The Conference Collision: Old School Organizers, Status Quo Speakers, Disruptive Technologies And Attendee 2.0

Disruptive technologies have impacted the way we communicate and work for years.

The relationship among event organizers, presenters and audiences is undergoing a fundamental change. Attendee 2.0 has embraced social media platforms and frequently engages in the backchannel discussing the event before, during and after the meeting. Attendee 2.0 has no problem reviewing the conference or expo, whether negative or positive and posting online for all to read. Many believe that the interaction that occurs in this new communication method is a threat to traditional conferences and will bring conference presentations to the brink of failure and negative public drama. And indeed that has happened in some instances.

The naysayers, those that try to control Attendee 2.0 and those that want to maintain the status quo, are not new. History has heard their hostile voices before and moved beyond them. Their rancorous rants could not stop many societal shifts. Consider the following.

  • People said the first writing wasn’t needed and would distract people from being able to farm, produce and work. It didn’t. It helped merchants keep track of their goods and led to the written alphabet and words.
  • The royals and elite said that the printing press would lead to the demise of talking. It didn’t. It led to an increase in adult literacy and the democratization of knowledge. People still talk today.
  • The general populace thought the telephone would only be used for social, non-business affairs. It wasn’t. It became one of the primary tools of business as we know it.
  • Society cried foul with the advent of the talking box saying it would end productive, quality lives and active communication. It didn’t. Television is one of the key communication tools today.
  • The public screamed that the Internet was the work of the devil and would lead to the demise of community, family and intelligence. It didn’t. It has become as common as electricity and water in most people’s homes leading to more access to information and communication than ever. 
  • People said the birth of mobile phones and texting would speed the downfall of society and lead to family destruction, and the lack of basic social and communication skills. It didn’t. It’s led to a more connected society and the ability to communicate in new ways.
  • Today misanthropists bellow that social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter will lead to the destruction of society, less productivity and that people will no longer know how to have face-to-face conversations. It hasn’t and it won’t.

In each of these cases, when there has been a shift in common communication practices, several things happen:

  1. Our communication capability expands.
  2. We increase the distance and speed of our communication reach.
  3. The new way we interact affects the way we organize, shifts the balance of power and influences how we get things done.

Currently, conference and tradeshow organizers are feeling the impact of new media. Web 2.0 disruptive technologies, like the backchannel, have caused a new way for attendees to organize and shifted the balance of power from the organization to the attendee.

Despite the cynics and old school pessimists, the potential for positive outcomes from disruptive technologies like the backchannel are equally attention-worthy as we all deal with shifting presentation tectonic plates. There have been other disruptive technologies that have transformed presentations in a positive way including the introduction of blackboards and whiteboards, microphones, overhead projectors, image magnification, LCD projectors, video and presentation software like PowerPoint.

Today, one thing is sure, the backchannel is rewriting the job description of everyone involved with presentations, including the conference organizers, audiences and speakers.

  • Conference organizers have to rethink how they bring audiences and presenters together both face-to-face and virtually.
  • Audiences find themselves with the power in their hands and can bring down a presenter in a blink of an eye or help spread the speaker’s messages to the masses.
  • Presenters’ jobs are changing the most because their view from the stage is rapidly changing.

As an event professional, you may think “This isn’t going to happen at my meetings. We have doctors, (dentists, executives, construction workers, plumbers…substitute your audience here) who will never use social media like Twitter to communicate with a backchannel.” Yet, the genie is not going back in the bottle and the situation can change as quickly as a click of the mouse.

Ready or not, you may have a backchannel waiting on you at your next conference, event, tradeshow or presentation. All of this raises some great fundamental questions to consider:

  1. What do audiences, including Attendee 2.0, expect from conferences, events, tradeshows and presentations today?
  2. What are the ground rules, if any, regarding backchannels and social media platforms at events?
  3. Who is accountable, the conference organizers, attendees, exhibitors or speakers?
  4. How can conference and tradeshow organizers seek and integrate real-time attendee feedback?

What do you think? What’s your experience? Share your thoughts.

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  1. I think this article brings up some really interesting points in reference to the back channel. There are absolutely ways that we can use the power of the “back channel” for helping propel conferences forward.

    My concern is about what is going to win out? What technology companies basket do we put our eggs in? How do we help direct what becomes the next standard in conference related technologies? Is that even possible?

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Thanks for adding your feedback and you’ve raised some great questions. I think we can have an impact on what becomes the next standard in conference related technologies by letting event tech companies know what we want. What are some things you’d like to see in conference technologies?

      Thanks for adding to the conversation. I so agree with you about ground rules. The best speakers I’ve seen are more like facilitators and start their presentations with some speaker-attendee agreements. When I present, I ask permission for certain things from the attendees and give attendees permission to do specific things as well. If more speakers would do this, and use audience agreement pacts–they could curb some of the disrespectful Twitter mobs. That being said, it’s a meeting professional’s job to hire the right speakers at the start. Some of the Twitter lynch mobbing I’ve seen was deserving because someone was presenting that should have never been allowed to speak. They were experts, not presenters. In those cases, when the attendee has paid a registration fee, I think they have a right to voice their displeasure. If attendees are dissatisfied with a speaker, they should also vote with their feet and walk out of the presentation. That’s what I call the “Law of 2 Feet!”

  2. As always Jeff, a wealth of information presented in a very upbeat manner. Reading your posts always gets me excited about the future of the events industry.

    I love the idea of more interaction between audience and speaker. And as long as the backchannel comments are constructive; done with a we (including the speaker) mentality, then I think it can only add to the experience.

    However, I think there have to be ground rules. The anonymity that Twitter provides can be too great a temptation for some who feel the need to try to establish their superiority at the expense of others.

    Yes, we should be encouraging speakers to improve their game, but a Twitter lynch mob will NOT benefit anyone. Thanks again for this very thought-provoking post.

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  4. Greg Ruby says:

    Another interesting post and I wish I had your writing ability.

    It is interesting to me how social media has thrust the backchannel into the bright lights of public attention. The backchannel has always been available in one form or another over the years – people just did not know how to access it. I think we are much better off having these conversations in a more public fashion as it forces all parties to be accountable for their actions.

    While I stifle at being monitored, I think some form is needed if, for instance, a twitter feed is being shown during a general session. During the recent IAEE Expo! Expo!, the twitter feed became a battleground for exhibitors to encourage general session attendees to stopy by their booths.

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