Sen. John McCain, speaking on Memorial Day in California, ran into a heckler Monday. As the presidential campaign, and all the local, state and other national ones, heat up, this will become more common.
In the YouTube, Twitter universe, a person willing to risk arrest for testing the limits of free speech can make a name for themselves, instantly. Pie throwers, sign wavers, protest leaders have more tools at hand than 15 or 20 years ago. And they use them well.
What’s a speaker to do? No one knows when this one-to-one crisis will stand up and shout out. Yet as with all crises, you can prepare. When you test your talk, speak your speech to a mirror or a small live audience, practice what you’d say if a heckler intrudes.
Think about stand-up comics. We’ve all seen them deftly and swiftly put in their place the drunk in the back row or the comic in his own mind who think he’s funnier than the guy on stage.
Do you think comedians or comediennes can think on their feet faster than most human beings? Maybe they can. Maybe they’ve trained in improv. But they prepare. They come to their show expecting to be heckled and know that if they react swiftly and effectively they become the hero and the heckler the goat. They practice. They have a put down ready.
What can you do, CEO before the annual meeting…or candidate for office before an eclectic group of voters? As we’ve seen at the highest levels, presidential campaigns control who gets into the speech. This is mostly due to legitimate concerns for security, but that’s a convenient way of also trying to keep hecklers away.
Consider a few factors in how you react. First, you’re probably speaking to people who want to hear you, not the critic, or they wouldn’t be there. Use that to your advantage.
Be patient. Try to listen to the heckler. Don’t take it personally — indeed, McCain’s heckler ranted about an event in 1967. McCain was shot down over Vietnam that year and was probably in a North Vietnamese prison at the time.
Be initially polite. America has a long, positive tradition of dissent. But control the situation. Offer to speak with the person in more detail later. Mention that Q&A comes after the talk. Point out that the good folks around you would like to hear your speech, not the heckler’s.
Depending on the depth of conviction or delusion on the heckler’s part, listening for a moment and offering to discuss the issue later could work. If it doesn’t, warn the person that security will remove him/her if they don’t show more respect, and move on.
Above all, don’t overreact or come across as haughty, arrogant or detached. Go for a laugh, be self-deprecating. Try to show the audience that you are the antithesis of the heckler’s claim.
It all happens in seconds, but if you anticipate that it might, you’ll be better able to handle the initial shock and move past it most effectively.