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No matter how many presentations you make and how confident you become with your skills to intrigue an audience, sooner or later you will have to deal with an unexpected interruption in the midst of your remarks.
How you handle it is what more people will remember than what you actually said during your presentation.
That’s because humans are programmed to remember bad things more than good things according to this research conducted by Elizabeth Kensinger Boston College.
She and her team discovered that things which are generally positive, such as an average presentation or a regular day at work, generally don’t trigger our brains to focus on one specific detail. But if we see something unexpected that is negative, it is tucked into our memory banks forever.
With your reputation at stake when an interruption occurs, how do you handle it so successfully that it doesn’t become the primary memory of your presentation?
Consider a three-point approach:
All interruptions fall into one of three categories.
Each of them requires a different approach, but they all require one common strategy.
In all cases, the most important strategy is to manage your emotional responses. Make sure that you do not allow a heckler to push your emotional buttons or a technical failure to ignite a show of temper.
You will regret any and all displays of being out of control even for a moment because that is what people will remember.
Remember that you have the microphone and the camera is on you. If there is potential for somebody to become the biggest loser of the event, it will be you, however inappropriate the actions of another person might be.
Hecklers, those people who shout questions or slogans at you or who come in numbers and wave placards, are rude and annoying and often very capable of pushing your emotional buttons.
The practice of heckling as a form of protest to disagree with or humiliate the speaker at a presentation is not new. In fact, the term was actually popularized back in the days of the vaudeville theater.
The word itself has origins in the textile trade. To heckle meant to tease or comb out hemp or flax fibers. Using the word to describe people who interrupt others seems to have started in Scotland in the early 19th century in a radical community called Dundee.
Be ever aware that you cannot depend on the person who heckles to do the right thing. If they were polite and reasonable, they would have written you a letter or scheduled a meeting through your office manager. They want to get their point across for their own reasons, and they don’t care how they accomplish that. Their behavior is rude, but you cannot respond in kind.
There are a variety of ways to handle hecklers and the kind of behavior that is appropriate as a response depends greatly on who you are (as in your position in life) and the environment in which the interruption is happening.
Here are some unique ways people have handled hecklers and how it worked for them:
Responding to hecklers is a dangerous strategy unless you are a world class comedian like Milton Berle and you make it part of your act. In this video, watch how he engages with two hecklers in an episode of The Muppet Show.
Note the dangers of asking hecklers questions when you can’t control the answers. This humorous approach was appropriate for the accomplished comedian; it would likely be less effective to a more serious presenter.
Sometimes a single gesture can be worth a thousand words when you are responding to a heckler.
Watch this video to see Tony Gwynn’s humorous gesture to a persistent heckler who threatened his concentration when the baseball player wanted to present his focused game.
Listen to the laughter in the background as the audience starts to empathize with Gwynn and turn against the heckler. Hint: Watch his glove in this video.
Comedian Jerry Seinfeld takes philosophical approach to hecklers. He regards them philosophically. In this AMA Reddit interview, he describes his approach this way:
“Very early on in my career, I hit upon this idea of being the Heckle Therapist. So that 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.
It opened up this whole fun avenue for me as a comedian, and no one had ever seen that before. Some of my comedian friends used to call me, and I would tell them that I would counsel the heckler instead of fighting them.
I would say 'you seem so upset, and I know that’s not what you wanted to have happen tonight. Let’s talk about your problem.'"
The audience would laugh and the heckler would be disarmed.
Seinfeld says he never went against the hecklers. Instead he took their side.
The late comedian Andy Kaufman just surrendered to hecklers and, after telling them “If you want to heckle me, you win,” he started to cry.
Some who knew him well later suggested it was all part of an act, but only he knew. It was, however, a clear case of how the heckler wins when you lose emotional control.
What can you do? Select a style of response that matches your personality and the circumstances of your presentation. For example, if humor can work, use it. If compassion can work, offer to meet the heckler in person after the presentation and listen uninterrupted to what he has to say.
If you feel endangered or the heckler is particularly threatening, stop for a moment, fully in control of the situation, sip water and let security personnel do their job.
Do not apologize for the heckler’s behavior. Inhale, collect your thoughts and calmly return to your presentation. It’s a case of better to say nothing than to say the wrong thing. The more controlled you are, the faster people will be able to move back to the topic.
You created the world’s best PowerPoint and are just getting your audience warmed up when there is a power outage in the building. Emergency lighting is in place and you are urged to continue the program, but there is no way you can show your PowerPoint.
Do you have sufficient notes and familiarity with your subject to fly solo and still make a successful landing?
Other less dramatic things can throw you off your game and interrupt your presentation.
Here are some examples of how some presenters managed to pull it together when structural issues were the source of the problem.
Watch how deftly President Barack Obama handled the scene when he was interrupted during his presentation to Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit. In the midst of his remarks, the presidential seal fell off the podium.
The President stayed in control of his emotions. He paused as he ascertained what happened and then calmly and humorously said: “That’s all right. All of you know who I am.”
Then he promptly returned to his message and the tension effectively diffused.
For Whoopi Goldberg, the interruption was more serious. Doing a show in Moncton, New Brunswick at the Casino there, she was about three quarters through her comedy presentation when a uniformed firefighter walked on the stage and advised her there was a fire and she had to leave.
She had actually seen a few people starting to leave at the back of the room just before the interruption occurred. In this video, she explains her surprise and worry that she had offended the people:
She kept her calm and told people in a very level voice that she had to leave because she had just been advised there was a fire. She thanked the audience for attending and suggested they follow the directions of the firefighters who had entered the room.
She did calmly exit the building and only then realized that it was her bus that was on fire. It was parked close to the wall of the building, threatening to spread inside where she had been performing.
Goldberg remained calm and gracious about the interruption, asking the firefighters who got the blaze under control for a group picture with her. In her follow-up video, she thanked the local people for their assistance.
She mixed up the name of the Canadian province she was visiting (calling it Ontario instead of New Brunswick), but nobody took offense. They were thankful that the star was safe. It was a good example of how to turn an interruption into good public relations.
What can you do when the unexpected happens?