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 }

Gregory Culpin February 23, 2009 at 11:38 am

Thanks for this very interesting input – I’ve been wondering for a while what would be the best microblogging practices during conferences or business meetings/presentations and this provides an excellent resource.

I particularly appreciate the idea of a back channel manager or “microblog pause” for gathering the feedback during a live session. Will be definitely trying this out.

Just wish they made keyboards totally silent. ;-)

Joanna February 23, 2009 at 12:41 pm

Ideally, at some point in the future (if more students start to use Twitter) this could be modeled, practiced, and used as a teaching strategy in a large lecture classroom. There may be people already playing with this.

@HughBriss February 23, 2009 at 12:51 pm

Excellent post but I still hate it when people don’t look at me when I’m talking. It seems rude, no matter what the reason. If I was an instructor I’d expect people to be taking notes but that’s a lot different than people tweeting about me or asking each other questions while I’m talking.

Guess I’m just an old school fuddy duddy.

Howard B. Greenstein February 23, 2009 at 12:56 pm

We must be on the same wavelength. I wrote about this:
last week and noted that “As a speaker, it’s tough to look out into an audience and see many of them with their heads facing down, looking at their devices. However, maybe we need to get past that feeeling of awkwardness and assume people are taking copious notes.”
I love the Ombudsman concept and will be using it this week in my presentations in NY and Chicago.
Thank you.

Susan RoAne February 23, 2009 at 1:04 pm

Twittering during a presentation is today’s version of passing notes in class. It can be interesting, interactive and harmless. While we speakers can assume this activity shows interest, that would be a mistake. The tweets could have NOTHING to do with our presentations. Or everything to do with our comments. We just don’t know.

Audience facial feedback is important for entertainers, speakers and teachers and can often determine how much more the audience will receive. On the other hand, when I see people taking notes (manually or with their laptops) I am encouraged.
While the back channel gets to connect with their circle as they sit in a roomful of people they don’t know, they may be missing the opportunity to meet new people sitting around them. And that would be unfortunate.(Disclaimer: I wrote Face to Face: How To Reclaim the Personal Touch in a Digital World, Fireside).

Tom Collins February 23, 2009 at 1:05 pm

I enjoy doing presentations with live internet access, so I can jump to online examples in response to live questions. Can’t wait to add a twitter stream to that mix!

Thanks for providing a context in which to think (one definition of great writing; I’m blanking on the source right now) about this new presentation style..

Morriss Partee February 23, 2009 at 1:06 pm

You left out a huge bonus to the presenter: key highlights of your presentation are being sent out to an audience much bigger than those in the room. If you have something truly insightful or newsworthy to say, your message may be retweeted far and wide.

@toddlucier February 23, 2009 at 1:06 pm

Yipee…. this will explain it to folks who don’t get it.
I think anything that brings an outside audience into a presentation can be a great thing.
Managing the backchannel and using it to the presenters advantage, that’s the high point of best practice.
There can also be a backchannel running on for folks outside the room. It would be really nice if comments posted there on on other streaming services could be brought forward into the Twitter Stream so folks could be connected regardless of the platform they are using for communication.

Thanks for capturing so many positives out of the head-down focused output that audiences are engaging in.

I saw an interview @thecleversheep posted a little while back where university professor was using a backchannel for students to add notes to presentation slides. The comments from all students contributed to the converstation. Interestingly, the comments were made without names! This dissolves awayt the personal interest in twittering for the sake of getting attention and focuses instead on contributing value to the shared conversation. Afterwards, students can access the slides and the notes, links and comments.

Wouldn’t this be an interesting innovation for @slideshare? To be able to integrate audience tweets into slides that are being presented at a conference into an archive for distribution. Sort of like what some of the video conversation tools are doing where folks add their notes to the video.

John Bordeaux February 23, 2009 at 1:11 pm

I used back channel a few years ago – someone set up an IRC channel. Curious what you think of that option. Seems to be less distracting, as the audience won’t be getting all their other twitter traffic during the talk.

Peter Kim February 23, 2009 at 1:11 pm

Are you sure that Twittering during a presentation is a positive trend? Think about why some companies have a “no laptop” rule during meetings.

If you’re going to be tethered to the device, why show up at all?

Bob Johnson February 23, 2009 at 1:12 pm

Very interesting… much to think about since this is going happen whether we as speakers want it to happen or not… depending on the audience. In January I gave a keynote to an audience of college and high school people in counseling, recruiting and such… 2 of 250 had Twitter accounts.

That said, I do fear this problem. Over many years, one of the consistent items on evaluations is this: (1) Didn’t get to ask enough questions, followed by (2) Came here to hear the speaker, not the silly questions.

Much of what’s recommended above threatens to fall into this same divide… would certainly recommend finding out first how many in the audience have Twitter accounts at all. If few, then certainly don’t go through the exercises described here.

The best comment for either situation… build in “break time” to handle questions at regular intervals. But control the time spent on that so that the advertised information that brought people to the presentation in the first place is indeed covered. And never let the “loudest” Twitter highjack the presentation with a new variety of personal war stories.

And yes, I tweet at

Braden Kelley February 23, 2009 at 1:14 pm

As a blogger, and Twitterer I’m often one of those people in the audience at a conference. I can see the point about it being a bit rude, but at the same time if people are doing it they are extending the reach of your otherwise closed event.

I would say that speakers should use this phenomenon and have a slide with a tinyurl near the end of where people can find the slides, and if you’re confident in your ability to present (and it’s being recorded), a tinyurl of where people can find a video recording of your presentation. That way people can tweet it and blog it while they are still engaged with your content.


Dan Keldsen February 23, 2009 at 1:17 pm

Well, as someone who was thrilled to have @Pistachio tweet positively about my co-keynote at the Enterprise 2.0 conference last year, I have to say that Twitter (and things like it) add a whole ‘nother dimension to presenting. Magnifying the conversation OUTSIDE of the venue you’re in has tremendous benefits. I’d take my chances with participation of any kind, whether out loud in public or virtual, rather than just talking heads, any day of the week.

Every webinar I’ve done for the last year or so, I always suggest that people fire up twitter in addition to OR IN REPLACEMENT OF the built-in Q&A of most webinar/webcast platforms. A tiny percentage actually use Twitter as the alternative in my experience, but the continuing growth of Twitter use will no doubt morph that over time.

Sean Maney February 23, 2009 at 2:54 pm

Something is missed when people tweet during a presentation. The audience may hear the person speaking, but they’re missing the non-verbal communication. We can’t do all things at once.

Mike Ashworth February 23, 2009 at 3:28 pm

personally i believe that to constantly twitter (or talk, or text, or whisper) during a presentation (or meeting for that case) is rude.

advise at start that you will be monitoring the twitter conversation and asking ppl to step forward to explain their tweets (pos and neg) to entire audience.

advise that as a lot of ppl wont be twittering that it’s only fair that the ppl who are share their though stream (aka though leadership! lol) with the entire group.

embrace the crowd, isnt that what all this social media is about ;-)


Dawn Carter February 23, 2009 at 3:30 pm

Great post! Thank you for clarifying this phenomenon for speakers and live-tweeters alike.

I have Live Tweeted 2 conferences so far, Innovation3 in Dallas and recently I just tweeted a couple sessions at Saddleback Small Group Confererence in Irvine, CA just for fun. It helped me to focus on the content and absolutely helped “spread the wealth” to twitter buds who were not able to attend.

The Saddleback conference (#ssgc) was a 3-day event and I only attended the last day, but was able to “pre-attend” by following the few tweets sent out the first two days. Not a huge Twitter-literate bunch, but I did get a few nuggets before actually setting foot in Irvine, CA.

I value event twitterers because I’ve benefited from their service. I get to experience a small taste of the event and am grateful. This is made me want to give back & do it when I can.

Thanks for this!

Judy Gombita February 23, 2009 at 3:34 pm

As an event attendee, I find it very distracting when other people around me are tapping away on a computer, phone or PDA. I try and sit where I won’t be distracted by those who wish to divide their focus from the speaker and participants in the actual presentation room (you know, the ones who paid to be there, took the time to attend, etc.). That’s my take.

The other issue that has not been addressed is what is the content of the tweets being exchanged with this less-committed audience of secondary attendees? If they are fact-based (i.e., focus on the actual presentation) that’s not so bad, but when you get into the “opinion-laced” areas (particularly the ones that are bordeline slanderous/libellous) I think the tweeters might want to think twice. Are you familiar with this article on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s website, “Rules of engagement for the social media set”? It’s a good, cautionary tale, methinks. Make sure to read all of the comments…plus note the number of “recommendations” for the article:

zyxo February 23, 2009 at 3:59 pm

Extremely interesting. While most of my collegues have never heard the word ‘twitter’, I see nevertheless this interesting evolution taking place.
Why not do the presentation directly from slideshare, after pointing the audience to it, so they can follow the slides on their laptop (better for the neck ! :-) ) while twittering.

Daiv Russell February 23, 2009 at 4:26 pm

It’s very intriguing how the the presenter feels that they “own the show”, and must have 100% visual concentration from the audience, failing to realize that greater back-channel participation is actually greater immersion in the topic at hand.

Being one of those wholly-consumed audience member/participants, I’m glad, for one, to see that this perspective is shared by others, and that the benefits of discussing the material live-stream are being recognized.

Thanks Olivia.

- Daiv

Ed Garay February 23, 2009 at 4:56 pm

As a presenter, I like the idea of offering multiple means of communication and avenues of engagement while, at the same time, getting instant feedback and the opportunity for adapting (changing on the fly) one’s talk based of people’s interest, Q&A and meaningful commentary.

As a participant, I enjoy being able to post comments or questions without disrupting someone’s presentation or discussion, and to have the session’s blogs and microblogs logged for immediate or future review.

Multi-tasking is where it’s at.

Laura Fitton February 23, 2009 at 5:08 pm

@joanna yes, I have used Twitter as a backchannel in the classroom at Bentley and plan to at Harvard Business School this spring.

@hughbriss it can be unnerving, yes, but it can also deliver a MUCH better style and degree of interaction between speaker, audience and material, and for a “breaking eye contact” cost equivalent to note-taking. so long as that cost is weighed against advantages, I think net-net, more becomes possible.

@SusanRoAne very nice to see you here, Susan. I’ve actually seen audience members in the same room as drastically MORE likely to connect due to incidentally breaking the ice via Twitter. In general (and vis-a-vis your book) what fascinates me about Twitter-mediated business relationships is how very many lead to face-to-face connections and back to Twitter again. There is a very real “social lasagna” where Twittered and F2F interactions build onto one another to create a much stronger relationship than the “meet once, exchange cards, follow-up” formalized model, which can be a real dead-end.

@johnbordeaux IRC can be another great backchannel, but i think it’s frequently too techy and too informal. On Twitter everything is linked, trackable and even Google-able. You TRULY own your words, and that accountability does tend to elevate the backchannel’s tone versus IRC.

@peterkim I am sure it is a REAL trend, with both good and bad consequences. It is a skill to be learned, tempered, and used when most appropriate and productive. Loss of presence of mind and poorer reflection on/integration of material is a risk. But so is missing out on important audience contributions and feedback that do not otherwise gain voice.

@highedmarketing I love that with something like Twitter, lots of questions can circulate amongst the group without necessarily disrupting the presentation’s flow the way a typical Q&A period does. The speaker can go back and answer later in a way that only the questioner and those who wish to pursue it have to hear.

Extending the reach of the event is tremendously valuable and important. I believe the smart conference organizers will learn to tap into this. You attract interest and participation from a much wider audience, AND you offer a networking tool to help attendees remain in contact after the event, extending the perceived value derived from it.

Brian Kelly February 23, 2009 at 5:37 pm

It was back in 2005 that I presented a paper entitled “Using Networked Technologies To Support Conferences” – see

This explored the origins of what later became known as ‘amplified conferences’ (a term which is now in Wikipedia.

The paper suggested the need for a meta-framework for adopting this new way of working, to address the issues mentioned in your post and in the responses.

Lara Kretler February 23, 2009 at 5:45 pm

As a speaker others “Tweeting” while I talk but at the same time, I can understand how that would be disconcerting to someone not used to Twitter or the backchannel phenomenon.

One thing conference organizers can do is make known the #hashtag beforehand so everyone uses the same one. I’ve seen several conferences with multiple #hashtags because there was no official tag provided. Getting everyone on Twitter to use the reference point makes it so much easier for tracking and monitoring purposes.

Lara Kretler February 23, 2009 at 5:46 pm

Oops, should have said “I don’t mind others Tweeting while I talk…” above.
Sorry about the glitch.

@LaraK on Twitter.

Tara February 23, 2009 at 6:34 pm

I’d also suggest making presentations more soundbite heavy- easier for twitters to grab a good quote for their followers that way. I was recently at an education panel and I kept tweeting about only one guy in a seven person panel, because he had the great one-liners that would fit in 140 characters and would be snappy for those reading the tweet out of context.


thom singer February 23, 2009 at 7:09 pm

Wow, this made me think a lot, as I have a “Core Conversation” presentation coming up in 3 weeks at SXSWi. I had not given much thought to the live twittering in the audience. (but I was there last year for the Lacey/Zuckerburg tweet fest)

My topic is about how to get the most out of networking at a multi-day conference (The Conference Networking Catalyst) and using Twitter and other social media is part of the conversation…. but I am now going to be open to the tweets during my presentation, and invite the audience to play along.

Hmmmm, I am not sure if I will have a large or small crowd, but I will definately encourage Tweets, and get a friend to be monitoring any activity so that I can work it into my discussion.

thanks for the idea, it will be interesting to see how it goes.


thom singer February 23, 2009 at 7:09 pm

Oh, @thomsinger is my name-o.

lee February 23, 2009 at 7:21 pm

Really useful post with plenty to think about thanks to the other commenters too. Is this the coming of the democratization of conferences? If presentations are live streamed and attendees pointed to SlideShares to follow along and interested others “outside the room” can engage via Twitter, how might that impact conference organizers thinking, planning, and overall conference flow and attendance. Does this type of activity during presentations foster engagement or just satisfy the addiction to multitasking among hyperconnected audience members? If you’re a conference planner, please ID yourself as such when you weigh in on this post. Thanks all!

Megan February 23, 2009 at 7:39 pm

Great posting!

Another thing to add to this (which may have been mentioned in comments, but I’ll admit- I’m a skimmer)- not only taking breaks in your presentation to address questions, but having a Twitter wrap-up at the end.

Assign a specific #hashtag for your presentation so your audience can interact together and you can organize feedback.

I still think it’s frustrating to present to a room full of people who seem to be NOT paying attention to you, but this sort of cross-platform interaction will help that.

Megan February 23, 2009 at 7:46 pm


How am I still not in the habit of adding that to the end of comments? Someday there will be a field for twitter accounts in addition to email.

Beth Kanter February 23, 2009 at 8:08 pm

I’ve been teaching workshops and encouraged people to tweet. I think that it places a good discipline to listen and biol down ah ha moments into 140 characters. I’m comfortable – as a teacher – that the learners have the ability to learn while multi-tasking

Olivia Mitchell February 23, 2009 at 8:20 pm

@tara Love the idea of making sure you have “twitter-bites” in your presentation.

@thomsinger What a great opportunity to incorporate twitter into your presentation in a positive way. In this post, I covered how to “manage” the twitter backchannel, but the next step is to actually see how you can incorporate twitter. eg: ask the audience to contribute their ideas,observations via twitter and display them on a screen.

@Judy Gombita Thanks for that link Ira Basen resents being twittter-trashed during a presentation. Here’s my take on it. If you’re tweeting on a presentation, you shouldn’t say anything you wouldn’t be prepared to say to the speaker directly.

@Mike Ashworth You’ve suggested that “advise at start that you will be monitoring the twitter conversation and asking ppl to step forward to explain their tweets (pos and neg) to entire audience.” I appreciate the sentiment behind this suggestion but I think it would shut down all participation via twitter (great if that’s what you want :-) ). Most people are scared of speaking in front of a group – that’s why they don’t participate or ask questions. Twitter is a way of getting around that.

@Morriss Partee Yes. The ability to extend the reach of your presentation beyond the conference room is an important benefit. Thanks also to the other commenters who have pointed this out.

david February 23, 2009 at 8:41 pm

doesnt this go back to the days at uni, where you could chat on msn and if put on the spot your class mates could prompt you so you gave the right information

twitter is valuable for sharing, but i think if I gave a presentation i would prefer that I was so engaging people would only twitter when i stopped talking…

i think it comes back to respect and why are you at the conference, if you are there to learn tweeting every word and phrase is not as valuable as taking the best quotes and tweeting them or taking notes and putting up a quality blog article which you can promote thru twitter…

eg “They are just covering matt cutts & spam issues, will have a blog up later

ben rogers February 23, 2009 at 10:04 pm


great piece – what about the option to auto tweet links and stuff from presentation as you go along – someone must be writing a plugin for powerpoint to do just that huh?


Wade February 23, 2009 at 11:19 pm

As someone who has taught public speaking, and someone who strives to be a better listener:

* I don’t fidget with my phone when listening to a speaker. If I’m on a laptop, it’s strictly for notetaking purposes.

* As a speaker, I take full responsibility for engaging my audience with good information and presentation. But it is distracting and rude if audience members disengage from the beginning. Maybe you can multitask, maybe you can’t — but studies show the more tasks, the less attn paid to each.

* Twiiter is not the culprit. Go to any movie theater, and you’ll see plenty of rude behavior that adds nothing to my moviegoing experience. Pity the poor speaker who worked for hours on a presentation, flew hundreds of miles to give it, only to stare at the back of your damn phone.

Greg Friese February 23, 2009 at 11:49 pm

Great post. I really like the idea of assigning a twitter monitor.

If the speaker openly invites people to twitter to tweet during the presentation does it have the unintended consequence of people listening and not tweeting?

Ira Basen February 24, 2009 at 2:15 am

This is an interesting discussion. It marshalls a lot of arguments to support the cause of live-twittering, but as someone who was never a big fan of passing notes in the back of the class, I see no reason to embrace its digital equivalent .
It seems as if many of the commentors here are really just interested in
inter-acting with each other in the room. The speaker is irrelevant,
and in fact, often seems to be something of a nuisance. So why bother
inviting someone to speak in the first place? Or why bother showing up? Attendance is rarely mandatory, so book your own room or go off to the bar. As Judy says, at least you won’t be interfering with people who actually came/paid to listen.
For me, I start with the assumption that a speaker has been booked because he or she brings some level of expertise to the subject that is greater than mine or the guy sitting down the row from me. I’m okay waiting until the speaker has finished speaking before determining whether that assumption is correct.

Sacha Chua February 24, 2009 at 9:35 am

Love your post! It inspired me to write about my perspective as a speaker, and how I _love_ the backchannel. =)

Beth Kanter February 24, 2009 at 10:32 am

I loved your post too and inspired me to reflect on the backchannel use over the past four or five years. Great tips.

Kevin Baughen February 24, 2009 at 10:46 am

Like @HughBriss above, I must be a ‘fuddy duddy’. How about we behave like grown-ups, show some respect to those speaking and try to engage in some real human skills?

Not everyone has ADD (and therefore has the excuse) and certainly not everyone is a tech-junkie. I’m tired of hearing technological development as the excuse for rude and impersonal behaviours. My 12 year old cousin has no social skills and exists in cyber space because that’s where he feels most comfortable. Good for him, you might think.

Well, he can’t string a sentence together if he has to use his mouth and brain simultaneously and he thinks the world is his to command because ‘he is the audience’. What about a little mutual respect…

Fairly certain that’s not an unreasonable expectation.

Has no-one read Ben Elton’s latest book, “Blind Faith” which outlines what happens to a society that unreservedly accepts the ultimate conclusion of this journey?

James Socol February 24, 2009 at 11:00 am

@Joanna & @Bob Johnson: I love the backchannel, but Twitter isn’t always appropriate for education. There are a lot of privacy concerns, even once adoption picks up.

I created Today’s Meet with a specific eye towards education. You can create an isolated room and set it to disappear later, addressing a lot of the privacy issues.

(It also has a running stream designed for projecting, if you’re really bold about it.)

Sorry about the shameless promotion. This is a great post, Laura, and I’ll be sharing it, especially with educators.

Ralph Bassfeld February 24, 2009 at 11:04 am

@wade The goal of a presentation is to communicate. That means a “sender” and a “receiver” and a feedback loop to ensure the message was received as intended. Twitter offers instant feedback.

People try to put the essence of your message in 140 characters. That encourages them to think through what the core message is. They are being active, instead of passive. This is a good thing.

Dave February 24, 2009 at 12:20 pm

Twitter really doesn’t seem like a good tool for a true backchannel, although it might work OK for asking questions. A chatroom would work better, right?

For most presentations I’ve seen lately, Twitter would work perfectly for the message I’d like to convey: “If all you’re planning to do is read your slides to us, give me the files and I’ll go sit in a better presentation.”

Michelle Lawson February 24, 2009 at 12:24 pm

Just back from Recent Changes Camp and Social Media Club in Portland, I’m inclined to see the use of the backchannel as more evidence of the trend toward collaboration and co-creation of content…a time-limited, living wiki, if you will.

And I enjoy being a conference voyeur via Twitter. The backchannel does extend the reach and range of a presentation.

Leanne Waldal February 24, 2009 at 12:40 pm

Me Too! Thanks for the excellent post – I’m going to share it with everyone who’s complained about use of IM and Twitter or other tools while at a small or large meeting/presentation.

I’ve really enjoyed the evolution at conferences with a twitter backchannel – having been, in the past, at conferences with an IM or chat backchannel. I’m much more engaged as an attendee and I’m more intrigued when I’m presenting something if there’s a clear ready immediate interaction that I can tune in or out depending on my attention abilities. Sometimes I don’t want to read/hear the backchannel and I like being able to opt-in-out on a whim.

@wade if I’m “fidgeting” with my phone I’m probably taking notes or gathering other data points.

On a tangential note regarding the evolution of meeting interactions — some people have called me out in meetings when I’m taking notes on my Treo or iPhone or laptop because they think I’m texting or twittering or whatever. I’ve overheard people near me, in small groups, passively aggressively loudly whisper that it’s rude to text while in a meeting. That wouldn’t happen if I used a writing utensil and a paper notebook for taking notes.

Judy Gombita February 24, 2009 at 12:45 pm

Just back from a breakfast meeting with a well-known communications consultant/instructor who is in town, where we discussed this post. He indicated that the next time one of the for-profit conference organization’s approaches him about doing a gig (expenses covered, but no speaking fee), he’s going to indicate he is only interested in presenting to a fully engaged audience–engaged as in with him as the speaker and with each other in the room.

Neither of us can understand why individuals would choose to connect remotely via 140-character–possibly subjective–sound bites to some semi-engaged amorphous audiencem “out there,” rather than discuss and reflect with the subject expert booked to do the presentation, or with the folks sitting physically near you.

I tweeted yesterday that I’d like to see these conference operations formally take a stand on the issue…and that they be sure to inform booked presenters about what they might be up against in terms of audience engagement.

Wouldn’t apply this rule to all of the various ‘camp crowds, of course. Y’all seem to thrive on the online (and off) hyperactivity. Different strokes for different folks, I guess. Next goal should be to align the program/speakers with like-minded audiences.

Richard Kraneis February 24, 2009 at 12:54 pm

I found this article unusually thought provoking, I wish I had more time to thoroughly comment on it. But for now, just a few short bursts of questions and comments.

As background, I’ve taught over 10,000 adults in the classroom how to use computers…

At a presentation with average speakers, the level of engagement of the audience may be, just average. Will a technology tool encourage better engagement when the presenter is more interested in one way communication?

If a presenter is on fire, engaging and challenging, teaching material that is hard and not soft in nature, I could see Twitter being used as a great technique for “parking lot” questions during the presentation. Best to bring along a Twitter assistant for the presenter.

Presenting to 500 is different than presenting to 50, or 12. At what point do we recognize that a presenter has become a teacher and that his/her mastery/control of the class is important? Trust me, if you’re teaching someone how to use advanced Excel concepts such as pivot tables and someone is working on their laptop on something else, you’ve lost them as students.

So there seem to be spectrums of engagement on how you present when people are Twittering, or just using their laptops to send email or play Solitaire.

Presenting to 500 vs 50 vs 12.
Presenting hard topics vs softer topics that require less attention.
Entertainment to informed to learning spectrum.
Applause only feedback to detailed assessment.
Industry leader presenting to unknown presenting.

So, for a guy who wasn’t going to comment much I’ve said a bunch.

But certainly, the next time I teach or present, I will be more aware of laptops in the room, and whether I can harness the power of Twitter during my time with my audience or class to improve their experience.

Maybe that’s the key, increasing engagement between presenter and audience. And for me, measuring outcomes.

Michael Buckbee February 24, 2009 at 1:00 pm

I’d suggest that another way to help pull the conversation back channel back together would be to offer and promote a specific tag for the event to be included on Tweets, Flickr pics, etc.

For every SXSW session there is an Event Tag listed on that event’s my.SXSW page. Tweets and Flickr images tagged with that tag are automatically collected in a single place (along with messages from the my.SXSW site) so that a single conversation location can emerge even if people are communicating in different ways.



CPB February 24, 2009 at 1:24 pm

Time had passed since the start of computer age and people now relies on technology.. They are physically present but doesn’t like using their mouths to speak but they better choose twittering with others..

Is it like.. A new world.. A world that i don’t want to live in.. We need to socialize outside the computer world..

Anyway, if the speaker gets boring.. i recommend twitting.

John February 24, 2009 at 1:33 pm

Let me cut to the chase guy’s. It’s all in Gods hands. let’s our yes be yes, and our no be no’s. Let God be in charge and no one else!

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