The metsitaba newsletter for tech speakers, 26 Jan 2018

Have you been heckled? What should you do when you are heckled? Your audience will react to your talk in unpredictable ways—here are some of the ways I’ve found to cope with undesirable audience members.

The first time I was properly heckled as a speaker was at my own wedding. A number of my dear old grand aunts were in attendance. Let me tell that a gang of Irish and Northern Irish matriarchs is not something you should ever choose to face as members of your audience. Especially not when they’ve been fueled with more than a few gin and tonics. Let’s just say that they won that round.

Luckily aggressive and persistence heckling is not something you see at professional conferences. Certainly, as a speaker I would expect the organizer or moderator to jump in and save my sorry ass if it happened. We are not professional comedians, and few are born with the razor-sharp wit to bite back.

That said, what you do get is the occasional shout, or worse, “loud” muttering. Since Node.js was my game in my last company, I got quite a lot of this in the early days. You try explaining the benefits of Node.js (a pretender to the crown of enterprise software platforms) to Java or .Net developers (the anointed respective monarchs of their domains) and be grateful you’re not ducking to avoid empty beer cans.

I’m afraid this toxic, muttering audience member is too common. It’s annoying and can put your off your talk. It’s unprofessional, but quite clever—not something the mutterer can get thrown out for. What do you do?

Remember that most of the audience is on your side. They chose to attend your talk. They are listening attentively, and they do want to learn. Even if they disagree, they are there to learn. The mutterer is annoying them too.

What you have to do is lock in that goodwill. Get the audience on-side early. One easy way to do this is to use audience interaction. Why do think so many speakers open with a “raise your hands if …” question. The audience, by acquiescing to your request, implicitly accepts your authority. Once your authority is established as a collective decision, the mutterers are much less inclined to start up, as they sense the room is against them. Even if they do, you’ll often here a “shh!” or two in support of your position.

The more hostile you think your audience is going to be, the further you should push this. I once asked 300 people to stand up and do a power-stance exercise. Some just wouldn’t stand up, of course, so you have to go all in and refuse to start giving your talk until they do stand up. These obstinates are playing chicken with the entire audience, so they always lose. I packaged up this request by suggesting that the power-stance would make them all better programmers. But that was really just providing a facade for social permission so that people would feel comfortable doing it.

This technique works, but be careful not to overdo it—you really don’t want to get a reputation for “audience participation”, or people will start avoiding your talks!

Thursday, March 15th 2018

This newsletter (and our company) will be supporting and hosting a World Speech Day event in Ireland on March 15th. This is a global event taking place in over 80 countries worldwide on the same day and celebrates the art of public speaking by hosting and supporting the voices of new speakers and young people all over the world.

Volunteers Needed!
If you’d like to participate, we’re looking for volunteers to help make this community event happen. We need people to help with preparation, as well as participate on the night of the 15th. Everybody is welcome.Can I ask you for a favor? If you enjoy this newsletter, and if you find it useful, please consider recommending it to a friend who is learning to give technical talks, or who aspires to do so. I meet so many cool programmers who have brilliant things to share with the world—that’s you!

Please help me to improve this newsletter – I’d love to hear your suggestions! You can email me directly: You can tweet too: @metsitaba. Thank you so much for reading!

A special thanks and shout out to TammyCora, and David for helping to make this newsletter even better!


Speaker Profile

Amy Schumer
September 2016 Show Extract [V]

During a show in 2016, the comedian Amy Schumer was heckled with an original and classic line /sarcasm. The Guardian wrote up an excellent commentary. Regardless of what you think of Schumer’s comedy (and I’ll admit to being a huge fan!), this video is worth watching to see a masterful entrapment and tear down of a heckler.

The key thing, I think, is to remember that the audience loves you, the person they came to see. As a professional, Schumer knows this, and uses it to out maneuver the heckler, literally asking the audience to applaud her decision to kick him out. Your audience loves you too, and will support you in the same way.

Technology conferences are a little more sedate, but the hecklers are still there, and there’s always the chance that you could get a real “character”. Trust your audience. Just ask them if they would like the heckler to leave. Hopefully, you never have to put this plan into action, but at least now you have one.

Learn from the best

“Order, Order, ORDER!” [V]

If you’re never seen Betty Boothroyd in action, you’ve been missing out. Revered, loved, and feared, as speaker of the British House of Commons from 1992 to 2000, she held absolute sway over the most unruly bunch of hooligans [V] ever to be elected.

If you think you have it bad as a speaker, just be glad you don’t have to do Prime Minister’s Questions every Wednesday afternoon!

Confessions of a Public Speaker
Scott Berkun

Good books on public speaking are readily available, and for the most part, they’re all similar. They will all have the basics of good communication skills, stage presence, language, how to engage your audience and more. This book is different. It’s hilarious. It’s an authentic account of what it’s really like in the real world from the perspective of a speaker, what can and will go wrong and how to deal with it with a fantastic sense of humor.

12 Ways to handle a heckler as a professional speaker
Esther Snippe

“…a heckler will jump right into a rant. They will make things personal, and will be insulting. They will poke and prod at anything, from your slides to your clothing to your ideas.

Make sure you know which kind of individual you are dealing with, because if you mistakenly start to “deal” with someone who is just trying to open a dialogue, you can risk turning your audience off.

If you want them to accept your ideas, they will need to think that you are level headed, reasonable and intelligent, and if you freak out because someone questions you, you might lose some of your credibility, and your audience.

Once you are certain you are dealing with a heckler, it’s time to disarm them and get your presentation on back on track….”

Three Conferences

Global Diversity CFP Day

Interested in speaking at tech events and conferences? Join one of close to 50 workshops globally on February 3rd to put together your very first talk proposal and share your own individual perspective on any tech subject. Mentors will be on hand to guide you through the process, offering advice and assistance.

404 London

The 404 conference is hopping over to London from Dublin and taking all that is great about the Irish tech scene with them, showcasing exciting tech opportunities with Ireland’s best tech employers. Amazing international and Irish speakers, demos, installations and a great after-party make this one not to miss! You’ll be in London’s trendy Shoreditch district too with plenty to do once the party is done.

DevFest Minneapolis

1 Day, 8 Tracks, 50+ Speakers and 600 Attendees make up this event, hosted and carefully crafted by the local Google Developer Group to bring you awesome speakers, great topics and, of course, fun! No two DevFest events are alike, but they are all driven by the belief that when developers come together, amazing things can happen!

CFP Calendar

These are the CFP deadline dates and submission pages.