Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Twitter backchannel: A speaker's take

I'm not a fan of breathless coverage of Twitter at conferences, the kind that stresses the sensational and scares speakers from using this new tool for audience engagement.  But as one who trains and coaches speakers, I know this is another social-media area where the audience is ahead of speakers in adapting, and organizers are even further behind in making the process smooth for audience members and for speakers.  In some cases, that means it's a train wreck that's waiting to happen.

Danah Boyd's Twitter train wreck happened last week at the Web 2.0 Expo.  She's a researcher at Microsoft Research New England and a Fellow at the Harvard University Berkman Center for Internet and Society, and recently completed her PhD in the School of Information at the University of California-Berkeley.  Her specialty is social media and youth culture, and she got caught in the backchannel at the Web 2.0 Expo, attempting to give this talk on -- ironically -- "Streams of Content, Limited Attention: The Flow of Information through Social Media."  Through a combination of assumptions she and the organizers made about the setup for her talk, her own nervousness and an aggressive group of tweeters in the audience, the speech failed. And she's written a wrenching, thorough post about the experience here.  She notes she'd have had a rough time even without the backchannel, but not the disaster that happened.  (I'll have more notes for speakers about how to avoid some of her basic speaker issues, and about the sexual harrassment of this speaker via Twitter on The Eloquent Woman blog.)

So it wasn't just that the audience was tweeting, but that the stream was visible--and a surprise to the speakers, who also couldn't see it unless they turned away from the audience. Scott Berkun, who also spoke, adds more details in this thoughtful post that notes that other keynoters, like Danah, weren't warned about the placement of the Twitter stream directly behind them. 

Olivia Mitchell's new ebook on presenting with Twitter does a great job on the nuts and bolts of what should go into speakers' planning for use of Twitter at a conference. Now, we just need the organizers to connect the dots.  Both this episode and the one at the HighEdWeb conference in October--while different types of backchannel issues--tell me that organizers, even at high-tech conferences, need to do more than just say, "wouldn't it be great to display the backchannel?" when planning their meetings.  Speakers need to be brought into that loop early and often, and the audience as well.  And, as I usually advise my speaker-trainees:  Don't get caught assuming these issues will be taken care of for you. 

Related posts: 

Twitter backchannel about Danah Boyd shows what women face as speakers
New ebook on presenting with Twitter

Tweeting at meetings gets controversial

Speakers: Learn from Twitter hecklers

5 ways to find out about your audience

Find out more about women's issues in public speaking on The Eloquent Woman blog

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