First lady Michelle Obama was heckled by a protester yesterday at a $500-to-$10,000-per-ticket Democratic fundraiser in a private Washington home, and did what many speakers dream of doing by confronting the heckler directly.
She approached the heckler and said: You can keep on speaking, but if you take the mic, I’m leaving.
She left the choice up to the audience, which began chanting to get her to stay. The heckler was ushered out, and the speech was finished to loud applause.
The exchange is making news today in part because it’s unusual for a high-level speaker to confront a heckler directly, or with such finality, in the moment. Many speakers opt for a tense silence while the heckler is ushered out, attempt to ignore the heckler or just keep talking. I suspect that many executives, faced with a heckler, hesitate to let that speaking gig unravel, and choose the path of least resistance as a “safe” approach.
Ignoring a heckler, however, is just as difficult as ignoring an elephant in your office. I’d rather see you develop some graceful ways with Q&A and interruptions, instead. Here are five things you can learn about handling hecklers from Michelle Obama:
1. Know yourself and how you are likely to respond: When you review videos of yourself speaking, look for how you react to interruptions in the moment, then come up with a plan for how you intend to handle them in the future. That’s the only way to defuse the heckler’s strongest weapon, which is the element of surprise.
Obama shared with the crowd, “One of the things I don’t do well is this” before she confronted the heckler, a not-quite apology for what she was about to do, but I’ll bet that the exchange was one she’d anticipated based on prior experience. Planning your response options lets you move quickly and in the moment, just as the First Lady did.
2. Let the heckler show you what to do. Pay enough attention to the heckler, rather than your distressed audience, to get some cues about how to respond. If the heckler’s rude, get extremely polite. If he’s angry, be calm and pleasant. Here, Obama turned the tables, offering to let the heckler speak—that’s what she was asking for, right?—and explaining what the price would be.
3. Don’t debate. You’re not there for an unscheduled debate with one person, so don’t waste time arguing with or contradicting the heckler about her topic, which typically isn’t the same as yours. This is no time to change your agenda. Instead, you might work the heckler into your remarks on the fly-“Yes, indeed, tempers are high on this point. But I still believe…” or “That’s exactly the kind of anger I’m talking about,” if that anger happens to coincide with the point you’re making. If you can’t work the heckler into your theme, keep your response non-anxious and non-reactive.
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4. At the same time, don’t be afraid to disagree. If you can, let the heckler say her piece. Then feel free to say, “I hear what you’re saying, and I’ve heard it in many settings. But I disagree, because…” Another First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson, faced down hecklers on a 1964 whistle-stop tour in her husband’s campaign. At every stop, people angered by the president’s signing of the civil rights law called her and her daughters “nigger lovers” and more. Johnson would let them say their piece, then counter with “This is a country of many viewpoints. I respect your right to express your own. Now is my turn to express mine.” It was a dignified, non-anxious response that let her get back to her topic.
5. Fall back on the audience. The heckler is one against many, so appeal to the crowd as Obama did: “You all decide. You have one choice.” Trust me, if you’re horrified at the heckler’s behavior, others in your audience (particularly those expensive ticket holders) are, too.
Part of the trick here is to defuse the impact of the heckler without doing so in the same tone and manner that the heckler used. The first impulse might be to argue with or mock the heckler, which just gets you caught up into the distraction. Thinking ahead of time about who might heckle and how, along with some calm, controlled ways to respond, are the speaker’s best course of action.