Yesterday evening Michelle Obama was halfway through her speech at a Democratic fundraiser when a heckler interrupted. While it's become a common occurrence for demonstrators to yell during the President's speeches, it's much less frequent for his wife. Still, Mrs. Obama handled it with aplomb. From The New York Times:
She left the lectern and moved toward the heckler. “One of the things I don’t do well is this,” she said, to loud applause. She said the protester could “listen to me, or you can take the mike, but I’m leaving. You all decide. You have one choice.”
The audience made it clear they preferred to hear from the First Lady; the heckler was escorted out of the house where the fundraiser was being held.
The media reaction to the episode has been favorable, with headlines like "The First Lady Refuses to Let a Heckler Go Unscolded," from the above-quoted Times piece, and "Michelle Obama Will Not Be Heckled," from The International Business Times.
But it heckling is not exclusive to politics. Ever attend a shareholder meeting in which a few, yet vocal shareholders are not shy about expressing their disappointment (or disgust) at the direction of the company? It’s not pretty, and it’s something that PR pros need to consider when they put their clients in front of an audience.
With that in mind, here are three tips to keep handy in case a presentation or interview goes awry, with a hat tip to stand-up comedian Clayton Fletcher, who is chief comedy officer at Peppercom:
- Use irony to garner sympathy. An audience can only relate a real human being with actual emotions. Reverse psychology statements such as “I am going to put such a positive spin on this when I get home” can greatly enhance a speaker’s vulnerability, and, by extension, charisma.
- Never hit them harder than they’re hitting you. A crowd that is groaning or otherwise expressing disapproval is not necessarily turned off completely; often it’s just a reaction to your opinion. Beating them up in return, e.g. “Maybe you people are just too stupid to understand me,” is a surefire way to lose them.
- If things are really flying off the rails, you may as well joke about it. If an audience seems to have turned against you, there is nothing left to lose. Be yourself and let your genuine sense of humor shine through. You just might turn things around after all. I might say, “Lately the crowds have all been laughing and clapping a lot—you guys are a nice change of pace,” Fletcher says. Whatever you say should be lighthearted and in the spirit of levity.
Want to read more tips on handling a rough crowd? Check out PR News' Digital Guidebook, Vol. 4.
Follow Clayton Fletcher: @claytoncomic
Follow Lucia Davis: @LKCDavis