Should you display the live twitter stream on a large screen?

Twitter is now a reality at many conferences. Now the question is: should you display a live twitter stream on a large screen so that everyone (not just the tweeters) in the audience can see it?

Sir Ken Robinson speaking at "Hacking Education" organised by Union Square Ventures. Photo used with permission from Fred Wilson

Sir Ken Robinson speaking at "Hacking Education" organised by Union Square Ventures. Photo used with permission from Fred Wilson

Having twitter on a large screen can enrich the conference experience. Here’s a report from the Museums and the Web conference 09:

So when the conference delegates arrived at the auditorium for the conference welcome and opening talk we found two computer displays: one of the speaker’s slides and the other a display of Twitter posts tagged with the #mw2009 tag, using the Twitterfall software,  And judging by comments made on the conference blog, many people found that this live display of tweets in the opening session provided a valuable way of developing a shared sense of community and active participation which continued throughout the conference, with many newcomers subscribing to Twitter, following the more well-established Twitter users and engaging with the discussions themselves.

Twitter can also allow the conversation to continue after the conference. At the Travolution Summit 2009 , 200 of the 1,150 tweets using the #travsummit hashtag were after the event. The organiser, Kevin May, comments:

Now this is where it gets interesting. Post-event analysis and continuing the conversation was, until now, the Holy Grail of event organisers.

However, there is a downside. Distraction:

Museums and the Web conference 09

Which is not to say that everyone found the Twitterfall display useful: some participants, for example, did find the display distracting.

Richard Mulholland at NetProphet 09

…looking around the room, more people are watching the twitter screen than are listening to Arthur’s great preso.

But you can get the benefits of conference tweeting without the distraction by choosing carefully when to display the twitter stream on a large screen. The decision depends on the nature of each session: is it a presentation, panel or a discussion? Let’s look at each in turn.

Live twitter screen during a presentation

My advice is to only show the twitter stream when it adds to the presentation- just like any visual.  With an actively tweeting audience, a twitter stream can move extremely fast. It will be very hard for the audience not to pay attention to the constantly moving screen – so it’s likely to be distracting. If it’s on the large screen it’s no longer an opt-in experience.

However, I think that Twitter can be a great audience participation tool. And it will be much more inclusive if you do display the twitter stream, so that non-tweeters can see it too. So have the twitter display ready to go (use the remote of the datashow projecter to hide the screen) and turn it on just when you want it. That could be when:

  • you ask for audience input on a particular point
  • you ask the audience for questions
  • you take “twitter breaks” specifically to look at the twitter stream and address any issues which have been raised.

For more ideas on this see my posts 8 things I learnt about using Twitter as a participation tool and 7 ways to use Twitter to engage your audience.

Live twitter stream during a panel

Twittering during a panel allows the audience to have direct input into the questions being asked of the panel. It allows the tweeters in the audience to mould the experience in a way that otherwise would not be possible. This can take place without the twitter stream being displayed – but that excludes those not on twitter. Having the twitter stream displayed also allows panelists to refer visually to specific tweets as they respond to them. Mike McAllen (@mmcallen) reported back from  Blogworld 08:

In one of the panels I attended they had the breakout screen projecting a twitter search feed ( To make it work the moderator made up a conference room tag #PR08 and the people sitting in the audience had a running dialogue with what the presenters were talking about. This dialogue was between audience members, and of course anyone else who wanted to see what was going on anywhere in the world (with an internet connection)

So the audience was real time commenting and asking and forming the best questions together for the panel. It was fascinating. I find panel discussions usually frustrating because each panelist is usually fighting for time to speak or someone drones on and on. This way the audience is the real moderator.

Live twitter stream during a discussion

This is where Twitter really comes into it’s own – allowing more than one person to have a voice at the same time: Fred Wilson describes his experience:

It is hard to moderate a conversation of 40 people and there are times when several people want to make a point but one gets the opportunity. I started to notice that the others would simply post their thought to twitter instead which allowed the rest of the room to see what they wanted to say in parallel with the point that was being made live.

Downsides of displaying Twitter

There are some other downsides of displaying Twitter on a large screen:

1. Spammers and trolls may be attracted by the attention they can get

And once the tag was included in the top tags of the day it, perhaps inevitably, attracted the attention of Twitter spammers, with a tweet from ‘PantyGirl’ – and an associated image being included in the live Twitterfall display. [from  Brian Kelly at the Museums and the Web conference 09]

Tweetchat allows you to block users if this becomes a problem.

2. Negative comments about the speaker or panelists

Most reports seem to be that people are courteous about what they tweet if they know it’s going to be displayed on a large screen. But there’s still a risk of this happening – and it’s something to accept.

3. Off-topic tweets

From Kevin May of the Travolution Summit

If the on-stage content started to wane, people would Tweet *other* observations, such as comments regarding the panel’s socks and footwear!

From the comments on Kevin’s post, it seems most people enjoyed a little light humor.

4. Libellous tweets

I haven’t found any reports of this happening, but it’s a risk to be aware of. This would be the one situation where it would be wise to pull the stream from the display.

Your views

What do you think? When would Twitter on the large screen add or detract from your conference experience?

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  1. Good post Olivia. Most of the blog and Twitter audience would agree to show the Twitter stream – sparingly I’d hope. But the majority of the business audience (and probably 75% of presentations) would find it extremely distracting.

    • Hi Bert, yes – there’s a big difference between an audience used to blogging and twittering and those for whom it’s till a foreign language. Olivia

  2. The article In Defense Of Distraction sums it up clearly when it says:

    Over the last twenty years, Meyer and a host of other researchers have proved again and again that multitasking, at least as our culture has come to know and love and institutionalize it, is a myth. When you think you’re doing two things at once, you’re almost always just switching rapidly between them, leaking a little mental efficiency with every switch. Meyer says that this is because, to put it simply, the brain processes different kinds of information on a variety of separate “channels”—a language channel, a visual channel, an auditory channel, and so on—each of which can process only one stream of information at a time. If you overburden a channel, the brain becomes inefficient and mistake-prone.

    I also wrote about in my post Backchannels And Surface Levels

  3. Olivia-
    What a cool post and not because I am mentioned. :) Jon Trask and I are mulling over displaying the live Twitter at the MPI session we are giving in Salt Lake soon. Since we want it to be interactive and two of us it may work out. I will give you the lowdown when we return.

    Mike McAllen

    • Hi Mike, Look forward to hearing what decision you make and how it goes, Olivia.

  4. The reality is if your audience is web savvy and have mobile devices in hand, they will be having a conversation on Twitter during a presentation. Hard to avoid. Could even be foolish to dissuade attendees from doing it. If they tweet something a presenter says, they are displaying a form of engagement. Can’t fault audiences for displaying engagement, even if it is with their heads down and fingers texting.

    More and more people are using Twitter to take shorthand notes during presentations. Savvy conferences know this and playback relevant tweets to attendees, such as WOMMA did recently …

    • Hi John
      I totally agree that tweeting is a form of engagement. For some people, tweeting helps them stay more engaged with the presentation than if they were just passively listening. I also do agree that it is not up to the presenter to decree whether or not people can tweet. Olivia

  5. Timing is everything, Olivia. This post right after ‘8 things I learnt [sic]…helps a lot by learning from those ‘been there, done it’. I am seeking a future opportunity to try it out in Texas and maybe Washington DC. I will let you know what happens. BTW: this got you a stumbleupon vote, RT and another blog posting. Great stuff.

    • Thank you for your support Doug. I’ll be very interested to hear how things go with the presentations you have coming up, Olivia.

  6. I’ld like to call another very engaging and beautifully presented way of keeping up the thoughts and opinions of the crowd.

    • Hi Adri

      Welcome to the blog. I had a look at and I thought that it was OK on a website but that it would be very distracting to have all that animation going on during a live event. Olivia

  7. Wouldn’t you use the #keyword search (on a very unique random keyword) for this instead of an actual person’s stream? That way you wouldn’t have some errant tweet be too distracting.

    I would also turn the screen off or put it on PowerPoint while delivering the presentation and then switch to the stream. One of they rules for PowerPoint presentations that I use is not to have too many words on the screen at a time so that people don’t get lost in them. If you’re speaking and engaging people’s eyes, then they are getting who you are and that’s what speaking is about.

    • Hi Joseph. Yes definitely you’d set up a unique hashtag for your particular session and then either search on that or use a service like tweetchat to get just the flow of tweets on that hashtag. There’s still the possibility of an off-topic tweet if someone uses the hashtag unthinkingly (eg: thinking it’s the hasgtag for the whole conference instead of just your session, and organising meetups after your session).
      Totally agree with your comments re: PowerPoint and speaking. Olivia

  8. My response is to Steve and Bert and multi-tasking. If the twitter stream is about the topic of the speaker is it really multi-tasking? Isn’t just thinking “outloud” about the topic and having a large discussion about it.

    Everyone is having an internal dialogue all the time. Twitter is just speaking it out loud. If it is on the topic of the presentation, I feel it is actually causing the audience to participate more fully, rather than multi-tasking.

    • Hi Concretekax (now that’s a weird handle – I had to keep going back and checking that I was spelling it correctly).

      My own experience is that while I’m taking a note about something brilliant the speaker has just said, I’m not fully attending to what the speaker is saying now. When I’m in control of the speaker as in when I’m listening to a podcast on my mp3 player, I’ll pause the podcast while I take the note.

      But at the same time I do agree that when you are taking notes – whether that’s hand scribbles or tweeting – you are fully involved and participating in the content.


  9. Hi Concretekax. Yes, we do all have internal dialogue running and we can speak it out loud via Twitter.

    The distinction is that reading, writing, and listening all use overlapping auditory processing channels in our brain. When multiple sources are emitting information, we have no option but to either (1) devote mental effort to shut out the unwelcome sources so we can focus on one source, or (2) ‘bounce’ back and forth between multiple sources, gathering intermittent content from each of them, i.e. a speaker and a simultaneous Twitter stream.

    I know from the live event Twitter streams I have been on that many people do not hear things that the speaker is saying until another Twitterer tweets a quote that was just said. It’s like you can play music in the back ground while you work, but as soon as you try to sing the words to Rockin’ Robin while you type a business proposal to Biz Stone, your attention is toast.

    Please understand, I am all for giving people options in how they learn and interact. It is just something to be aware of and use wisely in these exciting times where there are so many opportunities to ‘bounce’ and go meta on events.

    And I don’t think Twitter streams at events are necessarily a bad thing. In fact, I encourage all boring speakers to use Twitter streams and encourage people to get on and start having conversations that are far more interesting than the speaker could ever create.

    • Hey Steve, nice explanation on our processing channels… and do I detect a note of sarcasm in your last paragraph :-).


      • Ha, yes. Well, sort of. I really do want to be able to Twitter when a speaker is boring. It would be a good signal for me to change up my delivery PDQ.

  10. I understand your points, but I still think twitter would keep me from daydreaming rather than be distracting. I also think the discussion can often be more valuable than the presentation itself.

    Lastly I think one can make connections through the twitter feed that become part of a lasting PLN that you can grow from long after the conference is over. It is less likely that one will create a friendship with the presenters.

  11. It just occurred to me that one of the things you could do is to have a designated Twitter Filterer-Dude/Dudette who can copy/paste really good tweets into a PowerPoint slide during the presentation so that they can be accessible when the presenter calls for them.

    I really do like the idea (@concretekax) of making connections after the presentation with the Twitterers who make good points/comments/questions. There’s gold in them thar tweets.

    • Cool idea, Joseph. I really like it. There’s gold in them thar comments.

      In one of my earlier posts ( I suggested having a Twitter advocate or Ombudsman who is responsible for monitoring the Twitter stream and letting the presenter know of any tweets that need to be addressed immediately.

      Putting those tweets and others (questions, useful insights, resources)that the Filterer chooses into a ppt slide is a great idea. Someone clever can probably even develop software for it…

      • Just found this out about this from Twitter Tips. How serendipitous is that! Poll Everywhere now have an application that draws tweets directly into your PowerPoint slide.

  12. We’ve displayed the live twitter stream during general sessions for two years now with great success. It’s actually created a new level of engagement and expectation from our C-Suite insurance executives–the very people you would expect not to be using social media. Granted it first started with some inappropriate tweets but quickly changed to presentation-specific tweets. It helped that our presenter had a monitor on the floor where he could watch the tweets and respond to them from time to time.

    You’ll be happy to know that now integrates with Twitter hashtags so people in locations outside the US can use it too.

    Also here’s a link to a recent post by Julius Solaris called 5 Ways To Visualize Twitter At Your Event that gives various online tools to use when displaying the Twitter Stream.

    • Hi Jeff
      Thanks for adding in your expertise (again :-)). I’ll have another look at Wiffiti. And thanks for the link to Julius’s post – though I don’t agree with his conclusion that is the best way of displaying tweets at live events. Sure it looks beautiful from a design perspective, but all the animation is going to be very distracting. Olivia

  13. Back in July, I live tweeted a social media conference. In a subsequent blog post, I argued that the the pros outweighed the cons (

    As the conference proceeded, information overload gave way to information empowerment.

    How? Instead of indulging our inner ADD, participants stayed focused. At the same time we typed, we listened. At the same time we listened, we read. Multitasking was not optional.

    Yes, of course, such juggling can be dizzying. It’s not for everyone, and it’s not for philosophy seminars. But social media isn’t philosophy, especially for those of us who do it for a living. And when we attend a conference on a subject with which we’re already familiar, we learn not only from the speakers but also from our peers.

      • Yes, Olivia. I have read it, and I enjoyed it.

        I agree that backchannels allow people to engage in the content of the presentation, but they also can force disengagement from the nuance of the presentation itself.

        I have experiences of talking with another audience member after a presentation by a person and finding that this is quite true. People who spend more time typing and reading are spending less time listening.

        My point is that while collaborative learning is valuable and should be utilized in planned and informed ways, language is a single channel in our brain that cannot comprehend more than one point source at a time.

        • Hi Steve

          I do agree with you that with the advent of the backchannel some audience members will get so involved with the backchannel that they’ll miss much of the presentation.

          Each audience member is responsible for their own experience and I think over time, we’ll each work out what level of interacting with the backchannel versus attentively listening to the presenter works best for us.

          Here are some other thoughts I have percolating about the whole “paying attention” thing. It’s generally accepted that taking notes while someone is speaking is an effective way of learning and processing. I can write a note about something I’ve just heard and still, somehow, listen to what the speaker is saying next. Also I’m thinking about my mother who is a simultaneous conference interpreter. She listens to the speaker in one language and speaks what they’ve just said in another language while listening to what they’re saying next so that she can interpret that!


          • Yes, session/class notes are valuable memory tools to record information and thoughts. But while they are written, they are different than involving oneself in a conversation.

            Notes are a ‘monologue’ that reinforces the presenter’s delivered content between myself and myself. A backchannel is a conversation between many that may or may not directly reinforce a presenter’s content. Also, I found it interesting to learn that even though notes are written and we see them, they use our brain’s auditory channel and visual channel simultaneously.

            There is also difference between a public speaker who is saying ‘Here is some stuff I am into right now that may or may be useful for you’ than a teacher delivering information for a student’s upcoming test. Miss some light content from a speaker at a conference and you won’t necessarily be held accountable; miss your teacher’s test content and your grade will suffer (unless you have reliable post-class peer conversation). I do think that backchannels can be successfully used in specific academic settings, but not all of them.

            It has been an amusing experience to read the backlash over my blog post by a couple people in the pro-backchannel community (which I count myself in) over my suggestion that backchannels do not always support the outcomes of a particular dynamic’s learning. But there are standards and assessments that not all learners always get to choose, and the differences in group dynamics from schools to businesses, teachers to students, and facilitation to presentation are vast and require different means to support the outcomes. I think that there is sometimes denial that something we enjoy could simultaneously be hurting us. (Carrots are good for me, but if I eat 5 pounds of them a day I will be in trouble.)

            I am in favor of having backchannels as an option in many scenarios and using them with informed knowledge about how mental processing, retention, and understanding and occurs.

          • Oh, sorry I forget… regarding the stenographers and transcribers who can type 160-200+ WPM, I was thinking of them about a month ago, which could have contributed to my thinking about backchannels and conversations happening at the same time someone else is speaking.

            I wondered how much they can comprehend and think about what is being said, so I spoke with my friend Mijon who is a professional transcriber, and she said that it requires a total focus for her to be accurate with her notes. She cannot really think much about the meaning in them or she loses her task, and she said she definitely could not have a conversation while she takes those notes.

            But that is just her…

  14. If you need an app to help you set up a live Twitter stream using your username, a hashtag and/or a keyword to project onto a screen at your event check out We’ve got scripts set up for TVs and Projectors and will help you out if you have any difficulties. Cheers!

  15. I’m all for the backchannel! Twitter is very engaging at a conference for both the presenters and audience, I always get involved and advocate it at our corporate retreats. We use Crowd Convergence to moderate so we only display what is on topic and clean.

  16. Best solution is to have an experienced moderator handle the spammers when using twitter at corporate events with professional software designed for twitter to screen. Our company will do all the work for you and keep those screens professional. You can also utilize text, picture messages and even email to screen as well as twitter. more info:


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