The Audience Talks Back

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?

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  1. Another great post about the ‘back channel’

    Has anyone every read the book “Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork, and the Myth of Total Efficiency”

    It says that we can’t multi-task. This back channel approach will never work for getting truly exceptional results.

    There needs to be 2 threads at conferences- maximized personal interaction and collaboration and digital communication and presence.

    They can’t be married together- the human mind just isn’t capable of it!

  2. Jeff Hurt says:

    Thanks for sharing your opinion Brandon. It’s good to get a diversity of thought. In your mind, is taking notes during a presentation multi-tasking?

  3. Actually, YES! Well, most of the time.

    When ever I do a conference/session/meeting, we take notes for the clients/participants so they can focus on the task, concept, strategy at hand.

    We simply provide graphic facilitation and documentation/note taking for them. They can refer back to it at any time- kind of like having the teachers lecture and notes immediately after the class.

    Here is how the graphic version works- most people learn and remember more visually- that’s why we do it (plus it’s cool!)

    This isn’t to say that there isn’t the right place and time for notes, just that in medium to large group settings, there are options more beneficial than people with their heads facing down in their notepads!

  4. Jeff Hurt says:

    Thanks for clarifying. I have a different perspective on this.

    There’s a lot of education and brain research stating that people must do something with the information they are learning in order to retain it. And that means that during a presentation they must do something immediately with that information or it’s lost. Did you know that 90% of a presentation is lost within 30 days…actually within hours of the presentation. Research shows that the mind looses interest every 10 minutes in a presentation unless there are specific things done by the learner and the presenter.

    John Medina’s book Brain Rules speaks directly to this. For example, people need to repeat information in order for it to go into short term memory. Writing or typing those notes helps in that process. His book also speaks to what some people think is multi-tasking when people write, text or type in a presentation. Very interesting research on how the brain is working with short- and long-term memory and what some people call multitasking–which it isn’t.

    We both agree that visuals trump text and that a graphic version will help people retain the information.

    I’m a “both and” kind of guy and believe that both what you propose, and allowing adults to do what works for them when learning including typing, texting, writing, is the best of both worlds. Adults know their own preferences for learning and retaining information.

    I leave you with this…just because someone is looking forward at a speaker does not mean they are learning or listening. That’s a fallacy. Listening is actually the worst way to learn and remember something. Just ask John Medina…

  5. Ranelle says:

    We’ve had an interesting discussion via Twitter at #TK10 (ASTD TechKnowledge). The question was “If you leave a conference session because it is bad, should you tweet about it?” Consensus seemed to be “yes” as long as there is constructive criticism and not rude comments. It was also stated you should be sure to include those same comments on the formal evaluation of the session and/or conference.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Great suggestions. Thanks for sharing those.

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