Imagine paying good money to see the Birmingham Royal Ballet perform Swan Lake at Sadler’s Wells, only for the dancers to be rooted to the spot throughout the performance. Static. Unmoving. You’d demand a refund.
In ballet, beauty springs from movement and choreographers think long and hard about how dancers use the full extent of the stage, where they position themselves in relation to one another and the audience and which steps to take – a pas de deux maybe or a pas de chat.
And so it should be in presentations, with speakers giving similar consideration to the choreography of their performances. Now I’m not suggesting for one minute that this means pulling on a pink tutu and sashaying across the boardroom floor but simply injecting some more modest, naturalistic movement into your presentation in a way that compliments your words – energises them even – rather than detracts from them.
Don’t mess with my tutu
Too many presenters I’ve seen (or rather haven’t) stay hidden behind the lectern throughout. And those who do show us their legs often pace nervously up and down an imaginary track and I end up worrying more about the carpet than I do listening to what’s being said.
I get why presenters stay close to the lectern. It’s where their notes are and, looking out at the sea of faces that is the audience, they fret that if they swim too far from this presentational lifebelt they’ll end up drowning. Trouble is that, in a big auditorium in particular, the lectern is usually stage left or right which means you’re closer to one side of the audience than the other. And while the extra distance between you and those opposite may not be an obvious distraction, subconsciously at least, it may leave those farthest away feeling somehow left out.
Mind the gap
And so it is with the people in the cheap seats at the back, again, of the bigger venues. They can feel ignored if you don’t do something to literally or metaphorically close the gap between you and them. Literally closing the gap might mean coming down off the stage (with a radio microphone if the event is that big), walking along the aisle to the back of the auditorium and delivering a section of your talk from there. Metaphorical gap closers include spoken ones – “can you hear me alright back there?” – and unspoken ones such as making eye contact with people in all quadrants of the audience, not just those closest to you. A really good tip I was given years ago is to divide the audience into quarters (or sixths in bigger venues), pick a friendly face in each section (front left, front right, middle left, middle right, etc.) and make eye contact with them periodically. Because of something called parallax it appears as if you’re looking at everybody in each section rather than just one.
Come out come out wherever you are
Now in order to feel comfortable moving away from that lectern or desk and your notes means weaning yourself off those notes, so I’ll make that the subject of another post. But before that let’s explore the consequences of too much movement.
Carpets have feelings too
I’ve written elsewhere about nervousness and posted a 10 point plan for tackling it. Suffice to say that when our mind is racing our body often follows suit. So we pace up and down. And for the audience it can be a bit like watching a game of tennis where we’re the ball and their eyes swivel from left to right and back again ad nauseam which, in Latin incidentally, means literally ‘to sickness.’ Remember audiences (and carpets for that matter) have feelings so don’t overdo the movement. With practice it’ll become instinctive. Just as the movement does for those ballerinas.
Form and function
If too much movement can be distracting, it follows that the right amount can be attracting. What we should aspire to then is movement that is meaningful. Meaningful because it grabs the audience’s attention; gives people a chance to move around in their seats (and so prevents deep vein thrombosis); adds value to your words. By adding value I mean that your movement is actually making a point. Let me explain by giving a real life example.
A Third Sector presentation I recently helped choreograph was designed to get people to stop and think about the scourge of rough sleeping. The words went something like this…
“You’re walking down the street. It’s like a minefield. You’re navigating around other pedestrians who’re paying more attention to their mobile phones than the pavement ahead. Picking a route that avoids the beggars who are up. And tip toeing past the rough sleepers who’re down.”
Now these words could have been delivered statically from behind a lectern. But I’d argue they had twice the impact because they were delivered while the presenter was walking along an imaginary pavement, the actions mirroring the words.
Actions speak louder than words
If you want your audience to stop and think about the point you’ve just made, stop and think yourself. If you want your audience to take action, be active. If your presentation needs a moment of reflection, of quiet contemplation, then slow down and stop. If you’re excited, look excited. And, of course, sound excited. Which brings me on to a subject for a future post – musicology, or how to use your voice as a musical instrument and play all the right notes in your next presentation.
So how should she, and more importantly we who earn a living giving presentations, deal with such unwelcome interruptions? By their very nature the specifics of a heckle are hard to anticipate and plan for, let alone rehearse. But there is a generic approach that can work in a variety of different situations. I call it my stop the sslandder technique.
You’ll notice I’ve spellled sslandderr in a slightly unconventional way (and I had to disable auto-correct to do so). It’s because the letters of the word stand for the steps you can take as a speaker to keep heckles down without getting your hackles up. And also because hecklers often do come up with, if not slanders, then certainly slurs. So here are the steps:
So now let’s take them one-by-one…
So you’re still speaking but that reptilian bit of your mind that’s always working even when your lips are moving has registered an unwelcome sound somewhere in that sea of faces that is the audience. It’s not yet the full-throated roar of an angry lion but nor is it the polite sneeze of a timid mouse. Question is do you stop or press on?
For the “harrumphers” in the audience – that is those who exhibit what I call sub-heckling behaviour – ignoring these minor interupptions may just work. Trouble is that the harrumph could be the precursor to a louder and more persistent interruption. So if the noises off are minor and they do quieten down quickly continuing is fine. But if the initial noises are major or the volume rapidly increases then my advice is to seize the initiative and stop. Show you’re in control of your mouth and manners even if, and especially as, they (the hecklers) are not. The alternative is worse: you keep going so they get louder; you get louder to make yourself heard above the din so they get louder still… If this was an arms race you’d be heading for mutually assured destruction. Mad. So stop before you’re forced to. On your terms not theirs. Look strong. Not weak.
In any case if two or more people are talking at once nobody’s going to hear you properly. At the very least the audience will be distracted. And a distracted audience is harder to “sell” to.
You probably won’t be smiling on the inside with that carefully crafted speech in tatters at your feet instead of the roses of adulation you’d been hoping for. But hang on! It hasn’t been ruined – yet. So relax. Take a deep breath. And smile. Force that smile if necessary and you’ll find that it soon turns into a more natural version. At the very least it shows good grace and coolness under fire. At best a smile can be disarming as well as charming and simply showing your teeth (it’s an ape thing) can be enough to subdue the hecklers. But even if it doesn’t it’s likely to win you a bit of audience sympathy. And you need the audience on your side for the subsequent steps. Otherwise it’s just you versus the heckler and what if they’re bigger than you, or uglier than you, or both? Besides the heckle may actually have been funny so smile, join in the laughter – even if it’s at your own expense. Nothing like a bit of self-deprecation to win even more audience support.
Hecklers want to be heard. That’s why they heckle in the first place. So listen to them. And listen carefully with all the active listening skills you can muster (a look of concern on your brow, your best ear pointing their way, your head tilted slightly to one side). Try to ignore the anger – the heat if you will – and see the point they’re trying to make, however angrily or illogically – the light. The listen can in itself be disarming. Coupled with the smile before it, listening can be twice as effective. Better still link both with the next move…
It’s easy to allow an argument to be defined by the differences between two sides (you and the heckler in this case). After all that’s how arguments start in the first place. But what if you could redefine the fight the heckler’s picking by concentrating on the points you agree on? You’re not going to lose the argument by acknowledging their anger. You’re not going to lose by conceding some neutral or indefensible ground. “I can see you’re angry. I can hear the passion in your voice. We welcome passionate people.” I’m paraphrasing but these are the sorts of things that the former US President, Barack Obama, said to soothe tempers when he was heckled. “You’re absolutely right, politicians – me included – must do more to help the poor, the downtrodden, the neglected (delete as applicable). That’s why I got into politics in the first place.” In other words he’s saying – and you need to say to the heckler, “I’m on your side.” And when you’re standing if not literally then metaphorically on common ground there’s no need to shout across the gulf of your differences which is a crucial starting point for the next step…
Clearly you don’t want to spend more than a few minutes of your precious stage time negotiating with a heckler. But demonstrating both your willingness to negotiate and your negotiation skills can, like the preceding steps, enhance your overall credentials and win audience support. As in any negotiation make a reasonable offer, be prepared for a counter offer, amend your original offer in response to the counter offer if it’s reasonable and then stick to it. The whole point of negotiating is, of course, to reach a deal which brings us neatly to our next step…
There are two types of deal: the deal that gives the heckler what they want, or enough of what they want, to shut them up permanently; and the deal that silences them temporarily – at least until you’ve swept magisterially from the podium with those bouquets strewn in your path. If you’ve listened carefully and understood enough of what they want, maybe you can do a deal there and then. Perhaps they feel their voice hasn’t been properly heard, in which case don’t eject them from the hall, as this will only exacerbate the problem from their perspective. Invite them to a seat closer to you. Move closer to them. The closer physical proximity can demonstrate a willingness to closer intellectual proximity. It also plays to the old adage keep your friends close but your enemies closer.
If you can’t do a deal (and it’s rarely sensible to do a big deal in the heat of the moment) then try to delay. A dealay, if you’ll forgive me for making up a word, encourages the heckler to think that a bigger deal may be in prospect if only they wai. It can buy you time. Offer to meet them afterwards for some “quality face time” as one person I heard put it inelegantly but effectively. And because the art of the deal is to get something in return you might try making their part of the deal more explicit as in: “How about you and I get together one-to-one at the end of my speech and in return you and I stop discussing this right now in front of these patient people so that they can hear the rest of what they came for?”
You’ll understand why I’m not offering the above advice on a money-back-if-not-completely-satisfied basis. The most determined and disruptive hecklers can’t be simply silenced rather they simply can’t be silenced. In which case we’re up to E for eject in our ten point plan for dealing with hecklers. If there are heaps of hecklers it may be best for you to pull the eject handle and make a steady (never rush) exit from the podium with as much of your dignity in tact as possible. But like a fighter pilot ejecting from a jet, this should be a last resort.
In most cases it’s better to eject the heckler, although again with as much dignity as possible. Give them every opportunity to leave under their own steam with perhaps a gentle guiding hand on the small of their back from a well-mannered colleague or security guard (if it’s that kind of event and you’re that kind of person). It never looks good to see people – even hecklers – manhandled from a venue. It may play well with the audience with you in the venue who have seen the wider context and your valiant efforts to not reach this point. But how will it appear to the wider audience watching on television or on the web (again if it’s that kind of event) where the context is lost. If the archetype you’re trying to establish and/or reinforce for you and your organisation is say the care-giver then the subliminal message of a person being wrestled, kicking and screaming, from your presentation is working against you. This is why Obama did his level best not to get to the eject step. Trump, on the other hand, wants to convey the strong man archetype -a bit like the bear-wrestling, torso-baring Putin. So they and maybe you actively relish this step, witness Trump calling for a heckler to be “taken out and beaten up and I mean that seriously.” You can compare and contrast Trump and Obama’s differing styles on this fascinating Huffington Post video.
In most cases you’ll be able to restart without a messy ejection. If you can’t remember where you left off ask the audience: “Now where were we?” Note that’s where were we not where was I. The heckle is a collective inconvenience shared by everyone not just you. This approach shows you care for your audience and along with all that compassion you showed the heckler (unless you’re in the Trump school) will send your ratings soaring. But before you get carried away and start thinking of those garlands all over again a word of warning…
Unless all of the hecklers have been ejected from the venue and unless those who’ve been persuaded to shut up and stay keep their word, then you may have to repeat all or some of these steps. Stop again and smile winningly. Listen carefully. Acknowledge what it’s reasonable to acknowledge – if only their anger. Negotiate again (gently chiding them from breaking the last deal you brokered). Reach a new deal. Delay the resolution if you can’t find a solution there and then. Eject them this time (assuming you didn’t last time and they snuck back in when nobody was watching). Restart and, all being well, this time you won’t need to repeat step ten.
Richard Uridge runs presentation and public speaking skills courses for a wide range of clients – particularly in the not-for-profit sector. He must be a masochist because he actually enjoys the thrill of dealing with hecklers. So if you’d like to book a place on one of his workshops and heckle him he’d be delighted – especially as you’ll be paying modestly (from just £99 per person) for the privilege.
The Prime Minister would’ve been hoping the Heckler and Kochs were all safely in the arms of the police officers outside the Tory Party conference here in Manchester. Little did she suspect there would be a heckler and cock on the inside, armed with nothing more than a piece of paper. But in the right hands (or the wrong hands depending on your political perspective) a P45 can be every bit as lethal as an MP5 – particularly if the victim has already been wounded by blue-on-blue “friendly” fire from within the ranks. Step forward Lieutenant Johnson and Lance Corporal Rees-Mogg.
That the comedy Spetsnaz hiding in plain sight among the party faithful didn’t finish off the PM is testament to her presentorial (I made up that word) fortitude. After all, here was a speaker who also had to grapple with two additional enemies. The first biological: a sore throat. The second mechanical: an adhesive failure (or perhaps that should read ailure) when the f in the slogan behind her – building a country that works for everyone – came unstuck along with an e. Not great boss shtik. Or Bostik.
This scenery fail was, of course, a gift for the political commentators who were bound to see it as some kind of grand, unifying metaphor for the state of Theresa May’s rapidly disintegrating authority. But those seeking to bury her bits should remember the old adage “ne’r cast a clout til May is out.” And, by the end of her speech, May was down, yes, but by no means out.
At the risk of mixing metaphors, watching her performance put me in mind of those old nature programmes on the telly when I was a kid, except I don’t remember ever seeing the wildebeest get up and walk away after being dragged to the ground by a pack of hungry hyenas.
Now I don’t seek to make or score any political points here, but merely to suggest how those of us who have to present to audiences for a living might learn from May’s extraordinary recovery against the odds. It’s possible, of course, that she’s sustained mortal injuries and will succumb to them in due course. But as I write this in my hotel room overlooking the conference venue, where the security fences are being noisily dismantled, she’s still with us. The devil dogs have slunk into the shadows more usually occupied by the rough sleepers who, in turn, have been forced temporarily to seek out the even deeper shade in the streets and towpaths and underpasses the police consider a “safe” distance away.
So in this blog post I’ll suggest how you might deal with hecklers. And in subsequent posts I’ll write about sticky throats and less-than-sticky scenery.
There are four main ways of dealing with those intent on interrupting our presentations. The first is what I call a pre-heckle preemptive manoeuvre – grandiloquent eh?! The other three are post-heckle tactics, or what I like to foreshorten to “hectics” because that’s what they can feel like.
Stop them getting in.
Tackle them (physically not intellectually).
Tackle them (intellectually not physically).
Stopping them getting in in the first place is nigh on impossible. It’s hard to imagine a presentation with tighter security than for a sitting Prime Minister at a party conference. Yet even with a carefully vetted guest list Simon Brodkin aka Lee Nelson managed to get through. So by all means hope for the best and plan for the worst…
That plan should include whether you should ignore them and (a) hope they’ll give up/go away or (b) be escorted swiftly from the premises by your burly security detail. Now I don’t know about your presentations, but if you’re much further down the pecking order than, say, the PM or even the BBC’s political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, you’re unlikely to have such a, I was going to say luxury but, sadly, I should probably say necessity.
Both options – ignoring and physically tackling hecklers – are potentially problematic for your presentation. Bitter experience has shown me that while initially an interruption may barely disrupt proceedings when ignored hecklers usually get louder and louder until they can be ignored no longer. Best intervene on your terms rather than theirs.
So what should that intervention be? The physical tackle is best left to the rugby field (unless, of course, there is an immediate physical threat to your health and safety and that of your audience). The audience may forgive the physical nature of the response if it’s perceived to be proportionate to the threat. But if the threat isn’t physical or the response is disproportionate then the audience might change allegiance and see you as the oppressor and the aggressor as the victim. Whether seen live by your delegates or later by a wider audience via TV and the Internet, images of hecklers being man-handled (and it usually is man-handled) out of the building are rarely pretty. We instinctively back the little fella in the David vs Goliath scene we’re inadvertently producing.
All of which leaves us with the intellectual tackle, in its own way as hard to properly execute as the physical version but done well more effective. Doing it well means first of all pausing your presentation and acknowledging the interruption – ideally with a smile and especially with a smile if the heckle’s funny (to the audience that is – you’ll be struggling too see the funny side at the time)! It’s amazing how often even the acknowledgment and smile can calm or wrong foot the heckler who would otherwise feed off your discomfort.
If it’s needed, the next step is the critical one and if it was a dance move it’d impress Len Goodman. In a few words it’s to deal with the heckle not the heckler. In many words it’s to placate not to exacerbate, to reason not argue. It’s a routine best done calmly. Slow down your natural delivery pace and markedly so. Speak more quietly than usual. Resist the temptation to speed up, rush things or get louder. Humour can work, if it’s self deprecating. May held up a throat lozenge handed to her by Philip Hammond and declared “look, a free gift from the Chancellor!” And it’s to her credit that she was able to turn defence into attack and redirect the spoof P45 towards her usual arch nemesis, the Leader of the Opposition. But humour can fail if it’s at the expense of the heckler. They may become more not less disruptive or the audience may feel your humour is too cutting and the heckler’s once again an Old Testament David and you’re the cudgel-swinging oaf.
Asking questions of the heckler may seem time-consuming but can help you and the audience understand what exactly are their concerns. Once revealed those concerns can then be addressed – the underlying causes if you like rather than just the symptoms. If you discover that the heckler has a point then maybe you could concede some ground. Theresa may have said (but didn’t) “for those of us in uncertain jobs the P45 isn’t a welcome sight but thanks for reminding me all the same I’ll keep it to hand” and then, with a magician’s flourish, folded it into her pocket and resumed her script. It’s certainly a refreshing approach and can again wrong-foot all but the most determined heckler. I’d concede it takes both quick wits and steel nerves but I find that many sources of interruption can be anticipated and rehearsed so that you appear super smart and super cool only because you’ve practised. And as you know, practise makes perfect.
If you’d like to practise dealing with hecklers in highly realistic training sessions then Richard Uridge and ACM Training offers just that for a whole lot less than senior politicians pay their armies of choreographers, script writers, voice coaches and colour consultants. Click here to send us an email outlining your worst presentational nightmares and we’ll do our level best to show you how to turn them into sweet dreams.
Next time. Not to be sneezed at: how to deal with coughs, colds and sore throats.
Love him or hate him, Labour leader Ed Miliband’s keynote speech to his party’s conference in Manchester this week is an interesting, instructive and, it has to be said, fairly lengthy watch for students of public speaking and presentational skills. If you’ve got one hour, four minutes and 48 seconds to spare you can watch his address here and make up your own mind. But if you haven’t (or as a true blue Tory voter the very thought of spending that long with him makes your skin creep) then read my conference speech guide – not to the politics of it but the mechanics.
I’ve divided his address into the five components that make up any speech from the grandest to the most modest :
1 the speaker
2 the spoken (words)
3 the spoken to (audience)
4 the unspoken (body language)
5 the place spoken (venue)
In this post I’m going to explore the first component – the speaker. Future posts will cover the other four.
As a speaker the key to a successful presentation is knowing from the outset exactly what you want that presentation to achieve and never losing sight of your objectives through the planning and delivery phases. As a trainer I recommend speakers distil their purpose into a just few lines as the very first step. Watching Ed Miliband I’d stake my house on his early notes reading something like this: “show the audience I’m an ordinary kind of guy, share with them my vision for Britain and tell them how together we can make that happen.” As a politician he almost certainly couldn’t resist also scribbling “and rubbish the Coalition, especially the Conservative half or it.”
Know thyself Know thine audience is the phrase most often associated with public speaking. But there should be a second mantra – know thyself. Self knowledge as a speaker is vital. You need to know your strengths and weaknesses. Where the comfort zone ends and the discomfort zone begins. How nervousness manifests itself (and all presenters get nervous however relaxed they may appear). Like top athletes the very best speakers frequently push themselves beyond their normal limits. It’s how they improve. By speaking entirely without notes Miliband was pushing himself to the limits of his endurance. Doing the oratorial equivalent of a Mo Farah (whose name, incidentally, he mentioned in an effort to associate himself with the winning Olympic team). In delivering his address without even the safety net of an auto-cue he was again serving his purpose. He wanted us to think “hey a guy who can do that can run the country.”
As a speaker it’s also vital to know your relationship with the audience. Is your stock, so to speak, high or low? Do they like you or hate you? You’re selling them something – in Miliband’s case a promise to make Britain great again in return for our votes – so you better know how hard a sell you’ve got on your hands. The Labour leader clearly understood his stock was on the low side, not at the conference itself so much as among the wider public audience. Confronted with this tension between themselves and their audience speakers have two options: ignore it and hope it’ll go away; or concede there’s tension and do something to reduce it. Sensibly Miliband chose the second. “I understand why you voted for Cameron,” he declared before moving on to why we should no longer trust the Prime Minister but trust him instead.
You’re havin’ a laugh
Humour is an important part of any speech. Important but not essential. Not essential because some people are uncomfortable with humour – speakers and audiences alike. And some subjects are simply no laughing matter. Done right, however, humour can lift a speech. Give both the audience and the speaker a moment to relax. Act as a delicate counterpoint to a more profound moment. Provide punctuation. Give people a chance to shift buttocks or open a Murray mint without drawing attention to themselves. Done wrong humour can kill a speech stone dead. Alienate an audience. Overdone and it can tend to trivialise a speech and overshadow the content.
By making himself the butt of his jokes Miliband avoided giving offence. And mostly the laughs he got appeared genuine (but then in a hall full of acolytes I’d be surprised if they didn’t) although occasionally there was a momentary disconnect between punch line and laugh which made the smile on the Labour leader’s face a tad strained. My advice is to move on swiftly if the anticipated response isn’t forthcoming.
More importantly his self deprecating humour helped serve his purpose: it was designed to show the audience (especially the overwhelming majority of us beyond the conference walls) that he was our kind of guy. Odd looking perhaps. A bit like the bloke off Wallace and Gromit maybe. But warm and friendly nonetheless. The friendly bit is crucial to politicians. They know we don’t trust them. And because we don’t trust them they know we don’t like them. But they also know that human nature dictates this behavioural formula works the other way round and if we like them we’ll trust them. So politicians work hard to make themselves likeable. Hence the humour and the frequent references to family history in the Miliband speech.
Richard Uridge coaches public speakers and runs presentational skills workshops. He hasn’t trained Ed Miliband. And even if he had he’d be contractually obliged to say he hadn’t (but he really hasn’t)! He’s not a bad speaker himself. Not the best. But then Sir Alex Ferguson wasn’t the best footballer. If you’d like him (Richie that is not Fergie) to train you or your colleagues or give a speech then you can get in touch by sending him an email email@example.com
Noam Chomsky may well be an expert linguist. But his suggestion in a recent Daily Telegraph article that oratory is unnecessary is ludicrous. ‘I am no Barack Obama,’ he told the interviewer, Nigel Farndale. ‘I don’t have any oratory skills. But I would not use them if I had. I don’t like to listen to it. Even people I admire, like Martin Luther King, just turn me off. I don’t think it is the way to reach people. If you are giving a graduate course you don’t try to impress the students with oratory, you try to challenge them, get them to question you.’
Well Noam I beg to differ. Hearing you drone on would bore me, however interesting the content. I’m glad I’m not one of your students at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I’d be the bloke at the back dozing off.
Great communicators combine content with style. Okay so no amount of style can make up for a total lack of content. But great content can be spoiled by poor delivery. Try reading any of Churchill’s famous wartime addresses to the nation in a boring voice. Or Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech for that matter.
Classical music provides an appropriate metaphor. Imagine Beethoven’s 5th played on just one instrument. And, what’s more, imagine that the instrument played just one note. Wouldn’t be much of a symphony. Blah, blah, blah…You wouldn’t want to listen beyond a few blahs – oops I mean bars – now would you?
When public speaking your voice is an instrument. So use it as such. Unless, of course, you’re in possession of one of the world’s greatest intellects. And are arrogant enough to believe that alone will compel people to listen to you.