by drawing attention to the fact that he was starting to gently snore. Luckily, his secretary happened to be sitting next to him. I was able to make eye contact with her and she was able to nudge him without causing a scene. She had the kind of relationship with him where she could do that. I didn’t.

There are different ways of asking someone to put away their phone, and I don’t know how well Van Ness handled the situation. Without having been there it’s impossible to know whether the “look” she says she shot at her student was appropriate or not. This case seems to have received extra attention because Facebook is such an object of fascination and because it’s a little ironic that it was a yoga session that was interrupted. But any time you’re dealing with an audience it’s your job to understand your relationship with them and what’s acceptable in their environment. Understand that there may be serious consequences if you don’t judge them correctly.

Yoga instructor fired over cell phone ban at Facebook

How to Hold a Large Audience’s Attention for a Long Training Session

We recently finished an engagement where we provided a full day of presentation skills training for a group of 80 attending a corporate retreat. In most situations I’d be worried that training so many people for that long was too ambitious, but we had enough lead time to prepare that we thought we could come up with a program that would work. And I love a good challenge.

Happily, it all turned out great. Everyone seemed to have a good time and the client was thrilled with the result. But it wouldn’t have turned out that way without a lot of planning and work.

As a general guideline, I’d normally suggest that 20 or 25 is the maximum number of people you should attempt to train interactively at once. Sessions with more people than that tend to turn into lectures. Bigger audiences make it hard to connect with people, ensure that they’re following along, or keep them from falling asleep. And the longer you ask them to sit there the harder it is to keep their attention

So we knew training a group of 80 was going to take some effort, especially when we learned that we had the final time slot in their three day retreat. People had come in from all over the world and would be looking forward to heading home after sitting in a ballroom forever. What we couldn’t know until right before we started first thing that morning was that everyone had been out drinking until 2:00 the night before.

Whatever your training or presentation topic, having the right material is critical. But so is keeping up the energy level in the room and making sure that the audience is actually paying attention. If they’re not, you might as well just be talking to yourself.

Here are some of the things we did to make it work and that you can use in your own training and presentations:

Having more than one speaker is a huge help when you have a big audience or a long session. It’s easy for a single speaker to lose their energy or enthusiasm and start to drone if they have to deliver a long monologue. Having more than one speaker allows you to present in a conversational way that is much more engaging. It also allows one person to speak while the other hangs back to take a little break, hands out materials, or records ideas from the audience. During exercises having two facilitators lets you cover more of the room to check in with people and make sure that everyone is on track. Don’t just team up with anyone, though. Make sure that you work well together before making any commitments.

Keeping it entertaining allows the audience to forget that they’re being trained. We try to make all of our training fun for the audience, but it’s even more important when you have an audience that’s in danger of getting bored because they’ve been there for a long time. Especially when they were out late the night before. If you can manage to be entertaining while you’re teaching them you can be confident that they’re listening to the material you want them to learn. Be aware of what’s appropriate for each specific audience, though. What’s fun for one group may seem frivolous or even offensive to another.

Covering lots of material keeps training fast-paced and doesn’t allow an audience’s attention to drift. There’s nothing worse than a training session that’s been stretched to fill time because the presenter doesn’t have enough useful material. Schedule your presentations and training programs so you have just enough time to cover your topic and you’re not wasting anyone’s time. You don’t want to completely overwhelm people by throwing too much at them, but giving an audience a lot to think about keeps it interesting. Just make sure that you actually have enough time to cover what’s essential. No matter what, don’t get to the end of your session and find yourself saying “sorry, I don’t have time to go through the last 20 slides I prepared.” They’ll assume that your best material was in there and feel cheated.

Shifting gears often keeps blood flowing to the brain. Never leave your audience just sitting there and listening for an extended period of time and allow them to tune out. For this full day session we did something different every hour, with lots of little interactive pieces, questions and exercises to keep everyone engaged throughout. The first hour was full of exercises to get them involved and get their brains working that morning. The second hour had us looking at video examples and critiquing them. The third was mostly discussion. After lunch we did an extended exercise where everyone had to play an active role, and we used the final hour to wrap everything up with 150 rapid-fire tips for improving presentations.

Giving an audience something to do can be a great way to mix things up. Getting them involved makes them feel like they have a stake in what you’re telling them and makes them much more likely to be persuaded by what you have to say. Whatever you do, don’t just let them sit there and listen. In that situation chances are that they aren’t listening at all.

Presentation Tips: Be Yourself

Whatever kind of presentation you find yourself doing, it’s critical that you engage your audience and find a way to relate to them. But that doesn’t mean that you should pander or pretend to be something you’re not. Audiences are very good at detecting insincerity and are as unlikely to be swayed by an inauthentic performance as they are by Jason Sudeikis as Mitt Romney in this Saturday Night Live skit. They may not shout “we don’t believe you,” but they’ll probably be thinking it.

Remember to be yourself, but the best version of yourself possible.

Clear Communication Is Your Responsibility

It’s often tempting to blame the audience when they don’t “get it.” Anyone who has ever tried to train the same people over and over again on the same topic will understand the feeling. But, despite Dilbert’s opinion, it’s always your job as the presenter to make sure that your material is appropriately targeted at your audience and that they are able to follow along with you. If they can’t, you’re not working hard enough to communicate clearly. Of course there’s no guarantee that they’ll agree with you, but you need to make sure that they at least understand you.

Be Objectively Engaged with Your Audience

People’s fear of public speaking tends to collapse their awareness into themselves and lose track of what’s going on with their audience during a talk, but it’s important to observe them so you can see how they are reacting to what you say and adjust when necessary.

Make sure that you’re keeping an eye on your audience throughout your presentation (and not just pretending to make eye contact) so you can see if they look like they’re following along, if they seem to be in agreement with you, or are turning actively hostile.

Sticking to a script isn’t what’s important–it’s doing what you need to do to succeed. Sometimes you even need to just throw out your plans and do something else. We’ve given plenty of presentations where we abandoned our plans (and our slides) when they didn’t seem to be working or when a discussion took an unexpected turn in a productive direction.

Monitor your audience so you can gauge their reactions and don’t be afraid to improvise if you sense an opportunity.

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