You thought you prepared your presentation well. But in spite of your best efforts, your presentation ended up being sabotaged by an audience member, who not only interrupted you on several occasions, but was rude while doing so. It seemed every time things started going well, this person mucked it up with an irrelevant comment or a sad attempt at humor, derailing your attempts to get your message across and connect with the audience. We all have our horror stories. But what to do about it next time?
Doing our homework and anticipating questions or "push-back" is crucial. But when the unexpected does happen, good general advice is to maintain our cool. Passion and enthusiasm are great, but displaying frustration or anger with an audience member rarely helps the situation; it usually makes things far worse. Keeping our own emotional response in check and displaying as much grace as we can is paramount.
Audiences can pick up on even the slightest bit of aggression or frustration. At the 2001 Macworld in New York Steve Jobs gave his usual "Jobsian-style" keynote. I was working on the Macworld floor during the keynote and could only hear the presentation in the background as I prepared for the day's show. Although Jobs' presentation was well over an hour long, what many people talked about after the keynote — and still talk about today — was Jobs "getting pissed-off" when he could not get the digital camera to work during the demo and "threw it" to an assistant. Really, it was not that big deal at all. But what it illustrates is how much even the tiniest hint of frustration (anger, etc.) will be picked up by an audience; sometimes it may be the only thing they remember about you. Not good.
Below, then, are links to articles which offer good advice for handling difficult audience members, even hecklers.
• Dealing with difficult speaking situations (work911.com)
• Advice from 3M on dealing with Hecklers (3M website)
• Dealing with disruptive audience members (from Speakernet News)
• How to handle difficult audiences (presentation-pointers.com)
• Handling various forms of audience disruption (refresher.com)
• Dealing with difficult audiences (effectivemeetings.com)
• Dealing with difficult negotiators (negotiatelikethepros.com)
• Presenting to difficult audiences (helpforschools.com)
• Dealing with tough questions (findarticles.com)
• Do's and don'ts for dealing with difficult people (findarticles.com)
• Dealing with difficult people (findarticles.com)
• Dealing with hecklers and "snipers" (findarticles.com)
• Advice for stand-up comics (jessethecomic.com)
• The BBC on why people heckle
• A Survival Guide for Working With Humans: Dealing With Whiners, Back-Stabbers, Know-It-Alls, and Other Difficult People
• Working with Emotional Intelligence
• Verbal Judo: The Gentle Art of Persuasion
Whatever you do, in civilized situations such as a business presentation or conference speech, never tell someone to "shut up!" Obviously this goes for interviews with the media as well. "Shut up" must be the single dumbest thing a person can say, even in a heated debate. Use this phrase, and you've lost. Watch this short TV interview with William Donohue to see how well he comes across when he yells "shut up" (twice).
Not everyone will like us or our message. Sometimes people will be unfair and even rude. That's life. But we are responsible for our own reputations so it's in our own best interest (and in the best interest of the audience at large) that we remain at all times courteous, gracious, and professional.