There’s a new story almost every week of a presenter getting roasted on Twitter. The possibility that this might happen to you could be scary. Presenting at conferences is hard enough without the added complication of Twitter.

But it’s not all bad. Conference organizers and presenters are experimenting with using the backchannel to proactively engage audiences using the backchannel. (The backchannel refers to an online conversation taking place at the same time as a live speaker or speakers).

I’ve written an eBook “How to present with Twitter (and other backchannels)” to help you thrive in this new presentation world. In the eBook I take you through the three stages of presenting with Twitter (or any other backchannel) from survival through to engagement. Here’s a summary of the stages:

1. Survive the experience


If you prepare thoughtfully, respecting the needs of your audience and do your best, you will survive presenting to the backchannel. An audience will generally (notwithstanding a few rogue tweeters) be tolerant unless you present content that is out-of-date, wrong or insulting to their intelligence and experience. Audit your presentation for the hot buttons which will get even the kindliest audience member tapping out a tweet. For example, look for and remove:

Prepare yourself psychologically for what’s its going to be like presenting to a tweeting audience. Gather together a few colleagues and present to them while they keep busy on their laptops. If you can do that for 10 minutes you’ll be more at ease when you face your real audience.

During the presentation

Take control of the presentation environment. If there’s a big screen display of the backchannel ask for it to be turned off.

These are the essential things to do. The next stage is to use Twitter to react in real-time.

2. Respond to the audience’s needs

Twitter is a fantastic tool for finding out what people are thinking while you’re presenting. And if you find you’re not meeting their needs, you can respond and change tracks.

To do this you need to monitor the backchannel. Unless you’re a practiced multi-tasker or supremely-skilled presenter, get some help with this task. When you’re presenting you need to be 100% focused on living your words and connecting with your audience. I know that I can’t do that and scan the backchannel at the same time. There are two ways that you can monitor the backchannel during your presentation:

Twitter moderator

Ask a Twitter-savvy friend or colleague to be your Twitter moderator. If you don’t have anyone who can play this role, ask for a tweeting volunteer from the audience. Their role is to monitor the backchannel and alert you to tweets that you can or should respond to (see more on this below).

Twitter breaks

As well as having a Twitter moderator take Twitter breaks. After each part of your presentation, take a short break in your presentation so that you can have a look at the Twitterstream, check you’re on the right track and answer any tweeted questions. Combine the Twitter break with taking questions in the frontchannel.

Here are some of the types of tweets you might see and how to respond to them:

  1. Positive contributions. The backchannel can contain incredibly useful information. It will likely shatter the illusion that you’re the only expert on your topic. Highlight useful tweets and thank people for their contributions.
  2. Points of disagreement. These tweets may be a bit confronting, but here’s how to think of it — your audience is engaging and participating in your presentation. See them as an opportunity to engage deeper. Read out the tweets (or display them on the screen) and ask the tweeter to elaborate. This is important because it can be quite tricky to make a complex point in 140 characters. Then respond the same way that you would if this were a traditional Q&A session.
  3. Environmental issues. Sound issues and other distractions are all things that people may tweet about. Ask your moderator, conference host or a volunteer to get the issue fixed as soon as possible.
  4. Content disconnect. If your content is not meeting the needs of the audience you’ll get to hear about it. Here’s where you need to exercise some judgment. If there is only one tweet like this you can probably disregard it, but if it is retweeted or others reply in agreement, then you should take some action. This may be very disconcerting for you as a presenter, but better to know now and attempt to put things right, than to find out later that you bombed when you can no longer do anything about it.

3. Engage your audience

The third stage is not just to survive and respond, but to use Twitter proactively to engage your audience. There are now a number of Twitter tools which have been developed to make it easy to use Twitter in your presentation.

Tweet your key points

To ensure that your key points are tweeted, craft them into tweetbites — short sentences ready-made for tweeting. Both PowerPoint and Keynote have add-ins so that you can schedule your tweet to be posted at the same time as you click on a specific slide.

Use backchannel tools other than Twitter to create engagement

If you plan to use the backchannel proactively in your presentation, it may be better to use a backchannel tool other than Twitter. This is because:

  1. Twitter users won’t have to be concerned about overwhelming their followers with a series of presentation-specific tweets.
  2. Anybody can access and contribute to the backchannel without having to register.

That makes the backchannel more inclusive: no Twitter-divide — and it allows the backchannel to become more intimate amongst conference attendees.

Nina Simon of Museum 2.0 has written a great account of using both Twitter and a no-registration backchannel tool, TodaysMeet, at the WebWise 2009 conference:

“Whereas Twitter provided the conference highlights to a wider audience,TodaysMeet allowed attendees to delve deeper into individual moments and questions.”

If you’re presenting to a conference you need to be ready for the backchannel. Download my free eBook “How to present with Twitter and other backchannels” (no sign up required) for more help.