Lately, you can’t swing a dead social-media application without hitting the word backchannel. Usually, it’s some form of real-time comment stream (e.g., via Twitter) flowing during a presentation/discussion/enlightenment, like the image on the left (click it for a readable version).
Tamar Weinberg posted has a guest post by Olivia Mitchell about how to present while people are twittering, and Beth Kanter (who commented on Tamar’s post) posted her own tips, reflections, and resources.
I’ve had mixed thoughts about the backchannel. Reading these two posts (and a few others in recent weeks) has helped a lot, if only to clarify some of the questions.
- Where is the backchannel, physically? Do you display it where the presentation is? Can the presenter(s) see it?
- What’s the backchannel for? Are you bringing in people who aren’t present? Are those in the room just talking amongst themselves?
- And if I’m a presenter, what do I do with it?
Liz Lawley noted on Tamar’s post, “The backchannel doesn’t have a limited number of chairs… it allowed conversations to occur between people who wouldn’t have known to seek each other out otherwise.” (Liz’s name is a link to her post, also good to read, along with the comments.)
I like that a lot. When I’ve gone to conferences, sometimes the most engaging conversations with strangers began when I heard someone’s comment or question, then made a note to seek that person out afterward. It’s one of the best ways for learning to happen–why talk only with the guru? (For one thing, it’s hard to break through.) As James Thurber said, it’s better to have some of the questions than all of the answers.
What tends to get overlooked, I think, is the type of presentation. Who’s talking, about what, for whom? Is this a panel discussion (usually has the panel, much less often discussion)? One or maybe two people, in the style of TED talks? (I haven’t seen a backchannel displayed at a single TED talk, though I suspect one’s active.)
To the extent that nothing much is happening but talk–someone explaining or expounding, people there to hear and to join in–the backchannel makes sense, for reasons you can find in all the posts linked to above. I especially like the idea that the backchannel gets stored somewhere, so people can retrieve it (if they can’t save it directly) and find links tossed in.
When I do professional-conference presentations, I start pretty much the same way:
- Hi, I’m Dave, and this is Watching Elizabethan Drama when It’s Not Homework.
- Anyone’s welcome; I pictured the audience as people who have to make technical presentations to non-technical audiences.
- If you find after a few minutes that this isn’t what you were looking for, don’t worry about my feelings–head out to another session and get what you came for.
Okay, I fib a little–if everyone left, my feelings wouldn’t be feeling all that good. But if everyone did leave, then I didn’t do a very good job of matching my topic to the audience.
I can imagine some hurdles related to the backchannel:
- The techno-gap. Maybe I just move in different circles, but most professionals I know don’t have a wireless laptop or smart phone they take to every conference. Many don’t read blogs, let alone have them. So a backchannel leaves them outside the door, and a public backchannel distracts them, annoys them, or both.
- The learning curve. As I keep reminding people, there are about 5 million people on Twitter; there are about 12 million families in the U.S. that own pet birds. So most people haven’t seen it, let alone used it, let alone get it. (You were that way once yourself, unless you’re a Social Media Guru; that title causes usage amnesia.)
- The social context: do you add to the backchannel while in a room of 30 people? A group of 12? Sitting at a table with five others in breakout activity?
I have a presentation coming up, so these aren’t just abstractions.