Christian Heilmann

Talk nerdy to me! – how to talk to tech audiences (Speaking Out)

Thursday, November 25th, 2010 at 4:27 pm

On Tuesday Laura North’s Speaking Out partnered with the London Girl Geek Dinners to deliver the third Speaking Out Event in London, England. Speaking out is meant to give people tips, confidence and ideas on how to become a public speaker. This time, Laura had invited Claire Lee from Microsoft and Margaret Gold as speakers and me as someone to get people drinking and talking afterwards.

Speaking Out #3 in London by photoSpeaking Out #3 in London by photo
Speaking Out #3 in London by photoSpeaking Out #3 in London by photo

The topic this time was “Speaking in Technology” and my presentation “Talk Nerdy to me” gave some tips on how to speak to a tech audience.

The slides are available on SlideShare:

The audio is available on


The event was special for me as it was the last public talk for me as a full-time Yahoo employee – great to do that on a topic that is close to my heart.

Talking to technical audiences is different than talking to others.

The good news are that clothing doesn’t matter and that technical glitches are expected. If something goes wrong, you can blame either Microsoft or Apple.

The bad news are that there is a shorter attention span – technical audiences don’t forgive long-winded explanations – and that the audience is keen on spotting a mistake to show off that they know more than you. The final part of bad news is that feedback is very polarised, so you should take bad and good feedback with a grain of salt as the truth is probably in the middle.

If you take the right approach, none of this is an issue though.

Girl geeks are not uncommon and there are crossovers. For example in Star Trek – The undiscovered country – Lieutenant Valeris – a Vulcan – was played by Samantha from Sex and the City!

Lea Verou (@leaverou) completely blew me away at the Fronttrends2010 conference in Poland. Her CSS3 talk was very long, very complex and she delivered it amazingly well although she was incredibly nervous at first.

Anna Debenham @anna_debenham gave an amazing talk at the Mozilla Drumbeat Festival about the state of education in web development in the UK. Although she is very young she already runs her own web magazine at ScrunchUp – check it out!

What is their secret? Simple, passion and information – if you love what you talk about you will give a great talk. Prepare properly and you have a great talk nailed already.

However, there are some more tricks:

  • Don’t over-plan – rehearsed talks with planned jokes are stale and boring
  • Avoid redundancy – Write your deck and then remove all the things that are not really necessary.
  • Say what it is – tell the audience upfront what you will talk about and use the right terms
  • Cite other people – instead of telling the audience that you know it all back up your information with deep-dive links
  • Break out of the box – every topic has a very obvious use case, but the interesting talks are based around the unknown part of a certain technology
  • Don’t preach – tell people what works for you and why and not that they should use what you use because that is the way
  • Ask questions – a simple show of hands makes the audience feel much more part of your talk and forces them to move
  • Avoid religious wars – don’t get into nitty-gritty little arguments about technology. It is good to cause controversy but doesn’t teach you or the audience anything
  • Prepare takeaways – have your slides available, your code on GitHub and a list of links somewhere. Don’t make the audience scribble down while you talk

And that’s that – you can find a lot more tips in my Developer Evangelism Handbook

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