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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