How to tweet during a presentation

The latest academic research on Twitter and conferences addresses the issue of “snarky tweets” during presentations. What should be the guidelines of what is acceptable and what is not? My own experience of tweeting during presentations at Presentation Camp LA highlighted for me the new challenges we face around Twitter etiquette at conferences.

The research

Tony McNeil reports on a survey of 103 people from a conference on learning technology in April 2009: More than just passing notes in class? Reflections on the twitter backchannel.

More than a quarter of the conference twitterers said that they had sent dismissive or dissenting tweets during presentations. These usually related to disagreements around the content of a presentation. One tweeter admitted to tweeting that a presentation was boring and a waste of time.

Some of these respondents claimed that their critical tweets were no different than what they would have been prepared to say face to face.

Are snarky tweets a problem?

However, it does seem that negative tweets can be a problem:

Marieke Guy says:

I’ve watched Twitter back channels at events for some time now and have on occasions felt quite uncomfortable reading some of the personal comments made. It’s almost as if people think that because it’s being said using a social networking tool (rather than in the ear of the person next to them) it’s OK. Quite the opposite. I’m sure there is many a presenter who has put themselves through hell reading the unkind comments written about them.

Peter Bromberg had this to say after a conference:

Twittering snide, insulting remarks about your fellow committee members while they speak and marking it with #ala09 hash tag to ensure that the widest possible audience sees your comment: REALLY VERY NOT GOOD

Are guidelines needed to minimize negative tweets?

McNeil asked his respondents whether they thought guidelines were necessary. Forty-nine people were against having guidelines, and 40 were for.

Some of those against guidelines said they trusted their fellow twitterers to use the backchannel responsibly. But there were others who were adamant that having guidelines was against the spirit of Twitter:

“If you constrain me, I will buck the system just because!”

“I would resent greatly an imposed set of best practices for this tool.”

However, 40 people did agree with having guidelines. Most of these were more concerned with practical than moral issues eg: consistent use of hashtags. However, a number suggested guidelines to minimize “snarky” tweets. For example:

“Do no harm ie: conduct the conversations with the same level of courtesy and respect that one would expect of any professional interchange. No publicly flaming speakers.”

“Only tweet what you would stand up and say publicly.”

What should be the guideline?

I think it would be useful to develop a shared etiquette around tweeting during presentations. I think conference organizers could include such a guideline in the conference programme (personally I don’t think much of the maturity of a person who will rebel against a guideline just because).

I like the idea of the principle that you should only tweet what you would be prepared to say face to face.

But in practice, it’s quite challenging. At Presentation Camp LA I tweeted this:

Being stimulated by Jeanne’s acting workshop. But not convinced that bringing acting techniques into presenting is useful. #pcampLA

Now, I think it’s a perfectly polite tweet and I could have said this out loud during the presentation. But I didn’t. Partly because it didn’t fit with the flow of the workshop and partly because I didn’t want to.

So was it wrong for me to tweet this? Not necessarily.

A professor using twitter in classes (I don’t have the link at the moment – will add it when I’ve found it) found that some students who had never contributed before, started contributing through Twitter, and some started contributing out loud as a result.

Many of us are frightened of challenging people out loud, and I think holding people to the standard of only tweeting what you would be prepared to say face-to-face would stifle valuable debate. Instead, how about seeing twitter as a channel for encouraging dissent and challenge which has previously remained hidden out of fear or politeness.

And possibly this will then grow people’s confidence so that the debate does take place out loud – which I agree is the ideal.

So my suggestion is that the guideline should be that you should only tweet what would be considered acceptable to say face to face. What do you think?

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  1. Thanks for the timely and useful post, Olivia.

    One thing I’ve been thinking about guidelines w/r/t conference twittering: if the conference and/or speakers say, “Here’s the hashtag, here are some good examples of conference tweets, here are some things to be cautious about,” you let attendees know that you’re part of the online conversation. That alone could discourage snarky comments and encourage thoughtful exchanges–without even having to call for such behavior explicitly.

    • Thanks Sarah for those thoughts. I think the idea of modelling what you expect is a good one. Olivia

  2. As with anything involving other people, apply the golden rule. One can be critical without being personal.

  3. Olivia,

    Excellent post! I’m definitely going to forward this on to a few folks in the space…have had quite a few conversations around the subject. One of my projects,, is designed to help filter inappropriate and/or irrelevant tweets during presentations.

    • Hi Micah
      Great – I think that could be a very useful tool. I’m travelling at the moment, but as soon as I can I will check it out. Olivia

      • Thanks Olivia! Given your speaking background, I’d love to get your feedback on ParaTweet as a presentation tool!

  4. I connect with the point of view you express towards the end of this post; “how about seeing twitter as a channel for encouraging dissent and challenge which has previously remained hidden out of fear or politeness”.

    In the past I’ve felt that the two most prominent truth-telling forums inside organizations has been been the restrooms and parking lots. I a-ok with Twitter being the third.

    As a professional speaker I want to hear all feedback every way I can.

    Thanks for stirring my thoughts with this post!

    Keep creating…a story worth repeating,

  5. Presenting to an audience is a social experience. Attendees/students/workshop participants have a role to play, too. It’s not just a passive experience to see if the presenters have ideas with merit or the ability to teach us something, or a chance for us to sit in judgment. As an audience, we have a role to engage, learn, absorb, and often contribute.

    What *can* we take away, rather than what is this person doing so wrong, badly, or stupidly. And if we’re so bored, I suppose one can politely leave or do email.

    I concur with comments about needing to hear the truth and finding ways to make that safe and acceptable, but that kind of comment isn’t “snarky”; it’s feedback and conversation–the kind one can share directly with practice and a bit of courage…and encouragement.

    • Thank you Janet, for your thoughtful comments. I think generally we’re not good at respectful challenge outside of particular communities which have developed trust and protocols to nurture that trust. How can we develop the trust necessary for respectful challenge on the twitter backchannel? That’s what I’m thinking about now. Olivia

  6. My advice is for the speaker and is based on a recent presentation I made at the Stanford Faculty Club on Social Media.

    – Monitor the conference #hashtag before you speak.
    – Address a few common themes from recent tweets before you start speaking
    – Highlight slides or the portion of your upcoming presentation that may address some of these questions
    – If you are the first speaker, let your audience know your twitter name and that you will address a handful of common themes after you are done speaking

    These steps will let your audience know you are following along and listening to what is relevant.

    One “snarky” tweeter during my presentation thanked me later when I followed on with a thank you for a prsentation critique and asked probing question of my own.

    Embrace it :-)

    • Thanks Charles for that useful advice.

      I particularly like the advice to monitor the conference hashtag before you speak. Being aware of the themes running through the conference back channel before you speak is another way of “getting to know your audience”. Olivia

  7. Olivia,
    thanks for your post. Yes you’re right, only tweet what you would say live and face-to-face. But what should these rules contain? Basically the only rule I think about is “be critical but not personal” as Mike already mentioned. I as a presenter am interested in all kind of feedback I can get and Twitter definetely is the first tool that gives me this broad feedback…

    I think we have to deal with all tweets if we employ Twitter in our presentations…

  8. Nice post Olivia. It is also interesting if the survey were to include different events to see how that all works out. Mobile Monday in the Netherlands have opted at times to not show a backchannel apparently due to the negative comments from the audience. On the other hand, during Somesso in London we had a very positive backchannel which really added to the whole atmosphere and the discussion. Only tweeting what you would say in someone’s face is a nice guideline, but not the best result for anyone, because as we know, some people will say anything in anyone’s face. Mutual respect ought to be the guidline to work with.

    As an aside, I would love speakers to interact with the audience based on the tweets. I try to…

    • Hi Arne
      Thanks for adding your experience to the mix. Olivia

  9. Great post, Olivia! A negative Tweet is pretty much the same as a negative rating on an evaluation form – and can be helpful if it highlights a real issue you can address. But there’s always the danger during a live presentation that a negative Tweet will beget more negative Tweets until an “unruly Twitter mob” forms and derails the presentation. In that case you’ve got to engage the issue directly and apply techniques to bring the audience back to your side, and back on topic. The material you teach on handling hecklers is a great fit here – maybe in a future post you can help us learn How to Handle Twecklers?

    • Hi Cliff
      “Twecklers”. I love it. I’ll definitely put that idea down for a future post.

      For those that are wondering about where to find the normal hecklers material – I haven’t yet written a post on this (Cliff is referring to a live workshop) but will do so soon. Olivia

  10. I’d like to spin this in a different direction. Why would someone send a snarky or negative tweet in the first place? Could it be that the presentation is not meeting their needs? Could it be that the speaker is not open to other points of view? Could it be that the information is outdated? It really is about the attendee in the first place, not the speaker.

    As someone who plans education events, hires presenters and culls through presentation evaluation data, I’m finding that my attendees are becoming less tolerant of speakers that do not provide relevant, current and timely content. Attendees’ written comments have become more critical of speakers than I’ve ever seen in the past 15+ years. I speculate it’s because attendees view their time and attention as their resources, equivalent to money. They don’t want to waste their time, their attention or their money.

    Bottom line, if the presentation isn’t meeting the attendee’s needs, it is more likely that negative tweets will be shared. A good presenter will start out their presentation inviting people to take care of their needs and if the presentation is not connecting with the attendee, inviting them to try another session, if one is available. Also, limiting the amount of lecture time and increasing audience engagement will give attendees a chance to voice concerns or other points of views.

    That being said, I’ve seen some outstanding speakers lately who take breaks during their presentation to review the back channel and adjust their presentations. I am amazed at their transparency and authenticity during their presentations. They view negative tweets as an opportunity to engage disgruntled attendees.

    • Thank you Jeff for your valuable input (as always). Negative tweets simply make overt what the person was thinking. I agree that it’s better to deal with this, then to hide from it. Olivia


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