While I Talked, People Twittered

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Have you ever had an audience comment loudly on what you were speaking about while you were actually speaking? I did this week, and I found the experience to be weird, invigorating and a little bit scary.

The scene was the New Marketing Boot Camp, a seminar I conducted with Chris Brogan and CrossTech Media. The group was the most tech-savvy I have addressed in some time. About a half-dozen of the members were using Twitter, the short-message microblogging service that inspires a fanatical following.

Sitting down after my presentation, I was able to call up search.twitter.comand read what people had been saying while I talked. Most of them simply summarized points I made, but a few added their opinions, and not all of those opinions were complimentary.

I can tell you that the act of presenting to a group that is actively talking about you requires new skills. Simply knowing that thoughts are being exchanged can be flustering; the tendency is to speak to the people in the room who you know are documenting your talk, hoping to get an inkling of what they’ll say. There’s also a certain ego-drive voyeurism that comes from this kind of instant feedback. I found myself wanting to hustle back to my computer to get the online evaluations of what I had just said!

There was a famous story at the South by Southwest Conference last March in which a keynote session was disrupted by negative Twitter messages from some members of the audience. In that case, the speakers were in the difficult position of having those comments actually scroll across a public screen while they were on stage. That was an extreme case, but an increasing number of events are incorporating Twitter conversations into the experience by encouraging attendees to share messages with each other using specific tags or keywords.

Like most new technology developments, there are both good and bad sides to this new form of instant feedback. On the positive side, speakers and conference organizers need as much audience reaction as they can get, and the sooner the better. 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. Hopefully, that was a good thing for everyone.

The major downside of this trend that I see is that real-time feedback from a small number of people can force a speaker to unintentionally focus on trying to please that vocal few. This is dangerous if the small but loud group isn’t representative of the majority of listeners. It’s human nature to fixate on criticism, and focusing on the comments of a few audience members can throw a presenter off track. The feedback is great, but keep it in perspective.

I’m telling you this because many of you work in the technology industry. You will soon find (if you haven’t already) that attendees to your meetings and events will use tools like Twitter to share their observations. Encourage this. Ask attendees to use Twitter’s hash function (#) to label their messages for your event. Use search.twitter.com to filter their comments and save the search query as an RSS feed so you can collect all this feedback in one stream or even display it on a public screen.

However, Twitter feeds aren’t a replacement for the tried-and-true tactics of feedback forms and post-conference surveys. Real-time impressions can be incomplete and misleading, so take them with a grain of salt. But seek all the feedback you can. Your presentation or event will only be better for it.

Paul Gillin is a writer, speaker and content marketing consultant specializing in technology and new media. He has been a technology journalist for 25 years. His next book, Secrets of Social Media Marketing, will be published in October.

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