Have you ever passed a note to another person during a meeting?
I’m not talking about the love notes we used to pass in high school. Nor am I talking about the origami paper fortune teller you used to create in junior high to pass the time and ask questions of your neighbors during boring lectures.
Fess up. Have you ever passed a note during a meeting?
Sure you have.
Have you elbowed the person sitting beside you during a presentation and made a gesture about what was just said? Or have you texted someone while you were in a meeting? Like maybe a family member or friend about when you’ll be done, where to meet or even to bring home the milk.
Let’s be honest. We’ve all done it and it’s been perfectly acceptable to do so. Unless you had a teacher that demanded everyone sit perfectly still, in rows, hands on their desks, eyes forward.
Or maybe you’ve made a beeline for another person as soon as the speaker was finished to discuss an idea shared. You wanted to talk about it with them immediately to apply the concept to your business
Or perhaps you’ve written a question that you’re dying to ask the speaker during their presentation. Or maybe you’ve questioned the credibility of their documentation and wrote yourself a note to disprove their findings.
Guess what, you participated in the old-fashioned form of a backchannel. A backchannel is when attendees communicate with others inside or outside the room. Today, backchannels are usually facilitated by Web-based technologies. They are often spontaneous, self-initiated and limited to the duration of that live event. Backchannels can be constructive when they enhance or extend the event’s content and are destructive when they amplify disagreements and controversy.
The Omnipresent Conference Backchannel
So how pervasive (invasive maybe?) are these backchannels? Can you expect your audience to talk back to the conference organizer and presenters at your next event?
A 2009 Weber Shandwick survey of global conference organizers showed that attendees were blogging and tweeting from conferences 58% more than the previous three years. comScore’s April 2009 data found that the 25- to 54-year-old crowd is actually driving the Twitter trend. 45- to 54-year olds were 36% more likely than average to visit Twitter with 25- to 40-year-olds 30% more likely. This is in direct contrast to conventional wisdom that younger people are driving the social media trends.
A December 2009 Pew Internet and American Life Project Internet research shows that 80% of Americans own a mobile device and 54%-56% connect to the Internet wirelessly. Two-thirds use the cloud.
If your conference audience demographic includes 25-54 year olds, and there is a wireless or mobile phone connection in the room, it’s safe to say that some people in the audience with be texting, tweeting or using some other similar service to create a backchannel.
Why The Increase In Backchannels?
So why have attendees turned to talking to one another during a presentation?
- Boring, one-way monologues and lectures
- Lack of presenter-attendee engagement during presentation
- Need to connect with others and share information as they are hearing it
- Need to be active during presentations as the brain is bored with passive listening for 45- to 90-minutes
- Attendees want to have a say and belong
- As a way to engage with the content
- To express their opinions about the presentation
- To build community
- To ask questions and clarify
Your Two Options
So conference organizers have two options.
A. Ignore the possibility that a backchannel will be used at their event and not monitor that conversation or provide customer service.
Risk: The lack of awareness of what conference attendees are saying in a voluntary backchannel could lead to disastrous consequences. For example, a speaker is blantantly selling their services during the session and attendees are tweeting about it. You could find out during the presentation and interrupt the speaker (by calling them into the hall.) Or you could find out after the event.
B. Facilitate the positive value of a backchannel and proactively help attendees use these alternative communication methods during an event.
Risk: Attendees could talk back about poor presentations, irrelevant content and bad speakers…but you’ll have honest, real time feedback on the areas needing the most improvement.
The choice is yours. The audience wants to talk back to you and the speaker. Can you hear them now?
What are some other reasons attendees use backchannels? How can event organizers help facilitate the attendee discussion during a presentation? What’s your experience, good or bad?