How to manage the Twitter backchannel

In my eBook How to present with the Twitter backchannel I recommend that the first time you present with a Twitter backchannel, you shouldn’t try and monitor or respond to it in real-time (the term backchannel refers to an online conversation taking place at the same time as people are talking live). I’ve changed my mind. The catalyst is danah boyd’s experience with the Twitter backchannel at the Web2.0 Expo in New York (the lack of capitalization is not a mistake – danah prefers her name to be written in lowercase and I’ve decided to respect that).

Twitter backchannel disaster

danah boydDanah had prepared a new presentation for the conference and she was working from a script. She was initially rattled by the set-up: a flat lectern, a Twitterstream displayed on the screen behind her, and bright lights blinding her. But it got worse – here’s what she experienced:

And then, within the first two minutes, I started hearing rumblings. And then laughter. The sounds were completely irrelevant to what I was saying and I was devastated. I immediately knew that I had lost the audience. Rather than getting into flow and becoming an entertainer, I retreated into myself. I basically decided to read the entire speech instead of deliver it. I counted for the time when I could get off stage. I was reading aloud while thinking all sorts of terrible thoughts about myself and my failures. I wasn’t even interested in my talk. All I wanted was to get it over with.

Here’s what had happened. People had started giving feedback on Twitter that she was talking too fast. Then some wits made some smart comments – hence the laughter. When danah later heard that the initial problem was simply that she had been speaking too fast, her response was:

OMG, seriously? That was it? Cuz that’s not how I read the situation on stage. So rather than getting through to me that I should slow down, I was hearing the audience as saying that I sucked.

Danah was the only person in the room who didn’t know she was speaking too fast. The one person who needed the feedback didn’t have it. If somebody had just told her that she needed to adjust her pace, the presentation meltdown could have been averted.

Decide what backchannel feedback you can respond to

That’s why I now think that you should have a system for monitoring the backchannel, so that you can do something about it while you still can.

Now I totally get that just getting through a presentation can be challenge enough – without having to think about adjusting to feedback that you get from the audience. But what would you prefer? To get the feedback that you’re talking too fast, or to go through the emotional trauma that danah went though?

But you don’t want to receive all the backchannel feedback in real-time – that would be overwhelming. And I don’t believe that it’s possible to genuinely connect with your audience and monitor the backchannel at the same time. So you need someone to help you – a backchannel moderator who will filter the backchannel and only pass onto you the feedback that you can respond to during the presentation.

You need to be the one to decide what type of feedback you can respond to during your presentation and what you can’t. To help you work this out I’ve grouped the feedback you might receive into five categories:

Delivery issues

For example:

  • you’re speaking too fast or too slow
  • I can’t hear you
  • I can’t see your slides
  • I can’t hear the video/ the video is deafening me

These are all issues for which you could take remedial action. To ignore this feedback is a missed opportunity to improve the audience’s experience of your presentation.

Understanding issues

You might get feedback indicating that people don’t understand your content. For example:

  • what does “xxxxx” mean?
  • I’m confused

Ignoring this feedback will have an impact on your audience’s attention – those people who don’t understand will start to tune out. Responding to this feedback may require you to adjust your content a little eg: using a different word or phrase, or explaining what you mean. And then you can get straight back into your prepared content.

Level of your content

You could receive feedback that your content is too basic or too advanced:

  • I’ve heard all this before
  • I’m ready to move on

This does require some on-your-feet dexterity. Depending on how you’ve organised your material you may be able to react to this in real-time. For example, say you’ve planned your presentation to first cover background and then get into practical details – it may be that you fast forward to the second part of your presentation. If you prepare your presentation as a number of discrete modules you’ll find that adjusting your content to audience feedback will be much easier.

Disagreement with your content

For example:

  • I disagree that…
  • What about the point of view that…

If you’re totally in command of your material and have the ability to respond without preparation, you might choose to respond to this feedback. But this type of feedback has more potential to throw you off course and your lack of response won’t affect the ability of the audience to understand the rest of the presentation.

Environmental issues

Note that there are also environmental issues eg: room too hot or too cold, sightlines etc. that could affect your audience. The host should be monitoring these issues and taking action to fix them without you having to be bothered.

Discuss with your backchannel moderator

Share these categories with your Twitter moderator and discuss with them:

  • what category of feedback you want to be told about
  • the number of tweets in that category that should trigger them to alert you. If only one person out of 500 tweets that you’re going too fast it’s probably not a big problem.
  • how the moderator should alert you to the feedback. They could pass you a paper note or you could set up a monitor on the stage that is used exclusively for them to communicate with you (open a private chatroom using TodaysMeet or other service).

Go well with your presentation…as with danah, being aware of this feedback could make all the difference to your success.

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  1. Just for reference, here’s danah’s talk on youtube. I think it’s worth noting that if you showed this to someone who didn’t know the backstory, I doubt they’d think anything exceptional was going on.

    To your points: I spoke at the same event, on the same stage. I think one challenge no one talks about is the inverse minority effect. If one person on twitter is confused, but the rest of the audience is doing fine, does it make sense to address that one person’s confusion? Twitter makes it very hard to calibrate this sort of feedback. Whereas eye contact, laughter, posture, and a thousand other things can be assessed at once from the crowd by an attentive speaker.

    If you watch the video, which doesn’t show you the backchannel, it’s at worst, a reasonably good talk, I think.

    It’s worth asking:

    1) What percentage of people in the audience are actively using twitter or any backchannel during the session? At most events its very low. And I’d argue it’s not a representative set of most audiences.

    2) Is it worth taking up time when speaking to the entire audience to address that minority, when following up individually later is a better use of everyones time? Sometimes it is (e.g. you are, in fact, talking too fast). But often it isn’t.

    I do agree with your suggestions for moderating the backchannel. But I really do think the backchannel is rarely that active, rarely as snarky as it has been in a handful of exceptional cases like danahs’, to warrant this being something most speakers will ever need to deal with.

    For reference, my post:

    The challenge of using twitter at conferences

    • Scott – thank you so much for adding your thoughts here. I do agree that deciding on the number of tweets that will trigger you to adjust your presentation is a tricky issue.

      And yes, at most conferences only a minority of people are on Twitter. But if those people on Twitter are roughly representative of the rest of the audience, then the backchannel feedback they give may also give a clue as to what other people are thinking.

      And although we do get physical feedback from an audience, it’s not always an accurate reflection of what they’re thinking. Say somebody has a very blank look on their face. Are they bored? Confused? Or is that just what they normally look like?

      In some cases, Twitter and other backchannels do give you an insight into what people are actually thinking.

      Thanks for the link to your post – very useful ideas and insights.


  2. It’s true, you can’t be sure. But here’s what I do.

    I’ve done hundreds of lectures, as many others have, and having thought about this and studied my own sense of how things are going with the feedback I get after, I’m convinced the single best measure of how well I am doing, while I’m speaking, is eye contact.

    It’s too hard to sense if they love me or hate me, but if I see a room full of eyes, I’m doing ok. I still have their frontal lobes engaged on me. If I have a room full of wandering eyes, which, btw, I’ve noticed often come along for the ride with yawns, I know I’m losing people and need to pause and collect my energy, give the audience something to do to reengage them, or take something else out of my bag of tricks.

    The impossibility of eye-contact in a large keynote style lecture with bright houselights is part of what makes that particular form of speaking so hard. It’s one way. It’s solo. You have have less recourse from guessing about how well it’s going.

    There is no way to ever be certain what everyone in the room is thinking, unless you’re in a rock-band, or are a stand-up comedian, as in those forms the norm is high levels of physical engagement with what you’re doing.

    • Yes, I do agree that the eyes are a pretty reliable indicator. Possibly that’s what makes the backchannel so frightening to many presenters – the eye contact is lost, and suddenly you’ve lost your measure of whether your audience is still with you – just as you do when you’re blinded by bright houselights.


  3. Good article, but…. (hell, you didn’t I was going to play nice did you? ;) )

    The ‘but’ is this: the real problem was earlier in your story than you’ve suggested. There is no excuse for lights to be set up to blind the speaker. That’s just sloppy technical work by the venue, and should really have been challenged up front. A spot light which blinds a speaker is too bright for a number of reasons other than that – such as making the speaker look washed out and 2D from the audience’s point of view.

    Rather than have lights at that level the venue should be required to provide more lights, each at, say, 60% of the problem intensity. In any case lights should always come in at 45 degrees, not front on.

    10 years as a theatre lighting designer wasn’t wasted after all!! ;)

    • Hi Simon

      I agree with you that the blinding lights were a problem (as was the backchannel being displayed on the screen behind her). Those things rattled her and as a result she started talking too fast. But once that had happened, the fact that she was the only one who didn’t get the feedback was unfortunate.

      Thanks for your tips on lighting – very interesting.


  4. Hi Olivia:

    I’ve been implementing proprietary interactive meeting tools for over ten years. We’ve basically designed tools and processes that allow for a well-managed “back channel” that’s part of the process for brainstorming, raising critical issues, etc., well before Twitter came along. What I’m consistently surprised by with the advent of Twitter and the backchannels that are created by it, is the lack of design and open dialogue BEFORE the session takes place. So much of what Danah experienced could have been avoided had she said, “Hello everyone. Now I know there’s a backchannel going on and what I’d like you to use it for is to ask me questions, raise issues, tell me what you think. I want to hear from you about the content. It’s hard to talk up here as it is, so I won’t be responding to lighting or how fast I talk. But I will be paying attention to the questions you have.” Then, your backchannel moderator can theme the common questions and issues and make responding in real time doable. Because that’s the other piece that seems to be missing. How do you distill all the data that’s coming in? We work very closely with our clients to design that process so it’s not overwhelming and the frivolous things (“Why isn’t there iced tea offered?”) don’t slow down the event…

  5. Hi, Olivia. Running a little late on this comment, but the discussion is still relevant, so why not? I wanted to weigh in because I joined the Web2Expo team the day before danah’s talk. I saw the tweetstream setup and suggested it wasn’t a good way to go–it would be distracting to attendees and could undermine presenters. But the team was very strongly in favor of it, so although I’m a Twitter expert, a student of good presenting techniques and had been closely following the use of Twitter at events, I was all, “Oh, OK, I’m the new babe. You all know best.” I’ve been regretting ever since that I waffled!

    To help us get on track for our next show (Expo SF, May 3 – 6), I worked with the team to draft a new plan. Among the things we’re going to do: 1) no tweetstreams displayed publicly in the presentation rooms (unless a presenter wants it); 2) for the keynotes, we’ll monitor the tweets and give any appropriate feedback to the presenters who want it (although live-tweeting and commentary are common, feedback is actually pretty rare, so we anticipate this will happen maybe twice during the whole show); 3) we’ll work with the AV team to figure out a way we can convey a message to presenters during their talks (again, only if they want it); 4) we’ll work with presenters before they go on stage to prep them on ways they can note and respond to feedback.

    We’ve got more ideas for incorporating Twitter into the breakouts and other parts of the event. In the run-up to the show, we’ll blog the whole set.

    Thanks, as always, for a thoughtful post and discussion!

    • Thanks Sarah for letting us know your plans to make Twitter and presentations work well together. I’ll be particularly interested in the system you use for conveying messages to presenters during their talks. Olivia


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