Respecting the Audience

Currently there is an ongoing debate about a joke that was made during a lecture about free software. I have previously written about why I think it’s inappropriate with regard to children in the audience [1]. For those who are interested in following this mess Matthew Garrett has written an interesting follow-up post with some useful links and a lively comment section [2].

I think that to some extent this is a symptom of a larger problem. That of speakers who take their audience for granted and don’t show them adequate respect. This is an easy trap to fall into, after giving many lectures which are well received it’s easy to become too egotistical and think of an audience as your right – rather than as a privilege that is earned by doing good technical work and explaining it in a clear and respectful manner.

Making jokes for a multi-national audience is difficult at the best of times, often jokes that work well in one culture will fall flat with an audience from a different cultural background. If you give a lecture that contains jokes then some of them won’t work, usually they merely fail by not getting any laughs but sometimes they cause offense. If you tell a joke in a lecture and no-one laughs then it’s probably a good idea to not follow up with any further jokes on that topic, if your speaking skills are not sufficient to allow you to make such a change to your talk in response to audience reaction then it’s best not to plan for a series of jokes. Regardless of the topic of the jokes it’s not a good situation if the majority of the audience is not amused.

Art is also subjectively interpreted in ways that vary according to the local culture and the definition of porn is even more subjective. In my post about appropriate talks about porn [3] the only situation I could imagine where showing a picture related to porn during a lecture about computer science was in regard to Lena and the history of computer graphics (the famous picture of Lena is cropped so that it is not pornographic), and that post did not receive a comment with any other suggestion. We could have a debate about where exactly the line should be drawn. But there are some situations where a line has been clearly crossed, such as a presentation about flash development which included a frontal view of a woman wearing semi-transparent underpants [4].

If you are going to give a lecture about art then there are valid reasons for showing pictures which may be considered to be porn by some people (I can’t imagine a lecture about Greek or Roman statues not having some serious nudity). But if the topic of your lecture is computer science then anything which significantly distracts the audience from that is a failure – even if it’s not offensive.

Presenting material that you find entertaining but which doesn’t interest the audience is self-indulgent. A small amount of self-indulgence will be accepted by the audience, but it needs to be short and forgettable.

If you respect the audience you have to respect feedback. For example if your wife or girlfriend thinks that your talk is great but women in the audience are offended then you need to take note of the feedback. If your presentation is designed to appeal to your friends and relatives then again you are making it all about you not about the audience.

Also when giving a public lecture you have to keep in mind the fact that even if you are famous in some field the majority of the audience won’t know much about you. The majority of the audience are not friends who have some background knowledge which helps them interpret your actions, and they aren’t people who have seen your previous lectures. Your lecture has to stand alone. Any defense of a talk which is badly received which involves a phrase such as “if you knew him better” or “if you had seen his other talks” is a weak defense. In almost all cases the audience should be expected to have no prior knowledge of the speaker.

4 comments to Respecting the Audience

  • Drizzt

    I don’t want to directly answer the »respect your audience« statement, as I think that is something that should really be out of question. Showing respect for people offering you some of their time is simply a matter of courtesy. But what I find more and more annoying to read (you’re just the one where I post this now *g*) is the statement that something should be done because of children. If you only don’t do something because a child is in the vicinity and might notice, then either the rule is utter nonsense or just a value you don’t agree with and only change your behaviour because society expects you to do so (a variation would be prohibiting something for all on the pretext that children might see it otherwise). The other option is: it is a rule, behaviour or value you agree with and would adhere to even when no children are around but then please don’t use children as a pretext to enforce it.

    As an example: most adults only wait as a pedestrian at a red light if a child is around. That prompts the question: why? Isn’t it a rule made for safety for all? And if so: shouldn’t we head it all the time?
    Another example: computer games, music, books, films, internet pages, etc. get prohibited for the sake of children? Why? Shouldn’t parents care what their children consume and therefore take measures to ensure, that they only consume things appropriate for their age? And if so: aren’t such bans not just used to enforce a set of values shared by a minority? Please note, that I’m not saying that a indicator system which clearly shows the target audience’s age is a bad idea, actually I find that a good thing because it helps parents to decide if e.g. a film is appropriate for their offspring if they don’t have first-hand knowledge about it. But I don’t see the need to prohibit/ban things »for the sake of children«.

    I hope people stop using children as a pretext for rules or even worse laws. That is a kind of abuse I find disgusting. If you want to see a rule adhered to, then it should speak for itself. Whenever you need children as pretext it is probably a bad rule or a value only shared by you and some peers (which should prompt you for a reevaluation of your position).


  • etbe

    Drizzt: I agree that generally things should not be done only for the children. However Matt Bottrell made what I believe to be a very bogus argument against porn in lectures, and I substituted it for an only slightly bogus argument about other bad behavior in lectures. ;)

    In regard to the specific case of pedestrian lights, children have less ability to accurately determine when they can break the rules without dying – height is one of the factors in question. So setting a good example for children makes sense.

    In the case of books, films, etc I agree that it should be for parents to determine what their children can do.

    In the general case of using “for the children”, it seems that most often it is to support arguments in the face of opposition who won’t care about adults.

  • Drizzt

    @etbe: About the red-light-issue: I wasn’t trying to tell, that it isn’t good to give a good example. Especially I didn’t try to say that children are able to correctly judge the speed of vehicles. What I tried to say was: even though it is a rule making sense, a lot of people don’t adhere to it, unless there a children around. In this case the argumentation is generally the other way around: »there are no children, I can cross the street immediatly«.

    My point was (in general): that a lot of rules/laws are either only adhered to if children are around or are made to »protect« children from things no law should need to protect them from, because the parents are caring about that. It’s the »abuse« of children as a pretext to either enforce rules or to pardon one’s disobedience to a certain rule/law.


  • etbe

    Drizzt: Fair point.

    For the record I’m opposed to the bad behavior in question even if all delegates who attend the lecture are more than 18, 21, or whatever the age for an adult is in the jurisdiction in question.

    In retrospect I should have made it clearer in my previous post that I am opposed to such things even if there are no children present. I will keep this in mind in the future when writing other posts about similar topics.