The keynote and the harshtag

This is a follow-up to my previous post about one of the keynotes at the Higher Ed Web Association’s conference this past week.  I wanted to do a couple of things: provide some context, dig deeper into what the #heweb09 tweet stream contained, and think out loud about what I’ve learned about a situation I was not at all involved in.

Some context

I’ve talked at least a bit with four people who attended the keynote.  Michael Fienen’s already discussed it on his own blog, and gives some background suggesting that the choice of speaker was unfortunate.  The speaker’s background may have stirred up some resistance, but so too did his apparent inability to connect with a technically sophisticated audience.  (HEWEB members design, develop, manage, and create the future of college and university web sites.)

A similar viewpoint appears near the end of this post from Nick DeNardis on the Wayne State University web communications blog.

Plunging into the stream

I downloaded all the tweets for #heweb09 that day, extracted those from 11:59 am to 12:59pm (my arbitrary boundaries for the keynote tweets), and took them on a ride in Excel to see what I could learn.

Who was talking?

There were 536 tweets with the #heweb09 hashtag, sent by 119 different Twitter accounts.  In terms of low volume:

  • 49 individuals tweeted only once (9.1% of total tweets)
  • 17 tweeted only twice (6.3%)
  • 9 tweeted only three times (5.0%)

So on the low end, 75 individuals (63% of the total) sent 110 tweets (20.5% of the total).  Meanwhile:

  • 1 person tweeted 28 times (5.2%)
  • 1 tweeted 27 (5.0%)
  • 1 tweeted 23 (4.3%)
  • 1 tweeted 20 (3.7%)
  • 3 each tweeted 17 (51, or 9.5%)

These 7 high-volume  individuals (5.9%) accounted for 27.8% of all the tweets.

I think this is a reasonably wide spectrum.  33 individuals account for 70% of the tweets.  All but two of them were present at the keynote, and among those 31 present, everyone sent at least 6 tweets (one every 12 minutes).  The average was 11.4 tweets.

Where were they?

I tried to see who among the group was actually present.  If I couldn’t tell, I assumed the person was there.

Under that criterion, 23 people (19% of the total tweeters) were not present at the keynote but chiming in from elsewhere.  These NPs tweeted 61 times in all (11.4% of total).  NPs with 4 or fewer tweets: 19 people, 36 tweets (59% of the NP total).

So, more than 80% of the tweets were from people actually present.

What were they saying?

“RT” (retweet, a repeating of someone else’s tweet) occurs 170 times in the 536 tweets, though some tweets have more than one (e.g., “RT @alex RT @betty” — I’m sharing what Alex said Betty said).  If each RT were unique, that’d be 31.7% of the volume; I’m guessing the actual number is closer to 27% or so.

Not to discount that–if you’re sitting next to me in a presentation and whisper something insightful or clever to me, I might just whisper it to the person on the other side: a non-digital retweet.

Not all the tweets in the stream related to the keynote–remember, this is a hashtag stream.  In the first 100 tweets (the inital 23 minutes), about 20 were clearly unrelated.  For example, a vendor was having a drawing for a prize, and three or four tweets in that group of 100 dealt with that.

I didn’t analyze the entire stream, but even if that 20% factor held up, more than 400 tweets still dealt directly with the keynote.

First impressions

At 11:59, the start of my stream time, someone said “hella drop shadow” — a criticism of the PowerPoint format.  Within ten minutes, people were asking, “how old IS this presentation?”  And by 12:15, this:

watching people try to figure out how they can get out, starting to see the OMG I AM TRAPPED looks on faces.

What I’m seeing

I wondered about some kind of groupthink–a kind of techno-mob getting carried away.  I see that as a real possibility, especially if there’s a gulf between a relatively small number of Twitter users and most other attendees.

  • One attendee estimated as many as 400 at the keynote.  If that’s the case, then close to 20% of them were on Twitter, not to mention texting or Facebook or some other means for making real-time comments electronically.
  • And, other than one or two expressions of sympathy or pity, no one in the stream came to the defense of this presentation.

I’m thinking about a speaker who doesn’t have access to a backchannel (whether on Twitter or some other vehicle).  I know that I wouldn’t feel competent to present and to monitor a stream even periodically.

  • But I could try to have a partner whose main job would be to do that–act as a combination link jockey (tossing additional information into the stream), scribe, and ally who could lean over and say, “Hey, Dave — people already know about having a blog.  They’re asking about managing wikis.”

I’m wondering what I would have done as part of this audience.  25 minutes into the hour, tweets began to emerge hoping for an interruption.  At another HEWEB09 session, there was a mock “Kanye moment,” with someone breaking into the talk to promote a competing one.  Tweets at the keynote wondered about that, first in jest.  Then someone, seeming to react to the speaker’s works, wondered, “Would he like the immediate feedback of us all walking out?”

  • Nobody interrupted the speaker to suggest he wasn’t connecting.  In her blog post, presentation specialist Denise Graveline talks about the special position of a speaker–the implied authority and the general reluctance to disrupt.

The whole keynote concept needs rethinking.  Look at a Ustream video of this keynote.  Ignore the sound quality (being picked up by a PC to the back of the room) and just notice the setting: big ol’ ballroom, round banquet tables, chandeliers, two display screens, and a vast expanse that the speaker is patrolling.

  • Why are the screens on all the time?  Presentation 101 says turn the damned things off when there’s nothing to pay attention to.
  • Could the participants explain why this speaker is the keynote?  I’m not talking about Galper, unless you’re a HEWEB member.  I’m talking about how well the organization’s choice aligns with the interests of the people who’ll participate.

The final thought for me, perhaps the biggest change — I’m not going to talk about audience any more.  An audience is what you have at a performance, like a concert or a play or a taping of Wheel of Fortune.

When it comes to a professional presentation, what you have are participantspeople who want to take part, who plan to take part, in what’s going on.

11 thoughts on “The keynote and the harshtag

  1. Dave, I agree about participants, not audiences. But what we were participating in (I was there at the keynote) was not what the speaker was intentionally sharing.

    The strange thing about that keynote was that it was the high point of the conference for everyone who experienced the backchannel. Not only that, it was a shared experience that really bonded the people there. I think that we all felt closer to each other by sharing that experience, sharing our reactions with each other during the keynote, and being able to share our thoughts and feelings with each other afterward. I know that we all talked about it that night, and it became a shared inside joke that anyone in the conference could refer to and that everyone would immediately understand.

    The bottom line was that this was an intense shared experience that brought all of the attendees closer together, not entirely different from the way that survivors of a shared tragedy are often bonded.

    Regardless of how I may feel for David Galper, I think that for the conference and for the conference attendees, this was an almost universally positive experience.

    No one will remember my talk on redesigns three years from now, but everyone will remember the “Great Keynote Revolt of 2009”. And they will remember it in a very positive way… in the way of how 450 mostly strangers came together in the backchannel to learn that they held common views and feelings and were able to share them with each other. That’s the big takeaway for me: to make an event like this a success, you have to find a way to bond people together in the experience of that event. David Galper did that better than anyone I have ever met… too bad he did it unintentionally.

  2. Tony, I appreciate your taking time to comment here.

    In my own field (corporate and organizational learning), I believe that if you don’t make your point clear, people will find a point that’s clear to them–whether it’s the one you intended, or not.

    What I see in what you’re saying is similar: people are going to participate. Sometimes the participation is enthusiastic reception and reaction to a presenter (like the folks at Hans Rosling’s legendary TED talk).

    But TED’s a rarity–and though I’ve never been to one, I expect there are opportunities to talk, ask questions, and disagree in an engaged way.

    I’m sure HEWEB09 had sessions geared to relative newcomers. And if I see in the description that that’s the case, I can participate by deciding whether I’m likely to enter as a relative newcomer, or perhaps just to see how Sheila or Sanjit, as experts, explain something I know about to people who don’t know it very well.

  3. Reading Tony’s comment the thought that popped into my mind was “Sounds like defending the learning experience of driving by an especially grisly traffic accident.”

  4. Dennis: I certainly think that reading the backchannel after the fact would be an excruciating experience for the speaker; it certainly would bruise my all-too-tender feelings.

    I’m sorry for Galper; as I said elsewhere, I’ve seen people I admire in my own field do very public crash-and-burns. I didn’t know them well enough to commiserate afterward, so the best I could do is try to recall parts of the experience and apply those parts to my own situation.

    That bidirectional combination (storing and retrieval-to-apply) is what I think “learning” really means.

    So, yes, there’s something to the analogy of learning from a traffic accident–although no one was physically harmed at the keynote. (At the same time, I doubt the shock-’em approach in driver ed classes means that many teen drivers connect a gruesome crash with their personal behavior behind the wheel.)

    What learning would I bet on? When people from the keynote are preparing presentations for next year’s HighEdWeb conference, they’re going to be very concerned with how well they’re connecting with participants. And, as others have suggested in comments here and elsewhere, people are rethinking their objection to a backchannell; they’re asking instead how best to make use of it.

  5. I have an upcoming presentation at a University and I’ve been thinking a great deal about participative presentations which, I think, will be the new norm. So these two articles are excellent food for thought.

    SO there are two parts… 1. as a speaker, what to do with the protestors? 2. as a speaker how do you adapt to the new interactive norm.

    1. What about the protestors? We have to assume that an audience is on a normal curve distribution. Who do I, the presenter, speak to? Do I speak to the “top” 25%? The middle 50%? Or the “bottom” 25%? And I can make that curve based on interest or knowledge or receptivity. In your example, 25% of the audience had a shared negative experience and perhaps a shared point of view. Statistically skewed as people RT what they support. There is no opposite to RT like, perhaps, iradatweet (IT). But, they are only 25% (I wasn’t there so I dont know about the other 75%, I guess feedback will have to be correlated.) But, what if the speaker DID know this was going on? What should he have done? If 75% of the audience was okay, should he have pandered to the 25%? And, can’t we always assume there is always about 25% of the people who are disconnected from our presentations in some way? You can engage some of the people all the time and all the people some of the time but it is oh so rare to engage all the people all the time. Especially at conferences!

    2. How do you adapt to the new norm. It depends on the forum. Some forums are ignoring the new media and they are saying: cell phones OFF. Others are pretending the phones are nothing more than phones. And finally, the third group is adopting the media and displaying the feedback on the screen during the presentation. To Dave’s point, the key really is moving from passive to interactive in a presentation. And I think that’s the right way to go. You don’t have to stop and ask “how am I doing?” every five minutes but you can ask interactive questions. If people aren’t responding, they aren’t engaged and its time to change it up.

    That also means that we can’t keep calling these presentations. So, what are they called? All you backchannel readers, twit about that and let me know!

    Kate Fialkowski

  6. Kate,

    Since I wasn’t there, I don’t know if people tweeting were representative of the group or not — though from what I’ve read in half a dozen posts from people who were there, I don’t think the gap was too wide.

    I could be wrong, which goes back to the Presentation 101 remark: if I’m the speaker, how will I know if I’m connecting with the group?

    I don’t know what I might say instead of presentation, in part because I can present in a way that invites participation… or at least engages those present.

    In that TED talk I mentioned a few comments back, Hans Rosling didn’t take questions, didn’t invite comments. I presume he was demonstrating something new (the software) and more important communicating something of value (his ideas regard health and health data).

    For now, if I have the opportunity to share ideas with a group, I’ll concentrate on what’s in it for them (and on how I’ll check).

  7. Dave:

    I was at TED 2006 and I don’t know how Twitter is currently being used during sessions, but there is no traditional opportunity to ask questions or talk with the speakers. Each session is a mix of 18-minute Ted Talks followed by extended breaks where people decompress and the face-to-face conversation lights up. In other words, we are audiences, not participants in a TED Talk.

  8. Jeffrey, thanks for your insight. It underscores the idea that you don’t always have to have participants; sometimes, as with concerts and other demonstrations of skill, talent, or expertise, we’re happy to simply receive, as an audience does.

    The TED organizers (by which I mean the people who invite and select the presenters) become in theory a trusted source: if I’m interested in a topic, TED’s saying, hey, this person has something to say related to that. I can do some searching on my own to find out what else she’s said, and make my decision — or, I can decide to go with the flow, because I have faith in TED’s selection process, and figure I’m as likely as not to benefit from this person’s session.

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