On Technical Presentations and Scantily Clad Women

This last weekend I was at html5tx (as I said in my last post), having a grand time and meeting some groovy people. One of the presenters showed what some people would consider a crass picture of a scantily clad woman. I wanted to talk to you about that.

Note - Before I begin, I want to be clear that this "event" was not the fault of the organizers of the conference. They were awesome and the conference was awesome. This is just an example of one person doing something very stupid.

I write this for all of you who are technical presenters or who want to be. Though showing pictures of barely clothed women is popular on TV, in printed movies, on billboards and in movies does not make it okay to do that in technical presentations. On the contrary, this is a terrible idea because virtually any of the conceivable responses are not actually beneficial to you. I would think most would respond in one of the following three ways:

Likely Range of Response

Offended - Some will not find these images appropriate. Some will think this is sexist. And this applies to men and women. Here are a few tweets and a drawing, presumably made by the last tweeter, custom created for the event.

Sexism and speaker tips.

In this case, you have lost a portion of your audience. Those in this group now think less of you, and will now not take you as seriously as before or may just tune out/walk out entirely.

Curious - Some will see the image and immediately wonder if someone else will be offended or if this will cause a problem for the presenter. Is someone going to walk out now? Is someone going to stand and say something? Will they go chat with the organizers or presenter afterwards?

In this case, you have lost your audience. They are no longer listening to you because they are fantasizing how you might get raked over the coals for your actions.

That is an attractive woman - Some will see the image and immediately start thinking about that scantily clad woman. So think about this for a sec. Imagine your favorite/most interesting technical topic. Maybe it is Css, ASP.NET MVC, Cassandra, Django, Javascript, garbage collection algorithms...whatever. Now, if you show a picture of a very attractive lady who is perhaps suggestively dressed, what do you think your heterosexual male audience is going to be thinking about. Your code? Not likely.

Combination - In some cases, your audience members are going to have a combination of reactions. For example, for about 30 seconds my mind scrambled around all three, from "that was entirely inappropriate and you should not be putting that image in your slide" to "what can be seen of this woman is very attractive (it was not a full body shot. If I remember correctly, it was upper thigh to abdomen and she had some bills stuck in the strap of her small piece of clothing)" to "I bet there are some people here that are very unhappy about this, I wonder if he will be confronted on this", etc. He lost me entirely. I actually don't have a clue what he was talking about at the time. Everything immediately before that and for at least a bit afterwards is just gone from my brain.


In speaking, you really need to think about your audience. I do think that people should be bothered by what he did but, for the sake of argument, let's say I didn't care. You must think about your audience. Are you speaking to experienced folks or beginners? If you are going to be talking straight tech, the primary thing you need to think about is the technical level of the audience and their likely experience with your topic. If you are going to stray into other material for humor (I think that was the case in this particular instance) or illustration, you need to think more broadly. Gender, race, age, upbringing and other things can make people react positively or negatively to your materials, so you have to think about these things.

In this particular case, the image of the woman was immediately followed by a statement along the lines of "I'm sorry but I normally just present to guys". First, this actually doesn't help. It just shows that you are willing to show pics of women that they might find offensive as long as you won't get in trouble. Second, it means you didn't think about your audience. The development industry is overstocked with males, for sure, but women are not unheard of. And two of the speakers were women...so there were at least two at the conference. Seriously, think about your audience before you speak and craft your material appropriately.


The primary goal of a technical presentation should always be to make sure those listening learn something and be better equipped to use technology/technique "x". Humor can be a very powerful presentational tool and I wouldn't recommend against using it but it ultimately needs to perform a function other than just humor for humor's sake. Most importantly, your humor should not offend anyone. Of course that is obvious...except for those who weren't thinking and put pictures of scantily clad women in their technical presentations :)


So don't do it. And use this example as a good reminder that you need to think about your audience and your goals as you prepare your presentation.