How to Handle a Disrespectful Crowd During a Speaking Gig

They say public speaking is one of the most nerve wracking experiences, but what if the crowd is just downright disruptive and disrespectful?

Richie Frieman
6-minute read
Episode #385

They say that public speaking is one of the most terrifying experiences a person can go through. Now, as a public speaker myself, I happen to love it. In fact, I have the motto the more the merrier when it comes to a speaking engagement. With that, I feel is the most nerve wracking aspect of public speaking isn’t the size of the crowd but the fact that, sadly, people don't even listen—or worse, are loud and disruptive.

Be it hecklers, loud talkers, or people rudely trying to whisper (but failing miserably), the folks talking amongst themselves are by far the worst part of any speaking engagement. After all, the last thing any speaker wants to do is feel they have to go ten rounds with improper attendees who left their manners at the door. So, before you get nervous about speaking, check out my top three quick and dirty tips for handling a disrespectful audience:

Tip #1: Let ‘Em Know You Know

In nearly a decade of being a professional speaker, I’ve seen it all; the good, the bad and the insanely rude. And oddly, even when brought in as a paid performer, it seems there will always be some people that don’t quite understand how to act when a speaker is in front of them. In fact, as my fellow QDT host and friend, The Public Speaker will echo, once a heckler or gaggle of talkers take over the room, it’s very hard to get it back. Case in point, the other night I had one of the worst speaking engagements of my career, at an elementary school in my community. I was invited as an author to give a twenty-minute talk, during a “Reading Night” event in front of about 100 students and parents;. Now, I bet you think that I’m going to say that kids where the ones acting up. Sadly, it was the adult sector of the crowd. I should have known it was going to be bad when the principal got up to greet everyone and a group of snotty adults in the back (about a dozen) erupted in conversation over her. So, when I got up to the mic, needless to say, they didn’t stop talking over me. Despite people turning to them with evil eyes, and despite those listening loudly shushing them too, these rude parents went on in their meaningless conversations. Annoyed, I couldn’t tolerate it, so I let them know… tactfully.

Basketball player Jermaine O'Neal has a great quote regarding hecklers: “I always find a couple of hecklers... I'll kinda look at them, stare at 'em, and let them know I can't be stopped.” I love this attitude and I highly recommend it. But you can’t just call people out, stomping your feet and making a scene. It’s improper to drop down to their ground floor level of manners. Instead, let them know as I did. Here’s three things I said, which  drove my point home:

  • When I called for a child volunteer to come up: “Hi there! Now tell everyone your name but make sure you speak loud enough so the folks talking in the back can hear.”
  • When I was talking about having a learning disability growing up: “When I was younger, I had a very tough time reading, and I got very frustrated … kind of like having to deal with the people in the  back.”
  • When ending: “Before I leave, here is my information on the screen so anyone can contact me—and for the people in the back to see who was talking tonight.”