Presentation: from receive through react to interact

Someone I follow on Twitter was at the Higher Education Web Association’s conference in Milwaukee this week.  HighEdWeb is “an organization of Web professionals working at institutions of higher education. We design, develop, manage and map the futures of higher education Web sites.”

What caught my eye were tweets about yesterday’s general session.  (Session description)  These were live tweets–in other words, a backchannel.

One interpretation of  “backchannel” is a public display of comments in real time–for example, on a screen visible to participants and to presenter.  The keynote didn’t include such a screen, and apparently the speaker wasn’t following tweets with the #heweb09 hashtag.

Almost from the start, things didn’t look good at the Keynote Corral:

  • hella drop shadow
  • too much background music
  • We’ve had two keynotes, neither of whom build websites
  • conspiracy theory about the keynote: it’s a test of the power of the back channel; social experiment.
  • Can we say preaching to the choir? Save this speech for my faculty
  • watching people try to figure out how they can get out, starting to see the OMG I AM TRAPPED looks on faces

Those came in the opening 15 minutes.  From noon till 1 p.m., there were some 550 tweets with the #heweb09 hashtag, the vast majority related to the keynote.  (You can see the entire day’s stream here.  Warning: it gets snarky, but it’s instructive.)

Honestly, I’d hate this to be about my presentation.  One participant used the term “harshtag.”  I liked the color of that, and Holly Rae was kind enough to talk with me later so I could understand the context better.  And we agreed on a number of points, including how much you can learn if you do pay attention to what’s going on.

This post isn’t about this particular conference or keynote, but about how we connect professionally. I tend to see “formal presentation” as something like the Nobel laureate lecture; what I’m talking about is any “structured presentation” — a planned event where one or more people focus on a topic with other people at the same time.

I believe we’re moving from audience (those who hear) to participants (those who take part).  From receiving through reacting to interacting.

Participant instructions at a comedy club.Not all participation is necessarily positive: in the #heweb09 stream, you’ll find wisecracks, distractions, and just plain mockery.  And a publicly-displayed backchannel can give extra weight to comments from those who comment on the backchannel.  (It’s a fact.)

The presenter didn’t see the stream, and the Twitters knew he didn’t, but no one seems to have stood up and said, “Hey, you’re talking down to us.”  What would have happened?  I have no idea–but I’ll tell you this: I’m primed for someone saying that to me some day.


The wisecracks and distractions are there anyway.  You’ve made them yourself, to your neighbor or just to your appreciative self.  One thing the backchannel does is make them visible–which means if you as a participant are only a buffoon, your buffoonery will be more widely evident, just as the presenter’s shortcomings or skills are.

The backchannel also offers the potential for immediate feedback.  It invited participant to contribute to and enrich the discussion — via links, via information they came in with, via ideas to explore later.  And even, as with Holly Rae, by what you say that catches someone else’s attention so you can connect later.

To say nothing of a presenter (or part of a presenting team) deciding to monitor and respond to the stream.  Just like “any questions,” only with bits.  And with the possibility of using the stream after the fact, as I’ve done here.

Yes, people could have spoken out, but at live sessions you’ve been to, who raises a hand?  Who asks questions?  Who adds something?  The framework doesn’t always encourage this behavior, especially in large keynote sessions.

In fact, the main feedback mechanism we currently have, other than mutters and groans, is people voting with their feet: heading out the door, something I saw once when a person whose work I admired make an amateurish, unrehearsed, poorly organized, one-way presentation.

This isn’t a coming phenomenon; it’s here.  Maybe you didn’t see it much at the ASTD ICE conference or the ISPI conference, though I’d argue it’s because those two organizations are further behind than they suspect. I’d like to be going to DevLearn 09, where I expect participants will insist on a high level of participation.

Revised and updated on Oct. 10:

  • Here are practical suggestions for presenters from Denise Graveline — whom I learned about, of course, from my conversation with Holly Rae.
  • Further context, details, and opinion from me in a more recent post (links to, comments from HEWEB attendees).
  • As part of the revision, I got Denise’s name right.

CC-licensed image:
Comedy-club “no heckling” sign by Rick Audet.

13 thoughts on “Presentation: from receive through react to interact

  1. I think it’s worth noting that this keynote was in trouble before the conference began. Ruckus had hurt and angered schools by its temperamental and shady behavior much earlier. While the backchannel was a means of sharing and growing the discontent, it was not entirely about the content of the presentation.

  2. Michael, thanks for adding the viewpoint. (Michael and I chatted briefly via Twitter last night; he was among the people who attended the HighEdWeb keynote.) I’m working on a follow-up post. It was clear from the stream that many saw the presentation as outdated and irrelevant; views on Ruckus help round that out.

  3. As a professional speaker, trainer and facilitator with many years trodding the board, this has really made me think about the standard rule of “no cell phones nor texting during the workshop.” I’ll now consider the texting/twittering another form of interaction to encourage, rather than a disruption. Engaging an audience is key to learning – even when it takes multiple channels. Great Story – Thanks!

  4. Anne, especially with this group, I’m not sure you could successfully stop the phone/text/comment behavior.

    Doing so would, I think, require engaging the participants sufficiently that they’re willing to collaborate because there’s some specific end in mind–and you’d have to sell them on that end.

    This particular keynote was in the usual hotel-ballroom setting: enormous room, perhaps 400 people at tables (at 10 per table, that’d be at least 40); huge chandeliers, poor acoustics, two giant screens, and the presenter walking between them.

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