How to Present While People are Twittering

by Guest Post on February 23, 2009

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.

Learn more about Twitter for business in our “Wednesdays at 1″ webinar series:

Twitter for Business resources:

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{ 94 comments… read them below or add one }

Cam February 24, 2009 at 4:11 pm

@camgross on Twitter says:

Your quote from Gary Koelling was from his response to a meeting that happened October 2008. The monitoring tool we used in the room that day was Spy. It was a great way to keep the energy high and to bring the comments and questions from around the country (and in from in the room) to the attendees.

I also wrote about this meeting and how it is evidence to a change in business etiquette.

Thanks for the great post, Laura.

jeff shuey February 24, 2009 at 4:38 pm

Great posting. I am a huge fan of multi-tasking. I have seen some great notes from meetings being posted via twitter. Having this as a back channel — -especially when used in conjunction with Hashtags. My recommendation is to use and publish Hashtags. Even though Hashtags have been vilified they are a great tool to keep track of a specific event — even when and especially when it is a short-lived event.

In the old days we used to use Instant Messenger to do similar things. Of course, IM is much more specific and usually just between two people, With the use of Twitter, as you noted, questions and comments can be posed and responded to in real time. We will be seeing more of this. I’m guessing the big tech vendors will jump on board – either directly of leveraging the Twitter, Friendfeed, and other SM (back)channels.

Great article. Keep ‘em coming. Thanks @Pistachio for having this guest post. If you need

Olivia Mitchell February 24, 2009 at 5:30 pm

@benrogers Plugin to autotweet links during presentation – sounds like a great idea.

@ralph bassett. Being able to express your core message in 140 characters is a great discipline and makes for a focused presentation.

@Richard Kraneis Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I think the number of people in the audience is a key factor. In a small group – say up to 20 everyone can engage verbally during the presentation. As the group gets bigger, Twitter allows that participation to keep happening. Clearly if it’s hands-on excel training then twitter is going to get in the way. But for large and normally passive conference audiences – Twitter is perfect. See my guest post on the Edgehopper blog ( for ways in which you can proactively use Twitter to engage your audience.

@Judy Gombita and others. The issue of whether a speaker can”demand” that the audience not tweet is one I considered addressing in this post. But the feeling I got after reading many other posts on this issue was that this debate had been had. The consensus seemed to be that twitter does add an engagement channel for the audience and that the speaker cannot demand that the audience pay attention to him/her by looking (note that a person may be paying attention but have their eyes on their laptop/cellphone). A particularly engaging speaker with useful and stimulating visuals may well earn that visual attention.

I think this is a different issue to people taking calls on cellphones – there’s general agreement that that is rude and it’s distracting for the speaker and the rest of the audience. Tweeting during a presentation does present its challenges for the presenter, but generally not for the rest of the audience (though I’m aware that some people do find it distracting).

Judy Gombita February 24, 2009 at 5:49 pm

Olivia, it’s not a question of whether speakers can “demand” that the audience not tweet. In the case of my colleague, he simply won’t present anymore at conferences where this appears to be prevalent. (I’m guessing Ira Basen will think twice before speaking at another Canadian Institute conference, particularly if the conference chair is live-tweeting “opinions.”.)

Remember, in most cases these presenters aren’t getting a speaking fee–so why on earth would they cater to the behaviour and whims of twits, particularly if it means more work?

And I have to say that I still don’t think the “average” PD/public discourse event has that many twits in attendance. I think that your post is playing nicely into the POV/needs/desires of what is still very much a niche crowd. Ergo, I hope conference planners do some research into attendance demographics, before simply buying into conventional wisdom.

But I don’t mean to dump on your post or ideas. There definitely is a “specialty” market for individuals wishing to twitter away their PD sessions. In particular, the free (or low-cost) unstructured bar, case, pod or whatevercamps. @mynameiskate tweeted yesterday about your post, “I think her comments about actively managing the backchannel are v good; saw this at NorthernVoice this weekend.”

Perhaps the two of you should get in touch.


Laura Fitton February 24, 2009 at 9:47 pm

@judy what makes me sad for your colleague is not only the missed opportunity for his or her ideas to be broadcast well beyond the room to a much larger potential audience (and client base) as these tools evolve and continue to become more mainstream. what makes me more concerned is that the refusal to accept a “something’s lost and something’s gained” dynamic might cut out some very engaged learners: “But Miss, they are not listening to me” (by @jobsworth and quoted here on this blog back when it was a business presentations and speaking blog).

yes, these tools are also used to commit failures of common kindness and courtesy. that is not right. but the potential to shape thinking, learning and engagement is a very real potential upside.

Laura Fitton February 24, 2009 at 10:43 pm

Interestingly enough, and are in congress at the moment, live-tweeting President Obama’s State of the Union address. Is streaming the video along with a Twitter widget that collects @ replies addressed to @gstephanopoulos and @terrymoran.

And thousands of Twitterers are discussing the speech with one another, joined together by their following relationships, their common use of hashtags like #prezspeech and #tcot, or simply finding one another by searching keywords in the flow of Twitter.

Not so sure the case can still be made that live extension and enhancement of events via Twitter is so very edge anymore.

@barbaraling February 25, 2009 at 6:27 am

Very comprehensive compilation of the benefits of Twitter Back Channels. Back when I was traveling the country giving Internet recruiting seminars (2000 or so), folks never even brought in laptops (and forget about palmtops!). It’s incredible to think how conference attending opportunities has now evolved.

Judy Gombita February 25, 2009 at 10:32 am

Laura, if presenters want to give “consideration” to a possible amorphous, non-paying/attending audience that’s fine. But I fail to see how it is an “obligation.” Particularly if the contracted gig (from the event provider) does not make clear a possible secondary audience.

BTW, professional bodies that mandate annual tracking of continuous learning (i.e., to keep skills current and retain certification/designation status) would never accept reading one or more people’s twitter streams as serious or engaged learning. (I bet if you attended the events of doctors, lawyers, accountants, professors, etc., you’d find very little live-twittering.)

I understand you champion live-twittering. You embrace it. You say you learn from it and are engaged, both as a participant and speaker. That’s fine. Go for it. But I’d gently suggest that you recognize that this is not the preference of all who invest in lifelong learning. Particularly at a non-social-media-oriented event.

Steve Waterhouse February 25, 2009 at 11:42 am

A week ago I told a colleague that texting during a program we rude. Now I
see how it is an effective part of the experience. Thanks for educating me.
Steve Waterhouse
Predictive Index

Heidi Miller February 25, 2009 at 12:34 pm

Fantastic resource! Thanks so much for spelling out what both the audience and the speaker gain from the Twitter back channel. I’m inclined to send this to some naysayers who argue that Twittering during an event means that you’re not participating in it fully and not interacting with others who are physically present! In truth, just the opposite is true.

Sherri Halloran February 25, 2009 at 1:05 pm

Great article very thought provoking. For a multi-day conference with simultaneous sessions, would you recommend having a single conference hashtag, or multiples to make it easier to follow individual sessions?


Rowan February 25, 2009 at 1:28 pm

Thanks for this very thought provoking post. In the Adult Learning Theory arena, there are so many aspects of this to explore… but I cant do that in a post here.

As an Instructional Designer, presenter, and technical trainer, I design all of my learning events for maximum engagement…. physically. I try to create learning environments where the audience is as much a part of the learning as I am, though I keep them mostly on track (not tangentially falling into completely unrelated topics). I also use scenarios and stories to wrap my learning events into relevant experiences. Can these learning techniques be appreciated by an audience trying to squeeze it all into a 140 character twitter? I don’t know… mainly because I haven’t tried it yet.

I would like to use this technological modality to an educational benefit, and I’m really trying hard to accept it, but its hard to let go of the physical engagement. Perhaps I need a twittering co-presenter/instructor? I wish that person luck trying to put my presentations (and personality) into a twitter ;-)

PS- I actually have ADD and cannot multi-task without loosing something. Focus is a gift which I give myself and a presenter that ensures my best retention and engagement.

Andrew Lightheart February 26, 2009 at 7:07 am

I have yet to experience this as a speaker – and I’ll be interested to find out if I need to start including it in presentation skills training!

Olivia – another extraordinarily informative post. You’re an inspiration…


Robert Bradford February 27, 2009 at 10:15 am

Great stuff! At NSA in Orlando a couple of weeks ago, we put the channel up on the screen while we were speaking – was a lot of fun! If you are willing to play with the audience, they will play with you, and love you for it.

Tweeting introduces a HUGE level of accountability for speakers – if they like you, you will know, and if you suck, you will know. I hope this will spur us all to become even better at engaging our audiences – and I strongly suspect that speakers who resist the existence of a backchannel will go the way of speakers who resisted email years ago!

Peggy Duncan February 27, 2009 at 12:42 pm

I’m just glad that my planners announce that all PDAs and laptops should be turned off.

Brent Jones February 28, 2009 at 1:51 pm

Sometimes tweeting would be good, other times bad. Depends on
1. subject matter being presented
2. whether spoken mainly or visual + spoken presentation
3. mood of audience
4. desired level of audience participation
5. whether people are “on topic” on laptops or working on email or something else entirely
6. intelligence and maturity of audience
7. how threatened the presenter could become from a hostile audience
8. how much distraction is caused to non-tweeters

stacy February 28, 2009 at 3:59 pm

As well as twitter, don’t forget Plurk. Plurk makes it even easier for people to follow a presentation all in the same “line”. It’s more linear without having to look all around like twitter.

Andrew Grill March 1, 2009 at 5:27 pm

I’m chairing the 1st day of the mobile social networking conference in London on March 9th so I hope the audience does twitter (via their mobile) for the whole day.

I’m planning to invite questions via twitter as well as “live”

More on the London conference at

Jon March 2, 2009 at 1:04 pm

I agree that twit serves a good purpose, But just raise your hand if you want an instant answer. I like twit for the spur of the moment thoughts…..but in a conference…..the presenter has worked months to prepare his material… he get’s to go improv……..???

I like to answer questions after my presentation, and I am more than most.. Twit during a presentation equates to heckling for some.

Des Walsh March 4, 2009 at 8:57 pm

Great post. Answers a whole lot of questions I have been mulling. Some paradoxes, but that’s life in the (Twitter) fastlane. Twitter ombudsman idea is in itself gold. Thank you.

Bob Hays March 7, 2009 at 10:43 am

I manage a team located in Woodland Hills, CA, and the main company office is in Seattle, WA. We use WebEx-type tools (a lot!).

This problem isn’t new – virtual meeting tools have had chat capabilities for a long time.

I wanted to thank you for the hints – I plan to pass them along to the folks in the other offices; hopefully that will improve our ability to interact over distance.

Thanks! – Bob

Jo March 9, 2009 at 7:07 am

>> “…you may be phased by a sea of heads looking down at their laptops…”

Very nasty. You may be fazed instead.

Brad Hanks March 12, 2009 at 3:02 am

Awesome! A must read for anyone presenting to the Web 2.0 enabled audience of today. I’ve been watching this phenomenon develop over the past several months, and I’m going to start incorporating this into my instructor/speaker development programs.

For those new to presenting and speaking, the backchannel will seem to be a minor challenge – it will seem as though it’s always been done this way. For old dogs like me, it’s a departure from our comfort zone, because we’re used to attendees watching intently (hopefully) and asking questions aloud as we go. But I’m resigned to the fact that this is the evolution of audience participation. Good or bad, it’s likely here to stay. So I’ll get over it and get used to it.

Thanks for a great post!

Craig Wiggins March 12, 2009 at 11:11 pm

I’m finding that twittering at a conference ( has allowed me to forgo note taking, provided that i use hashtags to properly mark the tweets by sessions.

I must also say that i’ve found the presenters at this particular conference to have been, for the most part, ready for the heads-down-keys-clicking audience.

Rhandell Mitchell March 15, 2009 at 3:52 am

This makes a lot of sense. I’ve been struggling trying to make ends meet with my online marketing and the information that I read totally changes my perspective.

Brad Ovenell-Carter March 16, 2009 at 11:48 am

All good points. I blogged about something similar–the constant stream of back-and-forth chat that goes on during web-conferences: I just don’t see how one can listen to a presentation and talk with someone else at the same time–one’s listening to two different things.

But maybe the back-and-forth-ing is the issue. Twittering may be like note-taking in that most of it is one-way broadcasting at a conference, at least the ones I’ve attended. In which case, it’d be no more distracting than writing on paper.

Kate March 19, 2009 at 9:49 pm

I think that anything that means that your audience is great! I even suggest finding your own ways to incorporate this, with audience response technology – check out – it’s a way that you can enhance your presentation and keep the audience interested.

Mollybob April 2, 2009 at 8:31 am

Thanks for this post. I can’t agree more with you. In Australia we aren’t as fortunate with internet access at our events so back channelling is sometimes a bit difficult. I love seeing back channels on twitter as it makes me feel like I’m there.

Your idea about getting someone to help monitor the back channel reminds me of a webinar moderator, where it’s nice for the presenter to be aware of the chatter, but has some help monitoring it and picking key issues and questions.

The more interaction and dialogue occur in real time rather than segmented Q & A breaks after the moment, the better.

LIANA May 13, 2009 at 4:06 pm


Mark Drapeau November 25, 2009 at 11:18 am

The other point of view is that not everyone should participate, not everyone is good enough to. There’s a reason that someone’s the keynote speaker and someone else is sitting in the 14th row. I don’t mean that in an insulting way, but when everyone’s participating, what’s the point of a stage and all that? Let’s just get everyone in a circle and have a chat.

I went to a conference recently that basically banned laptops, tweeting, blogging, etc. and I found it very satisfying to just LISTEN and WATCH and THINK during people’s talks. That’s not the right fit for every event, but I think at tech events people have forgotten what that’s even like. My thoughts:

StreamTwitter August 16, 2010 at 7:17 pm

Great article! My advice, embrace the technology and integrate Twitter into your presentation. Check out for a live Twitter feed that you can connect to TVs, Projectors and other video sources live at your events.

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Psychologist Perth January 22, 2011 at 10:44 am

Very interesting. I can imagine it would be very off-putting to the speaker on the first time it happened.

Refrigeration Mechanic January 25, 2011 at 7:45 am

We also can imagine that it would be very off-putting to the presenter! However, it would be good to get immediate feedback about your presentation and read the responses to the content you presented.

Ballet School Perth March 23, 2011 at 8:14 pm

We can only embrace the world of Twitter if it helps to promote the speaker/ conference (or at least some of it – depending on the quality of the talks!)

Rug Cleaning Perth March 29, 2011 at 9:48 am

You’d hope that their tweets were a) relevant and b) complimentary!

Cassie May 21, 2011 at 2:53 pm

That’s not just logic. That’s really sebsnile.

Bamboo Flooring Pros and Cons May 27, 2011 at 12:39 am

Another perspective isn’t that everybody should participate, not everybody is a good example to. There is a reason why someone’s the keynote speaker and another person is relaxing in the 14th row. I don’t imply that within an insulting way, however when everyone’s taking part, what’s the purpose of a stage and all sorts of that? Let’s just get everybody inside a circle this will let you chat.

I visited a conference lately that essentially banned laptops, tweeting, blogging, etc. and that i thought it was very satisfying to simply LISTEN watching and THINK throughout people’s talks. It is not the best fit for each event, but I believe at tech occasions individuals have forgotten what that’s even like.

Social Media Marketing Perth May 27, 2011 at 1:36 am

Thanks for bringing up this excellent point. We think that people should embrace the technology and use it as a good feedback tool.

Perth Psychology Services November 19, 2011 at 8:45 am

Very interesting article. It’s almost as if in some cases, Tweeting during a conference should be encouraged due to the number of advantages it can have. One person talking may not be enough to stimulate an audience but perhaps their brains can be switched on if there is more stimulus, such as silent tweets from other participants.

Chemises homme December 2, 2011 at 11:26 am

Your idea about getting someone to help monitor the back channel reminds me of a webinar moderator, where it’s nice for the presenter to be aware of the chatter, but has some help monitoring it and picking key issues and questions.

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