Tag Archives: presentations

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.



Filed under Web

death by powerpoint or death to powerpoint?

When I talk to my class about TV ads, I say you should never show what you’re saying and never say what you’re showing; you have separate audio and video tracks that should complement, not echo, each other. That same advice should apply to one of the banes of our modern existence.


On Wednesday, I caught some presentations by students at Quest, our annual day celebrating scholarly and creative activities. These are very bright students; I’d need a serious brain upgrade to understand much of what they discuss. Some day, some will present to very large and prestigious audiences. And yet. I’d walk into some sessions to see talks consisting of showing sentences or paragraphs on PowerPoint slides, and presenters reading those slides. Over and over. #facepalm

I don’t blame the students. These are probably the types of presentations they’re used to seeing. I doubt they receive instruction on how to make a successful presentation. And many professional talks are no better.

While I do not come to praise PowerPoint, I do not come to bury it either. If you use the program, or Keynote or Prezi or other platform, you can still make an effective presentation. But you should use it to emphasize and complement your points, not as your script. What to include? Some suggestions:

Key points. If you treat every point as a key point, then nothing is a key point. You should emphasize what you especially want your audience to remember. Consider the following scenarios:

Scenario #1: I invite you to a large cocktail party. I somehow introduce you to 100 people. How many of those folks’ names are you going to remember? And how many details will you remember about each person?

Scenario #2: I invite you to a more intimate cocktail party. I introduce you to 10 people. You’ll probably remember just as many — perhaps more — names because you have less to process. And you’ll certainly remember more details about each person you met.

Think of that in the context of the information you throw at the audience. The more you boil down the key points, the better their chance at remembering.

Visuals that underscore your points. If you want to underline key points by showing graphs, photos of your fieldwork in Africa or websites with cool features, please do! A picture is not only worth 1,000 words, but your audience will welcome it more than begging them to read a paragraph you’re saying anyway. We are visual creatures, so the right image better helps us associate what you communicate

How marketers view the universeHow your customers view the universeRelated visuals that make your points memorable. I’m a big fan of the non-sequitor visual, an offbeat image that provides humor or hyperbole to promote relevance of a key point. The more zany, the more memorable.

Finally, remember that just like with the Web, presentations come with one consideration first and foremost: your audience. Don’t ever give a presentation you wouldn’t want to sit through.


Filed under writing

present like you mean it.

I somehow survived presenting for the first time at an academic conference, discussing Oswego’s transformation from the ’40s through ’60s as part of SUNY’s 60th anniversary conference. I heard our group had the biggest audience (including several college presidents and SUNY’s new Chancellor) of any breakout session, and quite a few folks even said they enjoyed it (very polite of them). The compliment I received most often was entertaining, not smart or anything, but I found it all thrilling.

Given that I’m certainly no gifted speaker, here’s what I’ve gleaned — from watching other presentations and kind words about my talk — about what seems to best engage audiences in these sessions.

1. Personalization. Listeners said they particularly liked when I talked about people, not just dates and data. It’s always good to put a face to the story; at the start I talked about college founder Edward Austin Sheldon the unlikely educational revolutionary (he hated classes as a child and dropped out of Hamilton College). As any reader of Made to Stick knows, stories help make abstract ideas concrete.

2. Go strategically off-script. Some presenters almost never looked up from their papers, not utilizing the benefits of making eye contact. I chose a few moments to step out and speak off-script, almost extemporaneously. Those parts had structures within which to improvise, like a jazz tune. Pulling back to address the audience, whether with anecdotes or bits of context, both shows you know the material and alters the rhythm to catch even sagging listeners’ attention.

3. Enjoy! Even if presenting isn’t your favorite thing, look like you’re having the time of your life. You wouldn’t believe how many people present with a frown, a scowl or dispassionately. If you don’t act as if you like the subject, how can you expect the audience to? The presenters who seemed to enjoy themselves were always my favorites. For my part, I tried to inject levity by making fun of academic jargon, dull architecture, current students’ instant gratification, campus rivalries and old-fashioned salary structures.

>> But don’t these tips work in business too? Isn’t it better to personalize your services, treating customers as individuals and telling interesting stories? Going-off script — being spontaneous and improvising — is key when things don’t always go as expected. And enjoying what you do, making it fun, benefits everyone; don’t we all prefer to deal with people who enjoy what they’re doing?

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Filed under words