Upfront about the backchannel

A backchannel screen shotLately, 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.

Something to say

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.

Backchannel stream photo by Tom Purvis.
Expert visual by cogdogblog / Alan Levine.

14 thoughts on “Upfront about the backchannel

  1. Love this post. My experience with backchannel is mostly on webinars with plus 250 ppl. On sessions this big, the backchannel can be awesome and very, very valuable. I wrote a pretty big post on this a few months back, but some of the cooler outcomes:

    * People connecting who worked at same company but didn’t know they were both pursuing social learning initiatives
    * People reconnecting who now worked at different jobs
    * People sharing expertise in particular areas, including links to more information
    * One of the attendees was a well-known speaker and writer, and now she and I have connected and I was interviewed as part of her next book

    Anyway, none of the above would have happened without the backchannel. That said, as you and I were chatting about on Twitter, there are some participants who don’t want to participate in the backchannel, and that’s totally cool too. We shouldn’t “force” social learning any more than we should force asynchronous experiences.

    Thanks for writing about this; great topic.


  2. Dave, thanks for joining in. (C’mon back with a link to that post of yours.) I can clearly imagine a speaker sensing that the audience is getting away (or getting impatient, or getting bored). But nothing in non-backchannel prevents that. I once took pains to see a Big Name who’d written great stuff; he was presenting in a big room on the general topic I’d enjoyed reading…

    And he was awful. Painfully so. There were technical glitches, but at least to me clear signs that he wasn’t ready. “My handouts didn’t show up” (on the second day of a conference) lives just down the hall from “the dog ate my PowerPoint.” People streamed out steadily after the first 5 minutes. I lasted 5 more, then bailed.

    What I remember most? The session I went to: off my usual beat. I saw demonstrations of new things, got other insights.

    Some people are going to be bozos in the backchannel. But then some people clearly can’t back an SUV out of a parking space unless they’re on the phone.

  3. Dave,

    Great post with a lot of good ideas and even more important: Good questions to ponder! I have only attended conferences virtually with the backchannel flowing freely. I enjoyed it immensely and it added so much to the voices and PowerPoint slides. I am leaning toward wanting to see it displayed behind or off to the side of the presenter as well in a live setting. I believe it will make for a more dynamic and participative presentation. I have NO evidence whatsoever to support this view. I am not as concerned about the newbies or those that have not seen Twitter, etc. If you don’t want to see the backchannel comments – focus on the presenter or the slides. Should be easy enough don’t you think? My guess too is that if the backchannel is on display, you will get less monkeying around, although I have found it to be very little anyway.

    Thanks again for a great post. These are some good things to think about…


  4. Thanks for sharing your view here. I’m mostly attending technical conferences where folks have laptops or smart phones. So, it’s a good reminder that I”m probably in early adopter world

  5. My very positive way of giving people the freedom to leave my session goes something like this:

    “I know what it’s like to attend a conference and want to go to more than one session at a time. To help you out, here’s a quick summary of what I’m going to talk about, and here’s where you can go for more information or questions after the talk. (30-second summary, and the short URL is on the screen) Feel free to leave any time if you want to catch something else!”

    But I’m a little weird among presenters, I guess. ;) And I love backchannel interactivity. One day I hope to speak in a venue that’s got the backchannel stuff sorted out. Not on a screen _behind_ the speaker – that just leaves the speaker(s) feeling left out. ;) Maybe two screens? Maybe one screen and a teleprompter? Hmm…

  6. John, if 75% of the people in the room aren’t on laptops, then the laptop users (whether twittering, note-taking, or playing WoW) tend to be distracting — all that tapping is like the fidgeting that pipe-smokers used to do, back in the days when they could smoke anywhere.

    That’s a result of the way things have been, and it’s changing. (It doesn’t mean you’re not seen as distracting.) Not many people are bold enough to talk on their cellphones during a session.

    The “monkeying around” issue is different–to me, it’s cable-channel stuff.
    Unsupervised Adults: America in Crisis!

    Along with the Hubble Constant, you always have the Eejit Factor. But in a live or virtual, voluntary session, the number of eejits tends to be lower.

  7. Beth:

    Your post and the ideas you share are excellent. Yes, you’re probably an early adopter, but I’m sure your other habits are good.

    My wife also works in the nonprofit world. I helped her create an online lesson for people in her organization who’ll be updating web content themselves (a new task). Updating, as in, putting hyperlinks into text. I kept thinking of the quote, “Let me explain how this is intuitively obvious.”

    My real point is that we all forget very quickly how daunting new technology can be–or, really, any complex of behavior that we’re not used to. So if you haven’t used Twitter or Facebook (and I nearly typed “or even Facebook,” you may not recall how big a step that can be for some people.


    That’s the spirit. For one thing, you get rid of the handout-collectors–you know, the ones whose goal seems to be to get every handout from every session, like there’s a prize.

    More seriously: that session I went to, after I bailed out: that was the always-engaging Lynn Kearney. Her topic was communicating and graphics–and she’d made a “preview gallery” on flipchart sheets outside her session. You could wander past and really get the sense of what she’d been doing.

    As a speaker, I’m not sure I have the bandwidth to talk about something and monitor the backchannel at the same time. Heck, I sometimes interrupt myself when I’m talking. So I see a lot of value in a monitor / link jockey.

    Crap. This means I’ll have to have one in Halifax, doesn’t it?

  8. Hey Dave,

    Per your request, here’s a link to my post on a similar theme. I basically chronicled the results of leaving chat open on a publicly facing webinar with I think like 200 or so people: http://dwilkinsnh.wordpress.com/2009/02/19/social-learning-and-webinars/ It’s actually a webinar I did in Nov or Dec, so ignore the date of the post — I converted a corporate blog to a Wordpres blog and couldn’t figure out how to get the dates right.


  9. Great point above Dave, regarding the link jockey or moderator. Having done a few of these sessions now with the chat wide open, I decided I can’t present *and* chat. I’ve done it and I think done it well, but it’s sooo intellectually draining. Really. Imagine trying to read, present, and then respond simultaneously. One thing I am going to do going forward is design “chat breaks” into my sessions every 15 min or so. So basically, I’m going to design chat into the flow of the larger preso. I’ve tried just having moderators, but unless the moderator is as good as you are (which I’m lucky enough to have with some colleagues and professional contacts), audience can feel short-changed. Even with my excellent moderators, I still feel like I’m letting my participants down if I don’t participate. Needless to say, there is a lot to think about in this new model.

  10. Thanks for the link, Dave. Now we’ve got four or five people sharing what they’ve done with these. I love the smell of induction in the morning.

    In the back of my mind, I was moving away from the stereotypical presentation at a conference (which 80% of the time is one-to-many, with questions). So if you alternate types of interaction (talk, questions, activities, whatever)–because your purpose allows or encourages that–it’s all the easier to fit your chat break into the mix.

  11. Monitoring the backchannel: This is easier to do yourself when you’re doing a fully virtual presentation, because you’re not worried about breaking eye contact with people. I’m a firm believer in having a backchannel for virtual presentations – Q&A over the phone gets awkward, and fully moderated questions can be limited and frustrating. The tool I use at work – Sametime Unyte – does this pretty well. I find that typing and talking are impossible for me to do at the same time! ;) However, I often keep an eye on the backchannel, weaving those comments and questions into my talk. That’s easier.

    As for real life: I may try using my iPod Touch to quickly scan through the backchannel when I take water breaks… =) But yes, definitely, assigning someone to watch the backchannel in real-life talks is a great idea!

  12. Actually, I didn’t write the post. Olivia Mitchell did — and I acknowledge it in the first sentence as she guest-wrote that post for the Touchbase blog and I’m the editor so I posted it. Hope that clarifies. ;)

  13. Thank you, Tamar, and my apologies to Olivia… that was my too-hasty read. I’ve corrected my post, and I hope Olivia still appreciates the enthusiastic reception.

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