With Twitter, power now shifting to audience during presentations

Twitter:  Distraction or Presentation Aid?
Twitter: Distraction or Presentation Aid?

It used to be enough as a presenter to know your audience, have strong content, practice, and repeat.

Not any more.

Now you have to worry about the audience Tweeting about your presentation…as you’re giving it.  And sometimes the comments are being projected over your shoulder, right next to your slides.

I can actually see pros and cons with this.  On one hand, if you really know your topic and have practiced, this can be an opportunity to modify your presentation when you see the audience isn’t getting something or incorporate the answers to their questions right then and there, rather than hoping they’ll ask after you’re done.

On the other hand, monitoring Twitter could distract you from focusing on presenting and watching the audience for their reactions and lead you down roads that will undermine the preparation you’ve done.

And with Twitter, people who aren’t even at your presentation have an opportunity to weigh in and add to the confusion. 

This issue has really come to the forefront with a recent incident at the HigherEdWeb conference in Milwaukee a few weeks ago.  For some context, feel free to click on The Great Keynote Meltdown of 2009.  Simply put, the presenter appears to have been ill-prepared, used outdated slides, and was a poor presenter who disrespected his audience.  He took an ugly public (and private — people also texted his phone number to tell him how bad he was) beating.  But this isn’t a new phenomenon. 

I’m thinking about this as I prepare for a presentation on The Impact of New Credit Card Legislation on Students at a conference of financial-aid professionals in Orlando next month.  Some will argue I should have already done this, but I’ll be asking the conference organizers on Monday about the level of my audience’s social technology adoption to determine whether I need to (or even can) monitor the backchannel while I’m talking.   The next decision is whether I want to.  What I do know is that I’ll be intensifying my preparation over the next few weeks to ensure I’m not “that guy.”

I wonder how people who Tweet during a presentation can be doing that and still pay attention.  My 17-year-old, who IMs, Facebooks, and the like far more than I like, says he could — but that he would never use Twitter in that way.

I’d like to get a dialogue going on this subject.  Should Twitter be banned from presentations or is it a reasonable way for the audience to interact with the speaker and just a sign of the times of the audience gaining more power?  What strategies are you using in situations where conferences have a backchannel?


5 thoughts on “With Twitter, power now shifting to audience during presentations

  1. I have been to webinars where the main presenter had helpers who handled the chat questions. He was able to focus on presenting while questions were being answered by one or two others. I took notice of this because in my last job I gave numerous webinars, and handling chat questions while continuing to teach could sometimes be tricky. Perhaps this idea could be leveraged for handling tweeting during an in-person presentation?

    Presentations need to be more interactive and engaging.

    1. Judy, that’s an interesting idea but I do worry about how engaged the audience members will be if they’re splitting their attention between the presenter and the chat respondents. At the heart of it, presentations are about creating a great narrative and making people think about your message.

  2. I think that twitter is a highly useful addition to the traditional presentation format. The trick is using it well. I will be used, make no mistake of that. Banning it is pretty well impossible without taking away everyone’s cell phones, something that would not be viable and would inspire backlash even if it were.

    Presenter preparedness is the main issue here, followed closely by the ability to adapt.

    I was recently the MC at a conference in New Orleans (Rising Tide NOLA) where I implemented the following ways of using twitter to enhance productivity.

    First things first we announced the hashtag to be used (#RT4 in this case) so that attendees and those following on the web could keep up with things real time. This also improves topic visibility online.

    Secondly I used HottSuite to embed a search column for that hashtag into a post on the event’s website so that those unfamiliar with the tech could just go to the page and follow the conversation.

    Third, rather than projecting the tweets on a screen behind the speaker I had a “moderator” with a laptop following the conversation. When it came time to take questions from Twitter the moderator would get on the mic and ask them. This filters out any prank or spam comments being tweeted, at least as far as the Q & A goes.

    With someone else doing the monitoring and acting as an interface you can allow the speaker to keep on track without distractions while preserving interactivity.

    As to the ability of people to tweet and pay attention to a presentation, I think it’s higher than you would expect. I was talking to a friend who teaches cognitive theory at a Chicago University awhile back and he told me that the kids in his classes tend to have much greater multitasking ability and also that texting is their preferred medium of communication. This tends to verify my personal experience over the past few years working with people in their early 20s.

    Hope this is somewhat helpful!

  3. George, I really like the ideas in your Comment. In particular, having a monitor ask the questions ensures that the people in the audience who had the same question get an answer. I would hope that the monitor asks all the pertinent questions, rather than filtering and asking just the easy or positive ones.

    I understand your point about kids’ multi-tasking abilities, although I don’t think it’s as good as they all think it is. I watch my 17-year-old bouncing between homework, iTunes, Facebook, and the assorted IMs and wonder how the heck he’s retaining anything.

    — Peter

  4. I’ve attended presentations with live Twitter feed. When the tweets were projected so the audience could see them (albeit on a separate screen from the presenter) I found it as distracting as having people talking during the presentation. And some people use the feed to post snarky comments which aren’t warranted. But I think Twitter is a great way to gather questions from the audience throughout the presentation – and I agree with others who have commented here that you need a separate person monitoring the feed to pull out the most compelling items to be addressed in the Q & A session. The feed is captured and also allows the speaker to review later.

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