Three Stages of Presenting with Twitter

by Guest Post on November 22, 2009

This is a guest post from esteemed presentations and speaking expert Olivia Mitchell.

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 An audience will generally (notwithstanding a few rogue tweeters) be tolerant unless you present content that is out-of-date, wrong or insulting to their intelligence and experience.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.

Olivia Mitchell blogs at Speaking about Presenting. Visit her blog for more presentation tips.

{ 6 trackbacks }

#LearnTrends 2009: The Corporate Learning Trends and Innovations Conference « Ronny Lohuis: Leren ontwikkelen
November 23, 2009 at 3:29 pm
This Week in Twitter for 11/27/2009 — Black Friday Edition « Church Mojo
November 27, 2009 at 11:13 am
Three Stages of Presenting with Twitter « My Other Blog
December 18, 2009 at 3:15 am
live your talk » Blog Archive » The One Criteria for Building Your Signature Speech
February 15, 2010 at 11:35 pm
The Key to the Code… » Key to Success - 192th Edition
February 21, 2010 at 7:36 am
Back Channel Unleashed | Ed Justen
March 19, 2012 at 11:48 pm

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Mary Ann Grisham November 22, 2009 at 10:40 pm

Great tips! I will definitely check out the Powerpoint add-in to tweet key points. Very helpful and useful article. Thanks for sharing.
Mary Ann G.

Scot Dit November 22, 2009 at 11:35 pm

TodaysMeet seems to have been offline at since late October. Any other alternatives?

Olivia Mitchell November 23, 2009 at 3:56 am

@enchantedtravel Glad you found it useful.

@Scot Dit – the alternative to TodaysMeet is Backnoise I’ll try and find out what’s happened with TodaysMeet.


Timo Elliott November 23, 2009 at 4:33 am

Olivia, I think you forgot an important one: Make sure that you set the agenda yourself, by asking the audience to answer a question related to your topic — “what is your experience in this area?”, “how have you handled this situation”, etc. (you could autotweet these, but I think it’s better to announce your intention upfront, making Twitter explicitly part of your interaction with the audience) — and then include a break for you to see the answers and reply (shamesless plug: the powerpoint twitter tool feedback slide makes this easy, see This will help to set up the backchannel as part of a conversation, or at the very least dilute more off-topic remarks.

Also, I’m not sure the private backchannel is a panacea — it’s the right answer for an intimate, friendly group, but don’t forget that the Twitter channel will exist anyway, whether or not you’re paying attention to it, so it may be better to participate in the bigger pool, despite the other downsides.

Finally, if overloading followers is a concern, don’t forget to remind people that they can always start their tweets with a specific @ handle — either your own, or a conference one, or simply a dummy account. E.g. when I ask people to vote over twitter, they can start the tweet with “@votebytweet” — and this means that followers won’t see it by default.

Gloria Buono Daly November 23, 2009 at 11:33 am

Great article. I attended Web 2.0 Expo in NYC and was quite impressed by the backchannel. Thank you for a very helpful article.

Sam Smith November 24, 2009 at 6:05 pm

Hi Olivia,

First, I would like to say that I did read this post on Sunday. I was surprised by your “survival” strategy because I think presenters need the most help when they are scared and in survival mode. Your “Pre-presentation” ideas are excellent – but the strategy for “during the presentation” isn’t really a strategy or even a plan. If I understand correctly, you are suggesting that the speaker turn off the backchannel and ignore all questions and comments on the backchannel for the duration of the presentation. I don’t think that is a very good suggestion.

I would like to propose another way forward. To me, a speaker that is headed into a backchannel environment in “Survival Mode” needs a survival kit and support from others. For example, I would like to see the speaker consider the backchannel for Q&A at a minimum.

Then, I would propose that the event organizer (or the speaker) announce to the audience how the backchannel will be used for this session. Then, I would suggest that the event organizer (or speaker) find a moderator to process the questions or comments. This way, the speaker can respond to the audience’s needs (via the moderator) and not feel like he (or she) has to become overwhelmed by all of the new things to do.

To me that is a much better survival strategy than “turn off the backchannel”.

By the way, I did read your ebook (on Sunday). Good job catching some of the most recent case studies that popped up in the last week or so. Also, I liked some of those new backchannel presentation tools.

- Sam Smith

Olivia Mitchell November 24, 2009 at 6:23 pm

Hi Sam

You’re quite right to pick me up on this – in this post I was attempting to highlight some of the points in my eBook – and I’ve over-edited in the process.

So I’ll elaborate here:

I’m intending what I describe as the first “survival” stage of presenting with Twitter to be for people who don’t have much familiarity with Twitter before their presentation and for whom just being on stage is an overwhelming experience. I work with lots of people who are nervous about speaking. Just speaking at a conference is a massive deal for them. Suggesting that they also have to find someone to be a moderator and taking questions from twitter as well, could be too much.

But, if they’ve got a supportive meeting planner/conference organizer (like you) who can organize that for them, then I can see that that would work.

Thanks for your input, Sam.


Mixhelle November 27, 2009 at 7:50 am

Thanks for this post, truly helpful ideas for dealing with the backchannels.

Heidi Miller February 9, 2010 at 2:05 pm


Thanks for the link love, and what a good post. All good advice, especially the idea of having a friend moderate and report on any backchannel conversation so there is no need to fear it. I’ve heard arguments against monitoring the channel (i.e., the speaker should be SPEAKING), but most of us have partners that act as timekeepers or question-gatherers, so why not assign the responsibility of monitoring and, if necessary, addressing the back channel as well?

Thanks for a great post.

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