What a week for high profile heckling. Let’s recap:

  1. Kayne West interrupts teenager Taylor Swift’s MTV acceptance speech by jumping on stage, grabbing her microphone, and dissing her selection.
  2. Representative Joe Wilson of South Carolina interrupts the president’s address to a joint session of Congress on health care by yelling out “You Lie!”

Both outbursts were on live TV. And both cases of Rude Tube won goodwill for the target, not the heckler.

Many of you have asked me over the years during presentation skills coaching how to handle an incident like this if someone rudely interrupts you during a presentation or Q&A.

As you can now plainly see, the answer is simple and straightforward:

  • Let the audience respond for you. Count on the fact that decent human beings will recognize bad behavior when they see it. Good people are turned off by rudeness, and they will turn on the heckler. The audience will automatically start pulling for you, even if they didn’t particularly support you before. They’re now in your corner, at least temporarily, so you’ll benefit from their goodwill.
  • Move on and move away. Take a cue from targets Taylor Swift and Barack Obama. Acknowledge, but don’t encourage. How do you do this? Swiftly move on verbally, and move away from the heckler physically. Don’t give the heckler what he/she craves: more attention.

Both of the high-profile hecklers, West and Wilson, were quick to release public apologies. Why? Peer pressure. The attention they garnered wasn’t what they craved. Both thought they’d be backed up by their peers. Instead, West got booed off stage and Wilson got death stares. Both quickly backed off and apologized, hoping to save face and do damage control.

The fear that you’ll be embarrassed by a rude interrupter during a presentation is real. This fear of public speaking has kept some of you away from the spotlight altogether, sadly. But now, I hope you see that the greater risk is just the opposite. It’s being that guy – the rude interrupter. The incivility of ranting and raving will damage the heckler far more than it could ever hurt you.

So step up to the plate. The audience is pulling for you – not the rude interrupter.