Earlier this year I attended an event at which one speaker used Twitter to gather audience questions and then answer key themes at the end. He did not allow this to interrupt the presentation but it was made clear that questions would not be a ‘hands up’ affair. More and more speakers are now aware of and monitoring their presentation ‘backchannel’ (a new marketing buzz word for the bingo card). 

Yesterday, I read an interesting article from Jeremiah Owyang outlining how speakers should integrate social into their presentation. Whilst I don’t agree with all of Jeremiah’s points (I will elaborate), I think speakers need to be aware that the penetration of social apps on mobile devices is making real-time commentary increasingly relevant.

What is the presentation backchannel?

The backchannel is the discussion about you or your presentation that takes places in other media, whether that is online or offline. The most direct channel where this is happening is on social networks like Twitter.

This backchannel is real-time. Social media has expanded event dissection from the general hubbub of physical event networking spaces into online communities.

I have direct experience of this. At Internet World, when I was not on the exhibition stand or attending seminars, I tweeted live from the event. I talked about the organisation of the event as well as the content of presentations. Included was constructive criticism of issues that made the event experience less than ideal.

Why do speakers need to be aware of this backchannel?

The number of mobile devices with social media apps increases daily. By Feb 2009, O2 had sold over 1m iPhone handsets alone. Social networking uptake on mobile devices is increasing rapidly. Pyramid Research predicts that by 2012 there will be 950 million users accessing social via their mobile devices.

What does this mean to speakers?

  • People can comment on what is happening in real-time wherever they have a mobile signal.
  • Networkers use mobile to tweet live updates from events to their networks.
  • Updates generate discussion across network tendrils, spreading reach globally.
  • Speaker comments reach people as third party news, without the live context.
  • Information can be interpreted (or misinterpreted) and shaped based on personal viewpoint.
  • Conversation will take place without the context of the live event.
  • If you don’t manage your speaker ‘brand’ your reputation can be affected.

Take a peek at the commentary the Higher Education Conference in the US generated on Twitter to see how social can influence speaker reputation and event credibility.

How can social support presentations?

Whether we like it or not, people can quickly talk about presentations to their personal/professional networks and affect reputations. We need to factor this into public appearances and learn to use social to manage this effectively. A few pointers:

  • Relevance. Don’t fuss over the role of social media if your audience is not suited.
  • Let your audience know that you will be using the social channel to field questions from attendees, their networks and external audiences. Twitter is ideal for this.
  • Use tools like Twitter to aggregate feedback and respond appropriately. My recommendation is at the end of a presentation though you may prefer, as Jeremiah suggests, to react during.
  • Use support. Have someone monitor the live social feed and manage this on your behalf whilst you present, they can flag up critical issues.
  • Real time response. Let your support manage the social channel and respond to important comments and work with influencers to manage the backchannel.
  • Post event response. Manage the conversation and your reputation via your blog and social channels. Respond to comments, both positive and negative and encourage debate.

Avoid social media disrupting face-to-face communication

I’m not enthused by Jeremiah’s ‘two-fisted speaking’ concept. I want to see face-to-face communication enhanced not sacrificed in the drive to maximise the potential of social networking. As a speaker, I believe your priority is the audience that has paid/made the effort to come and listen to you. Focus your energy on the explicit/implicit communication of the live event.

Manage the backchannel as an integral part of your event planning but make it a secondary objective. Enlist the support of a competent and social media savvy colleague who can monitor the external conversations and manage these in real-time. Then after the event you can digest the conversation and respond in a reasoned and rational manner, not compromised by the adrenalin and emotion of presenting. Your blog would be one option.

In my experience, presenting to a live audience, whilst enjoyable and rewarding, is stressful and demanding. Trying to manage the people in front of you whilst scanning your mobile device to manage your virtual community risks compromising your speaker skills and impact.

Take-away thoughts

  • Mobile devices will continue to increase conversation about events.
  • Your speaker backchannel is an important part of event planning.
  • You need to manage your personal brand when presenting.
  • You should use social media to enhance, not disrupt, your presentations.
  • You should consider event support to help steer real-time feedback.
  • Do not lose sight of the needs and expectations of your live audience.

I think that the role social networking can play in providing feedback on events/speakers is really exciting.  Perhaps this will reduce the need for and even replace traditional solicitations of event feedback, offline and online. Will event questionnaires become a thing of the past and social monitoring become the new tool?

I would be interested in your thoughts in this application of social tools so please share comments to fuel the debate.