A Backlash against the Backchannel

My friend and colleague Dave Paradi wrote an incisive and thought-provoking post about the “backchannel” — social media’s contribution to audience interaction during a presentation. Dave makes the strong point that for a majority of presentations, using Twitter or FaceBook to communicate with a larger audience or with the presenter is not realistic. If you are in a boardroom with a dozen people, for instance, it would be implausible (not to mention rude) to be busy tweeting away about the presenter. And with whom would you tweet? What hashtag would you reference? It’s all way too vague.

With a larger audience, the scenario is more realistic, and Dave used last year’s PowerPoint Live as an example. We established #pptlive as the hashtag for use across the four days so patrons at the event and interested community members not attending could stay current.

Even in this environment, backchanneling remains challenging, and this is why I do not share the enthusiasm that some of my colleagues hold for Twitter as a viable vehicle for audience interaction. That said, I want to offer up two scenarios in which it could provide a useful service.

1. In a webinar

While evolving, most webinar plumbing offers deficient means for real-time interaction. Worse, many of the hosting agencies who hire me to give webinars do not allow questions during mid-session, insisting that I wait until the end of a 90-minute webinar before taking them. They tell me that it is too difficult to monitor the questions and selectively unmute phones. When I suggest the onscreen chat module as an alternative, they tell me that for my own protection, they do not enable it, citing too many presenters who have gotten derailed by it.

A Twitter hashtag circumvents all of this foolishness. I can take questions from my audience members and there is not a darn thing that the moderators can do about it…um, I mean I don’t have to trouble my hosts at all. Nobody sees me when I look down at my phone or on my second monitor, I can keep a browser window open for minimal distraction.

2. At a well-staffed conference

Even in a larger venue, using Twitter for audience interaction is problematic. My presenting style is hardly formal; I regularly engage in banter and repartee, even with an audience of over 200. Nonetheless, the few times that I have monitored a backchannel on my handheld, it has taken me out of my rhythm. To say nothing about having to put my damn reading glasses on in order to read a tweat, I find the experience to be more of a barrier before my audience than a bridge to them. And if I feel this, with my loose speaking style, I suspect that a majority of other presenters will not warm to it, either.

The missing puzzle piece is to have savvy room monitors. At the Presentation Summit, we normally ask our room monitors just to greet people as they enter a seminar ballroom, check for badges, and assist the presenter with any various and sundry needs. Not anymore—now we will ask our room monitors to monitor the Twitter tag and report on any questions or comments that they think would add to the fabric of the particular seminar. I think that’s a much better solution than the presenter trying to do it him- or herself.


I’m not sold on Twitter and FaceBook as a means to reach a presenter in real-time. I might never be, and in that regard, I’m with Dave Paradi on this one. But it deserves the benefit of the doubt, and the above two scenarios are ones in which I am willing to extend it. I’ll keep you posted…

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