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  • Diana Schneidman

The backchannel: I’m looking at the future and I’m not sure I like it

You know how public speaking is an elemental fear of many people? Right up there with dying?

Well, the butterflies-in-tummy count has been upped, thanks to technology.

There’s a new trend in public speaking events called the backchannel, which is where audience members carry on a conversation about the speaker in real time (modern speak for right there during the speech) using technology.

Twitter is especially convenient for this and the phenomenon is especially prevalent at tech-themed conferences.

In a no-tech sense the backchannel has always existed. One audience member whispers to her neighbor and so it goes.

But Twitter lets everyone in on the action via smartphone.

As you probably know, Twitter is a form of microblogging in which you communicate via messages of 140 or fewer characters. Twitter facilitates the backchannel with a feature called the hashtag, in which a standardized abbreviation, prefaced with a pound sign (#), organizes comments on a topic so anyone can easily follow the thread.

Depending on how backchanneling plays out, it can generate diverse input on the topic and raise interesting issues. It can be used to express approval for the speaker and to spread the word beyond the auditorium about how wonderful the speech is. It can alert the media to important developments and publicize the event.

It can also intimidate the hell out of the speaker by pointing out flaws in the presentation, organizing opposition to concepts, generating laughter out of sync with the presentation and worse.

There was an especially interesting example of backchanneling recently when danah boyd (she intentionally writes it lower case), researcher at Microsoft Research New England, spoke at Web2.0 Expo this month (November 2009). (Track event coverage at Twitter hashtag #w2e)*

danah had prepared a carefully scripted presentation. She was aware of her limitations as a speaker and compensated for them, but her effectiveness was hampered because:

  • She was told she could not have her laptop on stage with her, nor could she use PowerPoint as she had planned.

  • She learned about the Twitter stream projected behind her only shortly before the presentation and was unable to read it easily from the lectern.

  • Intensely bright lights added to her personal discomfort.

  • Her comments did not synch with the laughter she was hearing. (Talk about laughing at someone rather than with someone!)

  • Sexist remarks about her appearance appeared among the tweets. Denise Graveline’s blog on this is interesting.

Should a speaker allow and even encourage backchanneling?

I’m still playing with this . . . and frankly, I haven’t yet attended a live presentation with sanctioned backchanneling . . . but here’s what I’m thinking now.

In the ideal presentation, the speaker delivers a flawless, thought-provoking presentation with fluency and great stage presence while also reviewing tweets and responding to them in such a way as to stimulate audience participation.

However, in real life, that is simply too much to expect from a single individual.

I certainly don’t think participants should be permitted to go rogue via Twitter, broadcasting things that would be inappropriate to say from the microphone. Comments on gender / appearance, age, race, etc. are never acceptable.

Furthermore, I believe the speaker is due some courtesy. Despite our society’s acceptance, and even encouragement, of multitasking and the ways in which new technology feeds ADD tendencies, listening attentively to a speaker is not passé.

Perhaps the traditional address itself is becoming passé. One alternative would be for the speaker to publish remarks in advance, distributing them to registrants as a print PDF and an audio MP3. Dual formats would be more convenient to attendees, and as the practice caught on, more participants would regularly listen to such speeches while driving or flying to the event.

Using the established hashtag (or another online forum), the discussion could even begin before the conference.

The role of keynoter would morph to more of a facilitator. The person in this role could start by summarizing the speech that has already been distributed and online reactions posted to date. This section of the program could last about 20 minutes, during which the audience stops tweeting and listens actively.

If Twitter is going to be a growing part of the conference scene, the audience has more responsibility than in the past.

Listening is a proactive skill. Audience participation, even if limited to looking at the speaker and laughing appropriately, strongly impacts the effectiveness of the session, and intelligent, relevant comments from the floor are essential here. This format calls upon the audience to take responsibility for the quality of the interaction rather than just sitting passively (or responding distractedly to their personal emails).

* To access a hashtagged Twitter stream, enter the symbol, complete with #, at .

Originally posted 11-30-09

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