A big part of being an effective technical speaker is understanding your audience. In this post, we break down exactly who they are, why they are there, and what you can do about it. All of that starts with the most important idea in this whole post...

Don't Waste the Audience's Time

Ever been in a conference talk that turned out to be nothing like what you expected? Maybe the presenter didn't cover the topic they said they would in their abstract, maybe they were too high-level when you expected something deeper, or maybe they were just boring as hell.

Whatever the reason, if the audience feels like you are wasting their time, you will not get through to them, no matter how "compelling" your content is.

A recycling bin logo showing a stylized person throwing a piece of paper into a wastebasket.
This is your audience. That paper is you. Don't be that paper.

So that's the overarching idea of this post: it is paramount to not waste your audience's time. But in order to do that, we must first know who our audience actually is.

Know Your Audience

As a speaker, you should know a couple of things about any audience that shows up for one of your talks. First, they want you to succeed; merely by being present they reveal that they want your presentation to go well and to learn something from you. Second, they expect that you will be the expert on whatever topic you are speaking about, even if you don't know everything. You don't want to prove them wrong.

A recycling bin logo showing a stylized person throwing a piece of paper into a wastebasket.
How many people are asleep in this picture?

There's something else speakers need to keep in mind. Technical conferences are filled with technical people. This might mean developers, QA personnel, testers, managers, DevOps, designers, DBAs, server maintainers, or any of a hundred other specializations that I am certainly not qualified to discuss. What they have in common is that they are all extremely busy people. They do not have time to waste on a presentation that isn't useful to them. In fact, the bolder ones among them will walk out of presentations that clearly aren't going to be useful to them, a trait that should be encouraged by speakers.

Know that your audience are busy professionals. They have chosen to take time out of their conference day, work day, some day to come and see your presentation. Don't make them regret that choice.

A few ways you might make them regret that choice include:

  • Not talking about the topic you told them you would talk about. I've been in talk where the speaker did not stick to their abstract AT ALL, and around 1/3 of the audience left because none of them found the new topic useful. Don't be that person.
  • Constantly repeating yourself. Some repetition is good, and key to learning. But constantly repeating what you just said using different words is a great way to allow your audience to take a nap.
  • Being boring! We'll talk about this particular problem more in the last part of this series.

Respect your audience as the busy professional people they are!

Speak as a Colleague, Not as an Expert

The fastest way, in my experience, to have an audience tune you out is to imply that they are somehow less smart than you. Our goal should be to speak to our audience as colleagues, even as friends, but not as an expert looking to show off their knowledge.

A recycling bin logo showing a stylized person throwing a piece of paper into a wastebasket.
"Simply put, we can clearly improve our site trivially by..." OMG NO.

You don't want to say something like this:

"It becomes obvious that, with this simple change, you can easily implement these ideas to make your system more extensible and reduce the number of security problems you will encounter..."

The main reason to not say something like this is because it won't be simple or obvious or easy for at least some people in the audience. The words you choose to say reveal what you actually think about the topic; choosing words like easy or clearly or trivial suggests that the underlying concepts are easy to understand. What if they aren't? Or, at least, aren't to some people at this very moment? Those people are most likely skeptical of anything you say now, because you made them feel like this was easy, and it isn't to them.

Instead, say something like this:

"See this here? This is an example of how we can implement these ideas we've been talking about. By removing X and replacing with Y, we allow our system to become more extensible while, at the same time, reducing the likelihood that we will have any security problems."

Notice the language here; they describe something tangible, measurable, something that is recognizably a good thing. They say the same thing as the first quote with the implicit bias removed. They make no assumptions about the skills of the audience; rather, they show a clear and obvious way we can improve something.

The language you use during a presentation reveals what you actually think about the topic. Don't reveal that you think it is easy; it had damn well better be easy for you, because you've spent countless hours researching it. The audience hasn't. Don't assume the audience knows the things that you know!

Let Them Leave

If anyone leaves while you are presenting, under no circumstances should you point out that this is happening. I bring this up because I witnessed this happen, though the circumstances will remain obscure.

A recycling bin logo showing a stylized person throwing a piece of paper into a wastebasket.
Walking off into the sunset.

The fact that people are leaving your talk probably has nothing to do with your skill or knowledge. Most likely, they are leaving because the content isn't what they thought it would be, or just won't work for them, or they already know it. It doesn't reflect poorly on you if a few people leave during your talk; the only time you should be concerned is if people leave en masse, all at once, and quite frankly I have never actually seen this occur.

Summary

Your audience is made up of busy people; treat them as such. Respect their time by not wasting it, and respect their autonomy by allowing them to leave unmolested. Speak to them as someone who wants to share knowledge, not someone who wants to revel in knowing. Most of all, remember that your audience are people, people who want to learn and be made better, and that they want you to help them do so.

In the next part of this series, we will discuss ways to communicate your ideas to your audience, ways in which your language can show intent and evoke emotion, and why practice and deletion are two of the most valuable tools in your speaker toolbox.

Happy Speaking!