Handling Hecklers – Obama does it well

Much has been written about President Obama’s speaking style, particularly here and elsewhere, so I’m not going to comment on the specifics of last night’s speech. Nor get into the opinion of many as to whether he is using the Bully Pulpit to excess. (He is.) But I do want to laud him for the way he handled the heckling of Rep. Joe Wilson.

There are some lessons to be learned here. I doubt if any of us will ever have the massive stage, audience and pressure that Obama had at a speech almost State Of The Union in it’s size and impact – but how Obama handled the outburst is worth noting.

As you can see in the clip, not only is President Obama taken aback by the shout, “You lie!” from Wilson, so are Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden. Actually everyone was set back a bit – as with most hecklers it isn’t whether the actual content is anywhere near accurate, it’s the shock of the disruption – particularly to the President on the floor of Congress in such a major speech.

At 1 minute and 23 seconds into the clip Wilson shouts, “You lie!” Then Obama pauses, finger upraised and looks pointedly at him for 4 seconds. Then he wisely does not argue, but takes it in stride with a calm ad lib and low key refutation, “That’s not true.” And then he continues on to recapture his momentum. Well done. And an immediate acceptance of Wilson’s rapid apology later furthered President Obama’s accomplishment at turning a lemon into lemonade.

How You Can Handle Hecklers

We can learn from this very public example and apply it to our own communicating situations. Here are three things you can do to help you handle hecklers and hostile audience encounters:

1. Don’t argue.

You might win the argument, but you would probably lose the audience. The hostile questioner is ‘part’ of the audience, so you don’t want to put him or her down – publicly. Obama did that well – he stopped, looked and listened – and then went on.

2. Use simple behaviors.

Use your voice, and increased volume or change in tone, and/or a pause, to get the attention back to your message. Use your eye communication to engage the heckler, and then take the attention away from the heckler by looking and talking elsewhere. (This is also a good behavioral technique in a hostile Q&A session – when you ask for the next question, have your eye contact looking away from the past hostile questioner.) Sometimes a simple hand gesture (or finger pointing) might be useful to direct attention away from the negative energy. And then, you just talk and move on.

3. Keep control.

At all costs, you can’t lose control for it is YOUR communication experience and you are responsible for it. Don’t let anyone else hijack it. 95% of the time you can handle most hecklers with the simple behaviors in #2, but if necessary, raise your voice, confront, or do what is necessary to keep control, even if you have to ask for help in removing the extremely disruptive.

Simple common sense techniques, but they can work wonders if you keep your cool, and keep control. Like the President did last night.

3 comments on “Handling Hecklers – Obama does it well

  1. Obama has that “Tiger Effect” going for him. Not many people watched golf until he got on the scene. More people, those of color, those of awe, those with serious concerns, are now checking out what it means to be an outsider to the “Old Boys Club.” Wilson knows he will make a name for himself, sure. I think Barack handled that well. Nancy Pelosi looked like she was going to start removing earrings and throw a Manolo.

    Its just a part of treading a new path- Obama seems to know that he will be tested but its better to just keep being sincere and calm about what one believes when you speak… or do whatever great thing you get to do in this lifetime. Jackie Robinson- you will always win!