I just had a wonderful time at TechDays 2011 BeLux this week, with lots of good session by expert speakers. During the conference, it struck me how hard it is for an international (non-Belgian) speaker to get feedback from the audience. You wouldn't be the first one to enter the speaker room after a session and ask yourself: *what's wrong with the audience? was it that bad? *
After reading this post, you should be reassured by the fact that it wasn't your fault; it's the audience. If it was your fault, you'd see people leave the room throughout the entire session (not just 5mins before the end).
The Belgian audience just seems to be thinking binary: either the audience is idle (as in: 0; off; passive; total silence) or the audience is ... laughing! Whatever you do, don't expect anything else but that. Let's illustrate a couple of examples here; real life examples from this week's conference.
As if the demo-gods decided against you
Imagine a speaker doing his utmost best to give this awesome cool demo the audience is waiting for. But guess what: as any other human being on this planet, even the best prepared veteran speaker can encounter an issue during his talk that causes the demo not to turn out as well as planned. We have Murphy to thank for it (I guess he was Belgian too ^^): think about forgetting a semicolon in the code somewhere, or you pasted a snippet in the wrong place or forgot one, lost internet connectivity...
Rule #1: don't expect the Belgian audience to help you
Instead, either you'll get total silence as you pull your hair out on stage, or you'll hear people laughing at best.
People might arguably state that a technical audience mainly consisting out of developers is by definition introvert and silent. As much as there is truth in there to some degree, you'll still see a big difference between an international audience and a Belgian audience (not to mention an American audience).
To add more weight to this: if an American person stands-up in the audience, he's most likely going to raise a question or assist you in debugging the issue in your demo; if a Belgian stands-up in the audience, he's either leaving the room or he's positioning his cell phone antenna to get a better connection.
This brings me to the second rule.
Networking at a tech conference
Rule #2: prepare yourself to give an offline/disconnected demo (and most likely, the audience is offline/disconnected too)
Yes, Belgium is one of those countries I'd call a developing country in this field. Not only developing in the sense of programming, but truely still developing towards some sort of established state in the online world.
Accessible WiFi hotspots are rare and our buildings often block 3G signals, making those connections unreliable. Add the high telecommunication prices in Belgium to this, and you know that a big part of the audience won't be online during your session, so don't rely on it (e.g. answering live questions coming in on Twitter).
Instead, look for other ways to make your session more interactive.
Persistence will be rewarded
Rule #3: don't stop trying to make your session interactive
Even when you don't get a lot of response from the audience, it is well appreciated. Humor is a good way and has proven to work. Some give away a book to someone who managed to answer a question for instance (and virtual books to subsequent respondents ^^). Whatever you do, be creative and you'll be fine.
One last thing: if you managed to get feedback from a Belgian audience, it is because you deserved it: you've proven that they found your session good enough to spend time on feedback.