Christian Heilmann

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Being a public speaker in the web business

Thursday, December 11th, 2008

Chris Brogan has put together a nice to-do list on how to start speaking at events and there’s some great information in there (some of which I am not doing yet, but will start soon).

Right now I am a “international developer evangelist” which is a nice title but sadly enough does not come with Q gadgets like Bond or a private jet like Iron Man. What it means is that I spend most of my days looking at what my company is doing and how it would matter for the outside world and to see what the world is doing to feed back to the people too busy in the company to have a look around themselves. In between I am translating these from one language and interest to another by creating easy-to-grasp examples and show improvements that can be done. And of course go out there and give lots and lots of presentations (last week I had 3 days in 2 countries with 7 presentations and 2 media interviews).

It is a sweet gig, and I am happy that I arrived at it after being a developer for a long time battling both the technologies of the web (and their creative implementations in browsers) and the internal hierarchies and politics of the company that pays your wage.

This does not really stop when you go into a speaking role though, if anything, the politics become even more problematic:

  • Event organizers are less likely to pay you or your expenses when you work for a large company. Surely the company is happy to dedicate its time and money to support some random event someone else does make money with, right?
  • Your colleagues are likely to constantly nag you that you are not coding any more and are just a speaker or front man now. This is sad and can be terribly annoying and a lot of people should not be surprised that you drift apart over the month as the job of a public figure is tiring and means a lot of work. Hearing that you do nothing is not very encouraging and does make you feel like you’re wasting your time.
  • Marketing, PR and HR will be all over you to either march along with them for the good cause (which in a lot of times is directly in the opposite direction of yours) or keep a very close eye on you so that you don’t do anything silly in public that could harm the company.
  • Random people will come to you with a very specific agenda and try to convince you that this is what the world needs to hear about.

In general, I am trying my best to walk the very narrow path of being an “evangelist” and not losing touch with what is being done in the company and the market. My own mental checklist is:

  • It is not about you. You have a knack of speaking and explaining but if you really think you are a rockstar or people should read about you and your life, get one. This is a very small community with a very specific market that is not even defined properly yet.
  • Do not overpromise. If you don’t believe in something or you are not sure if it really works, try it first and make sure. Come from a base of confidence not “woohoo this is sooo coool”
  • Give people things to take away. This is my pet peeve about presentations. If there is nothing in there I can bring back and impress my boss with or make my life a lot easier, what was the point? Yes this is terribly pragmatic, but I am just not easy to get interested in theories or visionary speeches – I’ve seen too many be totally off the mark.
  • Speak the language of the audience. Is the level of complexity the right one for the audience? Are they native speakers? Will pop references and jokes work?
  • Find something new for yourself. Even if you’ve given dozens of talks about the topic, make sure to get a new, fresh angle that challenges you and the audience alike.
  • Do your research. There’s nothing better than referencing other good examples and articles for people to read on about the topic.
  • Have your handouts ready. Don’t just promise availability of your talk and examples, have them online and as a link to download before you even start.
  • Go into sponge mode. The people you are about to talk to are even more interesting than you are. Chat, listen, invite to communicate, ask for things to look at and you’ll get a lot of inspiration for the next gig.

This works quite well for me and if you are interested, I can go on about planning your trips and what to make sure before you go in another post. Should I?


Other speaking tips:

Creating Happy Little Web Sites – my tech talk at the Guardian

Saturday, June 28th, 2008

Here’s a presentation I have given today at the Guardian office in London. In it I am covering the different great ideas I found out about developing web sites. Check the presentation here:

[slideshare id=488632&doc=happylittlewebsites-1214566328957709-8&w=425]

The Guardian have recorded my talk and will release it on the Inside Guardian blog

Video of my talk at the University of Ankara

Tuesday, June 24th, 2008

Kivanc Erten has shot a video of my talk at the Open Source Event in the University of Economics and Technology in Ankara, Turkey explaining what free open resources Yahoo has for developers:


Part 1: Yahoo is Open

Part 2: Yahoo is Open

Fencing in the habitat – doing things right and getting the accessibility wrong

Saturday, April 26th, 2008

This is my talk given at AbilityNet’s Accessbility 2.0 conference in London today. In it I am talking about how we try to sell accessibility and the mistakes we make while we do so.

My talk at GeekUp as video – the NorthCast recording is live

Tuesday, February 26th, 2008

screenshots of the video of my talk at GeekUp Leeds

The lovely chaps from Northcast have edited and uploaded the video of my talk at GeekUp Leeds about JavaScript and the YUI.

I especially like that they went through the whole story, right from me arriving handing over the schwag and being hugged by mysterious flatcapped Northern beauties, including the whole talk and the full Q&A session. The second part of the Q&A session is a bit on the rough side from a sound perspective but I guess the free beer consumed till then is to blame.

I hope this is useful to some, it was interesting for me to see what I talked about as the whole presentation was finished on the train and completely ad-libbed as it is.

Thanks again to GeekUp and the NorthCast people, good job and I am looking forward to more of this sort.