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:

{ 132 trackbacks }

If you’re going to tweet from a conference.. « Direct Marketing Observations
February 23, 2009 at 11:03 am
February 23, 2009 at 1:30 pm
News Update - Best of the Day
February 23, 2009 at 7:25 pm
Beneath the Peak» PresenTwittering?
February 23, 2009 at 7:54 pm
Daily Links | :: Professional Web Design, Development, Programming, Hacks, Downloads, Math and being a Web 2.0 Hipster?
February 23, 2009 at 9:04 pm
How to Present While People are Twittering | Pistachio | DV for Teachers
February 23, 2009 at 9:05 pm
A Positive Side to Twitter « Boxer541
February 23, 2009 at 11:04 pm
How to Present While People are Twittering « lennyesq
February 24, 2009 at 12:00 am
links for 2009-02-23
February 24, 2009 at 12:02 am
Beneficios del Twitter streaming durante las conferencias | Juan Ortega | mi vida 2.0 a través de tags
February 24, 2009 at 1:42 am
Bebo embraces the lifestream |
February 24, 2009 at 2:22 am
Strandh delar med sig - 2009 02 24 — Niclas Strandh aka Deeped
February 24, 2009 at 3:00 am
How to Present While People are Twittering | Pistachio « urbanism and connected society
February 24, 2009 at 4:51 am
Presentations and Twitter | Thoughts from a tech specialist...
February 24, 2009 at 10:25 am
Speaker tips: How to present when audience is tweeting | Ben Martin, CAE
February 24, 2009 at 10:27 am
The K12 Geek » Blog Archive » Presenting with a backchannel
February 24, 2009 at 11:40 am
Dave’s Whiteboard » Blog Archive » Upfront about the backchannel
February 24, 2009 at 11:49 am
Do You Have A Feedback Loop When You Speak/Preach? :: Rhett Smith
February 24, 2009 at 12:33 pm
Making Presentations While the Audience Twitters Away…02.24.09 « The Proverbial Lone Wolf Librarian’s Weblog
February 24, 2009 at 3:55 pm
E L S U A ~ A KM Blog Thinking Outside The Inbox by Luis Suarez » Using Twitter in the Enterprise by Ed Yourdon
February 24, 2009 at 8:28 pm
Daily Digest for 2009-02-24 | Mike Hayes
February 25, 2009 at 3:04 am
Shared Web Stories - February 25, 2009
February 25, 2009 at 7:03 am
Link: How to Present When People Are Twittering « CE Buzz
February 25, 2009 at 8:37 am
Mediavorous » Blog Archive » Links for February 20th through February 25th
February 25, 2009 at 11:02 am
IPDI » Blog Archive » Innovation Brainstorm: Public Speaking and Twitter
February 25, 2009 at 11:57 am
How to Present While People are Twittering | Pistachio « Eclectic Buzz Blog
February 25, 2009 at 12:14 pm
iLibrarian » How to Present While People are Twittering
February 25, 2009 at 6:38 pm
Sähköinen kommentointi esiintyjän voimavarana « Fasilitaattorin työkalupakki
February 26, 2009 at 5:22 am
Is Twitter a good thing while you’re presenting? : Speaking about Presenting
February 26, 2009 at 12:54 pm
#DTC Symposium « California Life: Better Than Happy Hour
February 26, 2009 at 2:43 pm
The Weekender: February 27 : i tell stories
February 27, 2009 at 8:06 am
All a-Twitter
February 27, 2009 at 10:20 am
Social Media Buzz- Weekly Roundup (Week of 2/23/09) - Do’s and Don’ts, Monetizing Your Website and More
February 27, 2009 at 5:01 pm
Not just different devices at different times - all at once! - Frank Carver ~ Convergent Visionary
February 27, 2009 at 6:25 pm
Åsa says » links for 2009-02-28
February 28, 2009 at 7:02 pm
AKA Riptide Furse » Blog Archive » What I Learned about on February 28th
February 28, 2009 at 8:40 pm
8 things I learnt about using twitter as a participation tool : Speaking about Presenting
February 28, 2009 at 10:31 pm
I “Heart” Technology! » Blog Archive » APS ITC Daily Diigo Links 03/01/2009
March 1, 2009 at 12:41 am
Sentiments On Common Sense » Back Channel Thoughts…. How to Present while people are twittering??
March 1, 2009 at 3:59 am
Dancing Monkey Mania » Blog Archive » links for 2009-03-01
March 1, 2009 at 4:05 am
Presentasjoner og Twitter - en god kombinasjon? « Kjells blogg
March 1, 2009 at 6:12 am
Pennsylvania » DEN Diigo Group Bookmarks 03/01/2009
March 1, 2009 at 7:35 am
AKA Riptide Furse » Blog Archive » Daily Links From The Arlington Public Schools Instructional Technology Coordinators 03/01/2009
March 1, 2009 at 11:33 am
AKA Riptide Furse » Blog Archive » Links From The DEN Diigo Group (weekly)
March 1, 2009 at 2:13 pm
Twittering at ELN conferences |
March 1, 2009 at 5:59 pm
Langwitches » links for 2009-03-01
March 1, 2009 at 7:09 pm
Knowledge Heroes » Archive » How to Present While People are Twittering
March 2, 2009 at 5:11 am
“The Art of Teaching Adults” - Lively Lectures « Doing Good Things Well
March 2, 2009 at 9:31 am
Twitter and Presenter. « Alumimum
March 2, 2009 at 10:58 am
Twitter: data mining, information gathering, information retrieval e semantic web - Stalkk.ed
March 2, 2009 at 2:27 pm
Tweetmash - How people Tweeted Through Carter on “Delivering Digital Britain” at NESTA « OUseful.Info, the blog…
March 3, 2009 at 8:18 am
Nu? So what’s news? The techgolem’s random walk through the news | TechGolem
March 3, 2009 at 11:28 pm
Library clips :: Twitter 3 years on, and why it’s the killer app! :: March :: 2009
March 4, 2009 at 6:30 pm
Blog Clippings » eCuaderno
March 5, 2009 at 7:16 am
Follow Up: How to Present when People are Twittering | Pistachio
March 5, 2009 at 10:23 am
March 6, 2009 at 2:03 am
Michael Nielsen » Biweekly links for 03/06/2009
March 6, 2009 at 6:54 am
links for 2009-03-06 « Chocolatespoon: Emily’s Musings
March 6, 2009 at 9:03 am
Engineering Change in North Carolina
March 6, 2009 at 12:37 pm
Web 2.0 no meu Diigo - Semana 10 « Web 2.0 PT
March 8, 2009 at 3:17 pm
Communities and Collaboration » Bookmarks for March 10th through March 11th
March 11, 2009 at 6:02 am
How Backchat Makes Your Presentation A Killer « Caleb Booker
March 11, 2009 at 12:33 pm
Letting Twitter change the way we teach | Education IT |
March 12, 2009 at 11:57 pm
Time To Get On The Ball, I May Be MIA. | Mommy Daddy Blog
March 13, 2009 at 2:30 am
Joining the Twitterverse « Infospot @ WML
March 13, 2009 at 10:58 am
Diving in the Deeper End? | Sliced Bread
March 14, 2009 at 9:58 am
Jeff Barr’s Blog » Links for Sunday, March 15, 2009
March 15, 2009 at 12:12 pm
John’s Diigo Links 03/17/2009 « My Other Blog
March 17, 2009 at 8:02 am
Literacy in the 21st Century » More Stuff for Your Edification & Education
March 18, 2009 at 1:50 pm
PabloG » Blog Archive » links for 2009-03-19
March 19, 2009 at 9:01 pm
March 20, 2009 at 12:44 pm
ION Digital » Blog Archive » How Speakers Can Manage Twitter- and Live to Talk About it
April 2, 2009 at 12:39 am
Back channelling: creating reflective dialogue « Mollybob Goes To School
April 2, 2009 at 8:32 am
Is Meeting in Second Life Necessary? 5 Tips on Social Media Tools for Virtual Meetings | Tips on Enterprise 2.0 with Web 2.0
April 6, 2009 at 1:10 am
  Weekly links roundup by Communications from DMN
April 18, 2009 at 6:31 am
Sudden Thoughts And Second Thoughts
April 23, 2009 at 8:28 pm
4/24/2009: TLT Conference ‘09 Resources and Ideas, New CAST NIMAS Converter, Lighthouse Learning K-12 in Second Life, Weigh in on the new NETS! | PATINS PROJECT -Rapid Fire-
April 23, 2009 at 11:45 pm
May 3, 2009 at 12:18 am
Websites I Tagged Recently (weekly) | An Expat Educator in Asia
May 9, 2009 at 11:05 pm
Taptu Mobile Search » Blog Archive » Giving Conference Talks a New Breath of Life
May 18, 2009 at 12:07 pm
Referencias sobre las aplicaciones educativas de Twitter - DigiZen:Un blogfesor aprendiendo
May 20, 2009 at 7:03 pm
Midcourse Corrections » Blog Archive » Twitter Isn’t Ruining Your Presentation: You Are!
June 2, 2009 at 5:59 pm
Twitter for Events & Meetings | Meetings Podcast
June 5, 2009 at 7:59 pm
Wild Apricot Blog : 30 Great Links for Associations
June 8, 2009 at 3:30 pm
Twittering In An Educational Setting |
June 15, 2009 at 2:00 am
Kortbloggat 20-27 februari (re:pub) — Niclas Strandh digitalPR, creative planning och sociala mediestrategier
June 15, 2009 at 7:22 pm
what am I doing? » from interactivity to back-channel (3/3)
June 21, 2009 at 4:58 am
Twitter and Your Presentation | (iverson's) currentbuzz
July 9, 2009 at 5:49 pm
Listening Post » Blog Archive » Of DAC Panels and Back Channels
August 5, 2009 at 8:23 pm
Talking about Twitter « Walking with Web 2.0
August 5, 2009 at 10:10 pm
Twitter Tips Ultimate Guide | Using social media to guide and help you connect to social networks: Twitter, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, YouTube using social media
August 20, 2009 at 8:07 am
August 23, 2009 at 9:56 am
Web Designer Notebook » How To Give A More Exciting Presentation: A Note To Speakers
September 6, 2009 at 6:32 pm
Twitter from the Showfloor - Pistachio
September 11, 2009 at 8:50 pm
Twittering at Conferences « Godzilla
September 25, 2009 at 4:52 pm
Brogan Battles Backnoise – and wins! | Decker Blog
October 5, 2009 at 5:51 pm
October 10, 2009 at 2:50 pm
Meeting Tweeting Gimmick — Crumple It Up
October 16, 2009 at 2:09 pm
The Bitterati | Contemporary Learning
October 20, 2009 at 7:05 am
Everything you ever wanted to know about Twitter | Charles Curle Design
November 20, 2009 at 11:08 am
Using the back channel effectively in presentations « Beyond Distance Research Alliance Blog
November 23, 2009 at 4:49 pm
27-Nov-2009 |
November 27, 2009 at 12:36 am
Link: How to Present When People Are Twittering « ALA Learning
December 23, 2009 at 10:08 pm
Socialreporter | Shock! Socialreporter joins the information professionals
January 13, 2010 at 5:46 pm
La madre de todas las listas de aplicaciones Twitter « ENRIQUE SAAVEDRA
January 30, 2010 at 9:59 pm
La madre de todas las listas de aplicaciones Twitter (Parte 3) « ENRIQUE SAAVEDRA
January 30, 2010 at 10:25 pm
La madre de todas las listas de aplicaciones Twitter (parte 4) « ENRIQUE SAAVEDRA
January 31, 2010 at 9:17 am
links for 2010-02-03 « Blarney Fellow
February 3, 2010 at 9:32 pm
6 Great Approaches to Public Speaking – ReadWriteWeb « Tech4buziness – Eng
February 4, 2010 at 3:40 am
Are you an owl, hummingbird, or penguin?
February 4, 2010 at 6:15 pm
Human 2.0 » The perils of backchannels: Why Twitter should never take center stage
February 10, 2010 at 5:43 pm
6 Great Approaches to Public Speaking « Thundernoise's Blog
March 11, 2010 at 10:02 pm
Twitter as a tool in university? « New Info Tech
June 8, 2010 at 12:57 pm
5 Reasons Why the AEC Industry is 2 years behind in Adopting Social Media | Plannovation
June 30, 2010 at 12:16 pm
Social Media Strategies: guest workshop (by PhD student Jennifer Jones) at the BIAD, Birmingham (20th of July, 2010) « University of the West of Scotland: School of Creative & Cultural Industries
July 22, 2010 at 1:21 pm
Jennifer M Jones | Social Media Strategies: guest workshop at the BIAD, Birmingham (20th of July, 2010)
July 30, 2010 at 11:47 am
AcKnowledge Consulting » Blog Archive » Twitter and the challenge of openness
May 9, 2011 at 1:47 am
Midweek Mentoring: Making a Great Presentation | Mentorvention
June 22, 2011 at 9:50 am
Giving Conference Talks a New Breath of Life | JasonHarris.Me
July 28, 2011 at 2:16 am
Weekly Digest for August 19th « May Yan
August 19, 2011 at 9:04 am
Augmented Presentation | Geronimo Coaching Now
August 21, 2011 at 6:12 pm
On Twitter Backchannels and Social Learning « Dancing With Elephants
November 10, 2011 at 10:59 pm
Wednesday Wisdom: Your Final Project and Presentation | Mentorvention
December 7, 2011 at 3:41 pm
Seems like a good time to tell you some more about your final project | Mentorvention
December 7, 2011 at 4:11 pm
Learning In a Flat World - Twitter 202
January 6, 2012 at 1:33 pm
ASHA Issues Call for Presenters for October Conference « The Pulse
January 20, 2012 at 5:06 pm
Bookmarks for January 31st through February 11th |
February 11, 2012 at 11:01 am
Midweek Mentoring: Making a Great Presentation and a BIG CHANGE TO your final memo assignment | Mentorvention
December 5, 2012 at 10:21 am
March 3, 2013 at 7:07 pm
Back-channel communications or bad manners? - UK Fundraising
April 4, 2013 at 4:17 pm
The rights and responsibilities of live tweeting | SLPChat
May 16, 2013 at 1:07 pm
RHETT SMITH » Transitioning Life's JourneyDo You Have A Feedback Loop When You Speak/Preach? » RHETT SMITH
May 30, 2013 at 11:55 pm

{ 94 comments… read them below or add one }

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: