Get-tough tips for beleaguered commencement speakers

It’s the season for speakers.

CEOs, celebrities and politicians are all putting finishing touches on commencement addresses for colleges across the country. But if the run up to graduation day is any indication, speakers may have more to worry about than stumbling on their words. Protestors have caused the cancellation of speakers from Condoleezza Rice, former National Security Advisor to Christine Lagarde, head of the IMF.

And if critics don’t succeed in getting a speech scrubbed they may protest in real time.

MORE: A modest proposal for picking graduation speakers: Have a vote

Indeed, while the majority of any kind of speech goes off smoothly, where there is a stage there is always the possibility of interruptions, even hecklers, trying to grab the spotlight. As a coach, here’s what I tell my clients to do if unscheduled speakers become a distraction:

    • Pause and identify the problem. There is a big difference between people with tough questions and hecklers. Questioners want answers, and hecklers are just hell-bent on being heard. With the interrupting questioner you can take a stab at answering mid speech and then suggest a conversation off-line. With the heckler you need a different strategy:


    • Power up! You have the mic so jump in and ask, “Do you have a question?” Often a heckler will back off, but if he has a question, hear him out–that’s what he wants. And depending of what he says and how he says it you may thank him for his thoughts. This usually works, but if not…


  • Enlist help. In some cases there may be security, but in every case you have your audience, and that’s a big advantage. Turn to them, and ask if they’d like to hear more from the heckler. Ask if they’d like to hear from you. In the case of a commencement address, ask the audience if they’d like to focus again on honoring the college graduates. You just know that some mom or dad will stand up and tell the heckler to take a hike.


Freedom of speech is something we all cherish. So is fairness.

I hope heckling doesn’t happen to you. But if it does you’ll be ready and if you handle a heckler well, you’ll look even more like a leader.

Mary Civiello is an executive communications coach who works with leaders at some of the world’s largest businesses and not-for-profit organizations, as well as high-profile startups. She is also author of Communication Counts: Business Presentations for Busy People. Previously, she was a reporter and anchor at NBC in New York.

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