I'm a few weeks away from SXSW where I'll be leading a session called "Nonprofit Social Media ROI Poetry Slam" which will incorporate a lot of audience interaction. I've been thinking about how to best incorporate the back channel or in this case Twitter. Two recent blogs, "How To Present While People Are Twittering" and "Trends in Leadership Conferences" are the most recent blog posts packed with advice.
For those of us who have been attending blogging and tech conferences, the backchannel is not new. What's different is that the backchannel is being used in non-technology conferences. It is being used less for remote participation and more for people in the room. The tool of choice has changed from IRC or Meebo to Twitter and the use of hashtags. What's also different is that more and more people are viewing the back channel as integrated with the conference networking and participant learning.
Can the backchannel evolve past "snarkiness on parade" or "complaint festival" to improve learning and networking in conference sessions? How can the backchannel enhance our attentiveness and learning?
In 2005, at the Les Blogs conference in Paris, there was a flap about the backchannel because the conversation crossed a line.
Raymond M. Kristiansen captured the drama on this video clip of Mena Trott's Keynote calling for more civility in blog commenting. At this conference in 2005, the backchannel was projected on the screen behind the speaker. Mena got angry at the comments because they were not so civil - particularly those from Ben MetCalfe who Mena called out publically. (Warning she says the F-word on the clip.) See Dave Winer's comments here, or as someone on the vlog list "Fighting for civilty using rudeness."
Raymond raised some good reflective questions about backchannels that are still very relevant four years later as back channels goe more mainstream and search for best practices on how to incorporate them into our conferencing experience.
- How do they affect the relationship between those on the stage and the audience?
- What does this intermediation of dialogues mean?
- How can we use
back-channels as a progressive force at conferences?
- How can we use
them as a test of how things are going at the conference?
- How can we play further with the distance between those up there - on the podium and those in the audience?
I remember in 2005 the Global Voices Summit used IRC as a backchannel -- no so much for people in the room, but for remote participation. They appointed a person in the room as the "Backchannel Advocate" and the speaker would ask them verbalize questions from the backchannel. To make this model work, there was another IRC backchannel that streamed audio from the conference and someone did the equivalent of live tweeting.
One of the reflections
to come out of 2008's SXSW Conference was for moderators of panels
to use Twitter (or back channel tool) to poll the audience upfront and
monitor it in real time. Nancy White made an insightful observation, "The new tools give us new ways to transmit the cues and sense where
others are, even if we do not coordinate our actions. It’s like a new
set of antennae." So, if you're moderating a panel, think of yourself as a giant insect!
As someone who has been a trainer for all these years, one of the things we're trained to do is "read the room." You watch for body language to indicate the level of engagement and whether or not people agree or disagree and encourage them to participate. I also watch for when the energy drops, etc.
It also means that I can't stubbornly soldier on with a lesson plan if it is bombing. One thing I learned many years ago, is that as an instructor you have to be in the moment, focus on your learners more than yourself, and don't be afraid to flush your lesson plan down the toilet if it isn't working.
What Twitter or other back channel does is that it leaves the guess work out it.
Olivia Mitchell 's guest post on Pistachio Consulting offers some good tips:
1. Ask a friend or colleague, or a volunteer from the audience to monitor the back channel and interrupt you if there are any questions or comments that need to be addressed. Jeffrey Veen calls this person an ombudsman for the audience.
2. If you can’t find someone to take on this role take breaks - say every 10 mins - to check Twitter. Robert Scoble calls this taking a twitter break. You can combine this with asking the audience for “out-loud” questions as well. It’s good practice to stop for questions throughout your presentation - rather than leaving questions till the end.
3. If you’re courageous and know your content backwards, display the back channel on a screen that everyone (including you) can see. This is potentially distracting for you and has the downside in that the visibility it provides can provoke silly tweets from some (eg: “Hi Mom”). But it does mean that you can react immediately to any issues. Spend some time at the beginning of your presentation explaining to your audience how you will respond to the twitter stream and audience members are more likely to use it responsibly.
While this advice is more appropriate for the classroom, Vicky Davis shares how she manages the back channel.
How do you incorporate the backchannel in your conference or panel presentations?
Early Use of Backchannels
Tara Hunt, Backchannel=Blogosphere
Marc Cantor, Spell My Name Correctly
Liz Lawley, Backchannel Modes
Liz Lawley, Confessions of a Backchannel Queen
Clay Shirky, Snarkiness on Parade
NY Times, In the Lecture Hall, A Geek Chorus
Dannah Boyd, Bridging Diverse Groups
Backchannel in Learning and Education
Vicky Davis, Backchannel in My Classroom
Vicky Davis, Backchannels and Micro Blogging Streams
Brian Kelly, Using Networked Technologies To Support Conferences
Participatory Media Literacy, BackChannel
Nancy White, Hopping Between Notetaking and Backchannel Conversations
Nancy White, Online Facilitation Tips
Backchannel and Twitter
Olivia Mitchell, How To Present While People Are Twittering
Howard Greenstein, Project Management Helped By Microblogging
Marketing Vox, Trends in Leadership Conferences
Sacha Chua, Feel Free To Use Your Laptop or Phone - I love the backchannel