How to deal with hostile audiences and hecklers

How to deal with hostile audiences and hecklers


When you’re asked to present, do you find yourself worrying that you’re going to be faced with a hostile audience who are out to get you, faces like thunder throughout, and ready to heckle and put you on the spot at the end?

We often spend more time worrying about the audience and their reaction to our speech or presentation, than we do about positively framing the experience for ourselves and doing what we need to set ourselves up for success.  When we’re feeling nervous, we can imagine the audience to be a pack of wolves, ready to pounce on any small slip-up we might make and determined to catch us out with tricky questions.

The first thing to remember is that the audience is not actually a pack of wolves!  In the vast majority of cases, they will be sitting there listening to you because they want to, not because they have been forced to.  They have actively chosen to be there to hear what you have to say because they know that you are going to add some value.  This is a positive thing.

Secondly, the audience is only human.   Although we might want them to sit their smiling and clapping throughout, this isn’t a realistic expectation.   We’ve all been known to look out of the window for a few seconds or be momentarily distracted by something we see or hear – and our ‘resting face’ is rarely one of joyous excitement!    It can be hard not to see this as a reflection of you as a speaker, but in reality it’s just the audience being normal human beings.

Hostile faces and harshly delivered questions are also most likely to be symptomatic of how that person is feeling on the day, rather than a direct response to you as a speaker.   If they’ve had a bad journey into work, or are nervous about speaking up in front of their boss or in front of a crowd, the question might come out more directly than it needs to.    Responding in a positive and constructive manner can help turn a potentially challenging exchange into a more balanced discussion.

Some top tips for keeping your cool and remaining in control of the situation are:

1. Be prepared by anticipating the questions

  • The more you prepare, the more confident you’ll feel.
  • Think about the questions that might be coming your way and prepare some answers in advance. Also think about how you will respond if you are interrupted, or if you are asked more than one question at a time.
  • Practice with a friend or colleague – ask them to throw some tough questions at you, and get used to saying your responses out loud.

2. Create a positivity bias

  • Think about your audience as you design your speech – what do they need to hear, what is the best way of communicating with them, what will enable them to get the best out of your speech? By putting your audience front and centre when you craft your presentation, you are far more likely to engage them and make it a positive interaction.
  • At the beginning of your presentation, set the scene as to why you’re there and why you’re going to add value so that they are on your side from the start.
  • Read our blog about creating a positivity bias here.

3. Manage your mindset

  • Remind yourself that the audience are there because they have chosen to be there, and that they are on your side.
  • Recognise, and be confident and proud, of your own expertise – there’s a reason why you’re ‘up on the stage’.
  • Think of the questions as coming from a place of ‘I want to understand’ or ‘I need more information’ rather than ‘I’m out to get you’ or ‘I’m here to pick holes in your speech’. Believe that the questions are coming from a good place because people genuinely want an answer.

4. Keep calm and positive

  • Try to remain calm, positive and focussed on the job in hand – the audience will pick up if you’re obviously uncomfortable.
  • Avoid being apologetic or defensive – there’s no benefit to either as it just results in you feeling less in control. Try to project confidence at all times.

5. Manage how you answer the questions

  • Buy yourself some time – paraphrase the question back and slow down the pace. Pause, and take your time to respond.
  • If you can’t answer the question, engage the expertise in the room. Facilitate a discussion, or ask if there is anyone in the audience who can help. There usually is!
  • Keep it real and stick to the truth – don’t make something up as it will come back to haunt you!
  • Be honest and positive – say what you can do, what you’re working on right now, the steps you’re taking, what you can update people on later.
  • Refer to the topic or issue as ‘ours’ which automatically helps to facilitate a discussion rather than putting you in the position of defending a standpoint.

6. Above all, don’t take it personally…

Other people are going to have thoughts and feelings which are different to yours.  If someone finds a concept frustrating but you don’t, try not to let their frustrations rub off on you.   Listen to the question, thank them for raising an important point and answer with a smile – give back love, even if it’s the last thing you really feel like doing!

This article was written by Natalie Forkin, Fearless Coach.