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How to talk while people are Twittering

Posted by: Emily McManus

Three weeks ago, while Evan Williams was onstage at TED2009 talking about Twitter, his audience became an army of #TED tweeters, hunched over their mobile devices, simultaneously listening and creating a written narrative of @Ev’s 8 minutes onstage. Chris Anderson and Evan talked about this in their Q&A: the idea that while a speaker is onstage, there’s a constant backchannel of reaction and communication that the speaker can access (“if you’re brave enough,” said Chris).

Evan made a joke about pulling his phone out during his TEDTalk to check his tweets — but a provocative essay making the rounds this week suggests that presenters actually should. It’s a well-thought-out piece on how to talk while people are Twittering — and makes the case that, far from being terrifying, the Twitter backchannel is a good thing for 12 reasons. Here’s one:

As a presenter, the idea of presenting while people are talking about you is disconcerting. But to balance that, there are huge benefits to the individual members of the audience and to the overall output of a conference or meeting.

1. It helps audience members focus

As a presenter, you might be worried that the backchannel will be distracting. The opposite seems to be true. Dean Shareski says:

The more I’m allowed to interact and play with the content the more engaged and ultimately the more learning happens. The more the presentation relies on the back channel, the more I focus. Knowing that my comments are going to be seen by the presenter or live participants, seems to make me pay more attention.

Rachel Happe adds:

Twitter allows me to add my perspective to what is being presented and that keeps me more engaged than just sitting and listening – even if no one reads it.

The full essay appears on Pistachio Consulting‘s blog, and comes from New Zealand-based speaker coach Olivia Mitchell.

What do you think, though? One much-loved aspect of TED and TEDTalks is the luxury of contemplation — the idea of devoting your attention to one thing for 18 minutes and seeing what other thoughts and connections are stirred up. Does the Twitter backchannel enhance or destroy this? As Twitter and chat redefine the experience of watching and giving a TEDTalk, will we in the audience start to miss the experience of being physically present and absorbed in what’s happening in front of our eyes?

Comments (5)

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  • Steve Arrowood commented on Nov 25 2009

    Backchannels can add value. They can also detract, based on the learning outcomes.

    When backchannels are used for notes or highlights of the presenter, that is one thing. When they are used for conversations, on or off topic, they create a simultaneous second language channel. Our brains cannot handle more than one unique language processing task at the same time. (Multitasking, in it’s true definition of doing multiple tasks at the same time, is a myth. Our brains must toggle.) So when we are dealing with two complex tasks, like a detailed presentation and a parallel conversation, we are losing content from one every time we engage in the other.

    There are a lot of blogs and ensuing conversations on this topic lately, including some stories from the presenter’s perspective. The smartest things a conference organizer or presenter could do, IMO, is to learn about how language processing works and how visual and auditory inputs support and conflict with each other in our brains.

  • Jim Stolze commented on Mar 2 2009

    To get an impression of how fast Twitter is growing, it’s fun to compare last year’s list of Twitterazi:
    blog.ted.com/2008/02/twitter_ted2008.php
    with the list of this year:
    http://www.billionswithzeroknowledge.com/2009/02/06/ted2009-twitter-guide/

    Can’t wait to see the list of 2010 :-)

  • Anne Van Meter commented on Mar 1 2009

    No, it’s an account of how we learn. We learn socially, while discussing ideas with other people. Twitter as a back-channel is a way to bring others into the conversation. The idea that presenters should be on the back-channel is a great idea. That gives them a way to learn from and with their audience as their presentation bends to suit the occasion and needs.

  • mattsungreene Dun commented on Feb 28 2009

    It seem that this a more tips for using Twitter in order to make it perfect and suit the need of readers and account holder. I really appreciate the post.

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