Murphy’s Law and the Public Speaker

Murphy’s lawis an adage or epigram that is typically stated as: “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong”. No one is immune to Murphy’s Law, but some people,like public speakers, place themselves in situations that provide old Mr. Murphy more opportunities to come out and play then others do.

Let me begin this post by sharing a true story with you. My first wife was great at volunteering me for things that she felt I would be good at without thinking about asking me first. Me being a licensed electrician, she volunteered my services to her church when they needed their auditorium stage rewired but didn’t have the funds to pay the labor that any professional electrician would have charged them to do it. Another time, when her favorite charity needed someone to do audio-visual work for them, she volunteered me. That led me into doing my first public speaking engagement and my first encounter with Mr. Murphy as a public speaker. Normally all I had to do was handle the AV work for their educational speaker who traveled around giving educational talks at fund raisers. Unfortunately, people get sick unexpectedly, and she did a few days before an important presentation in January of 1961. The chapter director called in the middle of dinner that Wednesday night and asked me if I could do the whole program that Friday night. She promised me that the church where I would be speaking would have someone to handle all the AV work for me and I would have to do is give the presentation. I suppose I could have said no. I could have told her that I hadn’t signed on for that, but I liked her and felt sorry for her. Besides that, it was a fund raiser to raise funds for a local man suffering from MS, so I said “yes.” My first mistake was not to check where I was to speak ahead of time. When I walked into that church the night of the presentation, I couldn’t believe how tiny the stage I would be speaking from really was. In my mind, I could see hundreds of signs welcoming Murphy to come out and play. There wasn’t enough wall receptacles for all the AV equipment that I would be using, so they had more extension cords strung all over the stage then Carter had Little Liver Pills. One of those extension cords was strung a few feet behind the lectern from which I would be speaking. Well, you’ve guessed it. A few minutes into my presentation, I stepped too far backwards during a gesture, tripped over that extension cord, and found myself lying flat on my back. That wouldn’t have been so bad if it hadn’t been for the domino effect. It seemed like that one extension cord was attached to everything on and around that stage. My falling down brought everything down with me—slide projector, movie projector, overhead projector, tape recorders, and microphones. Of course everything was damaged in their falling and I had to go without any of the electronic visual aids that the regular speaker always depended on.

That night could have been a total disaster for me if I had been one of the 70 percent of the population that suffered from glossophobia to one degree or another. Fortunately I had overcome my fear of public speaking in the military some years earlier. Fortunately, most public speakers never encounter anything quite that extreme. Still, every public speaker needs to be prepared to handle whatever old Murphy throws at them. Three of the most common ways Murphy enters the speaker’s presentation are in the forms of hecklers, audience anger, and the never-ending question.

Perhaps the only place a speaker will not have to worry about encounter one or all three of these problems is when speaking in a Toastmasters Club setting. At least not in a blatantly, overt manner. When speaking outside of the club environment every speaker needs to know how to handle hecklers, an angry audience, and never-ending questions because any of these things can derail a speech and destroy a speaker in the eyes of his or her audience if the speaker handle these situation in an inadequate or inappropriate manner.

Let’s take a closer look at those three problems and how you can handle them.

The Heckler

The “Heckler” strikes fear into the hearts of even the most experienced and stalwart of speakers. Hecklers can be depended upon to show up at any presentation where any speech on an unpopular or controversial subject will be presented. Political speeches; religious speeches; speeches on social issues, like abortion, gun control, and pornography, will all attract the hecklers in drove. Hecklers, if not handled properly can destroy a speech and the speakers credibility with his or her audience. So what should you do when a heckler makes his or her presence known? How should you, the speaker, react to the heckler?

There are many ways that you can react in a heckling situation, but the one way that you do not ever want to react is by confronting the heckler directly. A direct confrontation between you and the heckler is always counterproductive. A frontal attack is counterproductive because you will appear as being angry and hostile to your audience and that will alienate them. Your objective when giving any presentation is to get your audience on your side, not to alienate them. Even if the members in your audience do not agree with what the heckler is saying about you or your subject, they will still support the heckler’s right to freedom of speech and if you try to deny him or her that right, you will alienate your audience.

Just as a frontal attack on the heckler is counterproductive, so is ignoring the heckler. You cannot ignore them because they will derail your presentation as assuredly as a malfunctioning switch will derail a speeding freight train. OK, so if a frontal attack on the heckler is not an option and ignoring the heckler is not an option, just how do you handle a heckling situation?

Personally, my preferred method is to “cut them off at the pass.” I love that expression. Picked it from watching hours and hours of westerns on TV as a kid. The posse in those old westerns were always shouting, “Let’s cut them off at the pass,” as they chased the rustlers or bank robbers. By today’s TV fare of cops and robbers, they were in hot pursuit of their felons and wanted to cut off their route of escape. Like the members of those posse of yesteryear, or Cordell Walker of today’s “Walker, Texas Ranger”, one of my favorite shows, I never miss the reruns, I like to be proactive. I like to cut the hecklers off at the pass. I like to cut them off before they have a chance to get started. So what do I do to cut them off at the pass? The way that I prevent them from becoming a problem in the first place is to let everyone in my audience know how they can contact me and use that as a way to direct unwanted inputs away from my speech. Of course that doesn’t work 100 percent of the time. Some hecklers need an audience to play off of and when I have one of them in my audience, I deal with them by first acknowledging them and their position and then then move on and tell them that I’ll be available after the presentation to talk about their issue(s).

The angry audience.

Toastmasters Clubs have a mentoring program in which an experienced speaker is matched up with a new member to help them with their first five or six speeches. In my club, I am one of those mentors. Like every mentor, one of the very first things that I impress upon those that I’m mentoring is that their audience really wants them to succeed as a speaker. We don’t, and maybe we should, go on to say that we are talking about their fellow Toastmasters as the audience they are presenting to. In real life, when speaking outside the Toastmasters Club environment, that is not always the case. In many cases, for many different reasons, a speaker’s audience may be out for his or her blood. An audience could be angry at the speaker for many different reasons. We will just explore a few of the main ones in this post.

First, you may have unknowingly stepped into a hostile environment. If you are making a business presentation before the employees of a large company, those employees may be stressed out and angry over recent layoffs due to company downsizing. They may even be in fear of being in the next round of layoffs. Second, even worse, depending on the nature of your presentation, they may even blame you for the events taking place in their little world. The bottom line is that the reasons behind the audiences anger doesn’t really matter because anger is anger, and that anger is being directed at you.

Once again, the best way to handle an angry audience is to cut them off at the pass. A speaker cannot afford allow him or herself be surprised by an audience. Cutting them off at the pass in this situations means having a discussion with the person who asked you to present in advance to explore how the audience feels about the subject you will be speaking on. That’s being proactive. I take these proactive measures one step further by arriving early for my presentation which gives me a chance to mingle with audience before my speech and that always gives me a good reading on their mood.

When facing a hostile audience, you need to be able to revise your speech right then and there. You need to cut out everything except the most important parts of your presentation. You need to move into the Q&A portion of your speech in an expeditious manner because that’s what your audience really wants to do, to ask questions and get answers to those questions. I have found over the years that the more time I could spend in Q&A with an angry audience, the better they felt towards me and towards my presentation when it was all over.

Dealing With The Never-Ending Question

There always appears to be at least one member of the audience who wants to ask a question, but really isn’t sure of how to word their question. What happens is that when they stand up to ask their question, they ramble on and on, so you are never quite sure what their real question is. Many speakers think that this person really wasn’t listening to them and dismiss them out of hand, thus alienating them. The problem with these people is not in their listening skills, but in the fact that they didn’t take the time to clearly formulate their question in their minds before they stood up to ask it. My way of handling this situation is to create my own question from what the person has said, answer it, and let the person know that if they have any additional questions I’ll be available after my speech to speak with them more.

In conclusion

Like the Boy Scouts, we need to always “Be Prepared.” that’s the Boy Scouts Motto, and it needs to become our motto as well. We will never be able to anticipate what will happen when we give our next speech, but we need to be prepared to handle whatever happens. As speakers we need to know how to go with the flow in order to maximize the benefits of public speaking for our audiences.


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