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How to Handle a Heckler

10th December 2018

Anyone who takes the stage, whether it’s to give a speech, perform a stand-up routine, or even a presentation at their place of work, must be prepared to deal with hecklers. For the unprepared, even the most well-planned and structured performance or talk can fall apart if a heckler has their way, but what drives a member of an otherwise jovial audience to confront the person they’ve come to see?
In this article, we’re looking at the different types of hecklers a show might attract, and some ways performers deal with hecklers without losing the rest of the audience.

What is heckling?

Looking at the definition of heckling gives us some good insight into what a performer can expect from an audience outburst. Heckling is to ‘interrupt (a public speaker) with derisive or aggressive comments or abuse’, so with a heckler comes a certain amount of hostility or confrontation; a heckler isn’t shouting out to agree with you or tell you what a great job you’re doing.

The different types of heckler

Hecklers come in many forms. If a performer or speaker has to respond to a rogue audience member, they quickly have to figure out what kind of heckler they’re dealing with so they can come up with the right response to shut them down. Some of the common heckler archetypes we’ve seen over the years include:

  • Hecklers who add nothing to the show, and use personal attacks or irrelevant comments to disrupt the show and break the confidence of the performer
  • Hecklers who challenge or boo specific points, ideas or jokes – they could take offence to something or simply disagree by an extreme margin
  • Intoxicated people or attention seekers, interrupting with the purpose of stealing the spotlight

How to deal with hecklers

You’ve planned a routine or speech, you’ve practiced, prepared and honed your timing and your punchlines; you’re ready to perform. Everything is going perfectly to plan, the crowd is on your wavelength and there’s a great energy in the room, but then somebody in the audience shouts out and derails your train of thought. They are either upset at something you said, or want to be the centre of attention themselves. Maybe they’re bored, maybe they’re angry? Whatever their thought process, it’s all eyes on you to deal with the situation and get the everything back on track. But how?

How someone handles a heckler depends on a wide array of circumstances. These could include:

  • What the heckler has said
  • How aggressive the heckler is being
  • The type of show – professional or otherwise
  • The personality type of the performer

For stand up comedians, the high-pressure atmosphere of a gig means a fight or flight response in most heckler interactions. If someone makes a point of being belligerent, the comedian only has a precious few seconds to take control.

During a professional speech, the speaker must assert their authority and get the talk back on track quickly – without drawing the heckler into further rebuttals or disruption.

Considering your response

Ideally, removing the time constraints, a performer or speaker would like to build a full profile of the individual so they can create an intelligent response that both puts the heckler in their place, and feeds directly into the show itself. However, the nature of a show often means a more ‘brute force’ approach is necessary.

For someone like a comedian, that means fighting fire with fire. While a hostile response might not feel like the most sensitive way to defuse a situation like this, it is often the most effective. A heckler wants to take the power out of the performer’s hands, so the performer needs to act quickly to prevent this from happening.

Sometimes the opportunity presents itself to use wit to take the focus instantly away from the heckler, and keep the audience well on your side. An aggressive heckler might render this impossible, so trading barbs becomes the go-to.

In a professional context, trading verbal blows can only distract the audience. Heckles for speeches are most likely to take the form of interruptions, so in this scenario, something as simple as reminding the audience that ‘there will be a chance to ask any questions at the end of the talk’ could suffice. Alternatively, a stronger approach might be inviting the heckler to deliver the talk instead. This shines the spotlight on their bad manners – and highlights how out of place they are in the wider professional context. Most likely, this will shame them into silence, rather than convince them to make a further fool of themselves

Using interruptions to your advantage

When a public speaker encounters a heckler, the audience has a chance to see a side of the performer they haven’t encountered before. While few comedians would say that a heckler is ‘good for the show’, a confident performer can use a heckler to demonstrate their quick wit, improvisation skills, or their ability to cooly and calmly steer the performance in a different direction. A heckler can make a gig more lively for all the wrong reasons, but a professional speaker has the skills, knowledge and experience to handle this kind of confrontation without sacrificing the entire show.

In the professional speech scenario, being prepared for interruptions is key. How you want to be seen by your audience – whether it is relaxed and humourous or strict and authoritative – will influence how you to deal with unwelcome interruption. Confidence, too, from the beginning of your speech, will help to prevent hecklers from speaking up at all. Projecting confidence in what you have to say, how you’re saying it and being comfortable in your surroundings will be instantly communicated to your audience, encouraging them to pay attention rather than think of interrupting.

If you’re looking to hire a comedian for a private gig, to perform for your company or for any other performance, contact Kruger Cowne today. We have a wide range of comedians available for performances, including well known faces and brand new, exciting names. Our team is on hand to advise, so get in touch and discuss your requirements with us to find the perfect comedian to make your event a memorable one.

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