3 tips for dealing with a conference backchannel.

Last week’s SUNYCUAD Conference featured its most active Twitter backchannel (defined as a real-time discussion thread using a hashtag, such as #sunycuad). While the backchannel is usually constructive, often retweeting the most salient lessons, it can occasionally include questioning of speaker effectiveness. Certainly nothing at SUNYCUAD reached the level of the #heweb09 Great Keynote Meltdown, but some comments centered on consultants appearing to present infomercials, speaker suggestions deemed debatable and seemingly suspect strategy.

To their credit, one presenter who faced some mild backchannel questioning, an integrated communication consultancy, tried to engage commenters after the fact and thanked them for their suggestions. They also asked if Q-and-A was moving increasingly to the backchannel, as the phenomenon was apparently new to them, and I applaud their efforts at making it a learning experience.

The worst thing that could happen would be if Twitter backchannels discouraged helpful folks from speaking at conferences. It shouldn’t. Backchannels are much more manageable if speakers take proactive steps to engage their audiences. Some suggestions:

1. Use a backchannel buddy. When Rick Allen (@epublishmedia) and I both spoke at the HighEdWeb Regional at Vassar, he asked if I’d have his back(channel) and offered to do the same. At the start of a session, you can note someone in the room will monitor the backchannel and ask any questions posed there if people don’t want to ask directly. And just knowing the backchannel is being monitored in real time may keep people more civil in their tweets.

2. Understand your audience. This was the real problem in the #heweb09 meltdown; the speaker was imparting antiquated information and just wasn’t playing the right room. Perhaps unfairly, consultants have an inherent challenge speaking to higher ed practitioners who may view them as mercenaries who make lots of money for telling administrators things the underpaid, underappreciated peons have said already. I don’t see practitioners rip other campus practitioners on the backchannel, due to mutual respect of the day-to-day challenges. That said, presenters may want to ask organizers about the job descriptions of attendees, skill levels (is a 101 or advanced approach best?) and whether the conference has hosted similar topics. Letting attendees know in advance you’ll focus on beginner-level information could make a world of difference.

3. Provide value early and often. Give someone something useful and they’ll respect you. Period. If presenters eat up considerable time pumping up themselves and/or their company/institution at the beginning, they’re missing an opportunity. Many presenters wait until the last five minutes to get to takeaway advice, but why not instead bring out some great stories, tips, tricks or helpful advice in the first five? Making a good first impression will buy you social capital.

Moreover, speakers should not take backchannel comments personally … sometimes the audience is just restless, feeling trapped in a presentation they didn’t expect and reacting the only way they feel they can. Any criticism in any medium can become a learning opportunity, including Twitter comments, but taking steps to create a productive and positive backchannel is even better.

2 Comments

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2 responses to “3 tips for dealing with a conference backchannel.

  1. Great post Tim-appreciate the insights- have 3 presentations next week with high backchannel hopes- love the active-engaged conversation.

  2. Great points, Tim. I think this is a real issue for conferences in the coming years. What you and Rick did is smart! I’ve never seen the backchannel get quite as snarky as it did last week, but I can imagine it happening again.

    Funniest conference backchannel I’ve seen so far was one that got taken over by women talking about how handsome a speaker was. Equally distracting!

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