Horshacks and Hecklers


“I’m sorry I can’t fight the battle of wits with you mister, but I never fight an unarmed man.”

This was the quick comeback from a vaudeville performer at a family show I saw when I was about 12. Unlike most comedians, this would certainly pass the bleep test, but it’s still not appropriate for business.

So what to do when faced with Horshacks and hecklers? I was asked this during a recent presentation training workshop. This was the first time in 10 years of presentation coaching that this has come up. This particular group of professionals works in a manufacturing environment and often presents to shift workers and supervisors.

One workshop participant made an interesting point: although we may not see the heckler as a leader, it’s possible his peers do. But who’s the real leader? That’s your job as the presenter.

To ensure that everyone gets what they need out of the experience, you must command the room. That includes everything from creating engaging content to handling Horshacks and hecklers on the (hopefully) rare occasions they appear. Otherwise, participants become anxious and uncomfortable.

Horshacks and hecklers have this in common – they want attention. Perhaps there’s a way to give it to them.

Since I have little personal experience in this area, I did a bit of research and found this great discussion thread on SpeakerNet News. One of the most interesting entries is the second one, from Susan Zitron. She suggests standing behind the heckler so when the audience naturally looks to her, the presenter, they are also looking at the heckler.

Here’s another gem posted by Nanette Miner:

Here’s what I do, and it works EVERY TIME. I say to the heckler (ever notice, it’s never a woman?) “You don’t really want to be here, do you?” They say, “No.” And I say, “then you have my permission to leave.”

We usually go back and forth around some issue like, “I don’t know if you’ll jeapordize your job by leaving… I don’t know if it’s mandatory that you be here, etc.” NO ONE HAS EVER LEFT. AND they’ve started to participate!

One guy, after we did the “I don’t know if you’ll lose your job” dance said, “I HAVE to be here.” I said, “Well, I do, too. So I tell you what. I won’t ask you to participate if you agree to not interrupt.” He agreed and read the paper thru the first half of the day. After lunch he was participating! It was great!

If you’re really in demand, you could try the Michelle Obama approach and threaten to leave. The First Lady made big news a few weeks ago for how she handled a heckler.

The bottom line is don’t loose your cool or trash the other person in any way, no matter what. Then you’re the one who looks bad.