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

People used to whisper to each other or pass hand-scribbled notes during presentations. Now these notes are going digital on Twitter or via conference-provided chat rooms.

Up until now, this back-channel has been mainly confined to the Internet industry and technology conferences. However, a survey of leadership conferences from Weber Shandwick shows that there is a significant increase in blogging and twittering at conferences.

So the next time you present at a conference, instead of being confronted by a sea of faces looking at you, you may be phased by a sea of heads looking down at their laptops. The challenge is how to adapt to presenting with the back-channel.

Photo credit : Pete Lambert

Benefits of the back channel to the audience

As a presenter, the idea of presenting while people are talking about you is disconcerting. But to balance that, there are huge benefits to the individual members of the audience and to the overall output of a conference or meeting.

1. It helps audience members focus

As a presenter, you might be worried that the back-channel will be distracting. The opposite seems to be true. Dean Shareski says:

The more I’m allowed to interact and play with the content the more engaged and ultimately the more learning happens. The more the presentation relies on the back channel, the more I focus. Knowing that my comments are going to be seen by the presenter or live participants, seems to make me pay more attention.

Rachel Happe adds:

Twitter allows me to add my perspective to what is being presented and that keeps me more engaged than just sitting and listening – even if no one reads it.

2. The audience gets more content

People tweeting during your presentation add explanations, elaborations, and useful links related to your content. Liz Lawley comments:

My “take-away content” from the backchannel equalled or surpassed what I got from presentations directly.

3. Audience members can get questions answered on the fly

In the past, you might have lent over to you neigbor and said “What did she mean by that?” or you remained confused. Now, audience members don’t have to wait to clarify things they don’t understand. They can tweet their question and another audience member will tweet back with the answer. Audience members who tuned out because they didn’t understand now stay engaged.

4. The audience can participate

The back-channel blurs the line between the presenter and the audience. Now everyone can be an active participant. Here’s an account from Gary Koelling of a twitter-fueled participative meeting:

And what struck me was the dynamic of this meeting. It was participatory. No one was talking out loud except the guy presenting the ppt. But the conversation was roaring through the room via twitter. It was exploding. People were asking questions. Pointing out problems. Replying to each other all while the ppt was progressing along it’s unwaveringly linear path.

5. The audience can innovate

As your presentation sparks ideas, audience members can tweet them and build on each others’ thoughts.

6. You don’t have to be physically present to participate

Not only can you watch a live videostream of the presentation, but you can also tweet or chat with the physically-present participants.

7. You can connect with people

Being at a conference where you know no-one or only a few people can be intimidating. People who know each other cluster together and you can feel out of the action. But if you participate in the back channel, you’ll get to know people virtually, and can then introduce yourself physically at the next break. Liz Lawley states:

But the backchannel doesn’t have a limited number of chairs. Anyone can join—and as the two-day event wore on, more and more people did. It allowed conversations to occur between people who wouldn’t have known to seek each other out otherwise.

8. You can do something else

And lastly, if the speaker is tedious, you can get on and do something productive and no one will know.

What about the speaker?

Yes, presenting with the back-channel is challenging. Prepare yourself for what it will be like. We’re used to having eye contact with our audience and using that eye contact and audience reaction to measure how well we’re engaging the audience. Now when you say something brilliant, instead of nods of appreciation, there will be a flurry of tapping. Here’s the positive spin:

The typing means you’re provoking interest

Martin Weller: I want people to be backchanneling during a talk I give because it shows what I am saying is provoking some interest.

Your colleagues can answer questions for you

David Harrison: I knew some of my colleagues who’d helped with the presentation were following the event but what I couldn’t imagine was how powerful a force having your co-workers liveblogging whilst you were talking could be.

You’ll get immediate feedback

Paul Gillin: Having recently waited six months to get audience evaluations from one presentation, I can tell you that the immediacy of the tweeted feedback was wonderful. I was able to use it to get a read quickly on the tech-savviness of the audience and adjust accordingly for the rest of the day.

They won’t fall asleep

Martin Weller: And, if by some freak chance what I’m saying isn’t interesting, then I’d rather people were doing their email or reading blogs than sitting in my session feeling resentful because they are trapped. Hey, I’ve had people sleeping during a talk before – I’d rather they were tapping away on their keyboards.

Managing the back channel

We used to suffer in silence through bad presentations. Today, the audience is now connected. They get to know that others are suffering too – and that changes the way they react.

The most notorious impact of the back channel was at the SXSW ’08 conference during the Keynote Interview. Sarah Lacy was interviewing Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook. Audience unhappiness with the direction of the interview spread through the back channel and ended up with the audience taking over the interview. Check out Jeremiah Owyang’s account at A groundswell at SXSW 08: How the audience revolted and asserted control.

But if you monitor the back channel, the results can be very different. This is an account by Jeffrey Veen of moderating a panel at a conference. He monitored the back channel through his phone:

As the conversation on stage continued, the stream of questions and comments from the audience intensified. I changed my tactics based on what I saw. I asked questions the audience was asking, and I immediately felt the tenor of the room shift towards my favor. It felt a bit like cheating on an exam.

What this means is that when you’re presenting with the back channel – you need to monitor that channel and be prepared to change course and adapt. Robert Scoble says:

I hate being captive in an audience when the people on stage don’t have a feedback loop going with the audience. We’re used to living a two-way life online and expect it when in an audience too. Our expectations of speakers and people on stage have changed, for better or for worse.

How to monitor the presentation back channel

Set up a system to enable you to keep in touch with your audience through the back channel.

1. Ask a friend or colleague, or a volunteer from the audience to monitor the back channel and interrupt you if there are any questions or comments that need to be addressed. Jeffrey Veen calls this person an ombudsman for the audience.

2. If you can’t find someone to take on this role take breaks – say every 10 mins – to check Twitter. Robert Scoble calls this taking a twitter break. You can combine this with asking the audience for “out-loud” questions as well. It’s good practice to stop for questions throughout your presentation – rather than leaving questions till the end.

3. If you’re courageous and know your content backwards, display the back channel on a screen that everyone (including you) can see. This is potentially distracting for you and has the downside in that the visibility it provides can provoke silly tweets from some (eg: “Hi Mom”). But it does mean that you can react immediately to any issues. Spend some time at the beginning of your presentation explaining to your audience how you will respond to the twitter stream and audience members are more likely to use it responsibly.

Presenting while people are twittering is challenging. But isn’t it better to get that feedback in real-time when you can do something to retrieve the situation – than wait till you read the evaluation sheets a few days after the conference – and find that you bombed?

How have you monitored the presentation back channel? Do you have any other advice?

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

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