My Recent Experience with the Backchannel

The backchannel.

If you’re unfamiliar with the term, it’s a way of communicating digitally in real time during the delivery of live, spoken remarks. In modern parlance, the backchannel is the audience using Twitter and hashtags to converse about a particular presenter while the person (or persons) is speaking.

This practice isn’t new; Twitter just facilitates it. But it became big news a few weeks ago at the Higher Ed Web conference. The keynote speaker did not know his audience, was not well received, and the audience made their opinions known via Twitter. The backchannel was blazing with comments ranging from the quality of the slides to the relevance of the material covered to the general ineptitude of the speaker.

All of this was fresh in my mind as I made my way to Missouri to deliver a talk. I had read Jeremiah Owyang’s post on this issue, and I put some thought into how I might acknowledge the online conversation without short-changing the people who came to interact with me face-to-face. Jeremiah suggests monitoring the backchannel during your talk, dividing your focus between the feedback in the room and the feedback from the Twitterverse. I was afraid of short changing both audiences by trying to be in two places at once.

So I made a decision: give “first dibs” on my attention to the people who were sitting in the room. I reminded the audience of the hashtag for the conference (#musms09) and specifically acknowledged the backchannel conversation that I knew was inevitable. But I made it clear that I was there to interact with the audience directly at that point in time; I would go back and refer to the backchannel when the talk had ended.

In this particular case, I feel that my approach was effective. I didn’t have to divide my attention between reading the physical audience and the pixelated audience. If I had it to do again, I would probably assign a colleague or trusted audience member to monitor the backchannel on my behalf during my presentation (Jeremiah suggests this in his post above). Then, at the end of the talk, I would address “questions from the backchannel” brought to my attention by my colleague. Michael Stoner stepped into this role during my talk in Missouri even though we had not arranged it ahead of time (thank you Michael!).

I’d like to hear your thoughts and suggestions on engaging the backchannel; you may have experience as a speaker or an audience member – post a comment below with your experience or insight.

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3 Responses to My Recent Experience with the Backchannel

  1. Michael Stoner says:

    I thought you handled it perfectly. It’s a lot to ask of speakers that they deliver a great presentation, pay attention to people in the room, and follow the back channel, too. I learned a lot from what was going on on #musms09, so it was valuable to me, but what I appreciated most was the real-time engagement with you and Brad. BTW, blog looks great on my iPhone.

  2. Webslung says:

    I agree with Michael. I think you have to remember that even though Twitter is a great tool and all the rage, there are real people at the presentations who don’t use Twitter and short-changing them just to be hip will have its disadvantages.

    Now having someone you trust monitor the backchannel and deliver information to you that is relevant bridges the gap without shortchanging either groups.

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