Feel free to use your laptop or your phone in my talks! I love the backchannel

If you ever find yourself in any of my face-to-face presentations, please feel free to bring out your computer, your phone, or whatever else you use. It’s okay. In fact, it’s more than okay. I love it.

Some people–particularly presenters–hate it when others have their laptops open and are typing away. They feel it’s disrespectful and distracting.

Me? I love it when people have their laptops or phones open. Go ahead. Liveblog. Chat on the backchannel. Look up stuff I mention. Write things down on your TODO list. Doodle if you want to.

And yes, if there’s something else on your mind that you’re worrying about–a report that’s due, an emergency that just came up–by all means go ahead and work on it, because even if I instituted a no-laptops-or-phones-open policy, you’d still be thinking about it anyway. Better that I’m there in the background for you to catch an interesting snippet and look up (thanks to the cocktail party effect), than for you to resent me for taking up valuable time and making it difficult for you to edge out of the door in a graceful manner. (Because you sat up front, right? Best seats in the house.)

And if I can’t keep you interested enough so that you don’t get distracted by mail or I Can Has Cheezburger, then that’s my own fault. ;)

I’m not afraid of the backchannel–the online conversations that go on behind the scenes, a scaled-up version of passing notes and whispering in the crowd. If you’re talking about the ideas that I’m presenting, fantastic! I’ve engaged you in a much better way than I could ever have if you just sat there passively listening. If you’re looking up examples I’ve quoted and bookmarking them for later reading, hooray! I’ve said something that’s sparked your interest, and you’ll take it from there. If you’re asking or answering questions about what I’m saying, wow! You jumpstart the discussion and save other people from being confused. If you’re liveblogging what I’m talking about, you help even more people learn from it, and you give me even more results on the time and effort I invested in preparing the presentation.

I wish all of my talks had backchannels! One of the things I love about giving virtual presentations is that I can open up a backchannel where everyone–even the non-Tweeters–can chat about what we’re talking about, and that conversation is easy to watch while I’m giving the presentation. That means that I can see what people are picking up on, what people are curious or confused about, what questions people have–without interrupting my flow or introducing too many awkward pauses for questions. I’ve seen people provide further examples and answer each other’s questions, and that helps me learn even more while I’m giving the presentation.

What I love about the backchannel is that it changes the entire dynamic. It’s not about me, presenter, speaking at you, audience. It’s about all of us learning together. My job isn’t to be a high-and-mighty expert with all the answers. My job is to spark interest, facilitate conversation, and connect the dots. The backchannel not only democratizes the actual talk, acknowledging the expertise and interest you bring, but it also extends our reach and starts bigger conversations.

Recent example: I was giving a virtual presentation on Totally Rocking Your Drupal Development Environment. The backchannel let me quickly poll people and collect their questions and tips.

Another example: I was on the Generation Y panel at the City of Toronto Web 2.0 Summit. The venue had WiFi, so I checked out the Twitter backchannel on my iPod Touch. Thanks to Twitter, I could tell that people were dissatisfied with the slow and moderated online questions process, skeptical of the event and the speakers, and interested in engaging further. I announced that I’d be watching the Twitter backchannel, and during our panel, I kept an eye on the questions and comments that flowed past. That let me shape what I said to incorporate other people’s perspectives and points of view, and that totally rocked.

And next time, I may even have Twitter breaks. ;) And I may put up a sign directing people to sit on the left side or the right side depending on whether they want to engage in the backchannel, so that others who are easily distracted by the clackety-clack of fingers on a keyboard can cluster together. I don’t think I can arrange for beanbags in the front for bloggers, though – that requires more planning than most of my talks have. ;)

Go ahead. Make my day! =) Next time you’re in one of my session, join the conversation. We’ll all learn so much more if you do.

Inspired by Olivia Mitchell’s excellent post on How to Present While People are Twittering

UPDATE: Also check out Beth Kanter’s blog post with lots of links to resources on backchannels: The art of the backchannel at conferences: tips, reflections, and resources

UPDATE: … and Olivia Mitchell’s follow-up at Is Twitter a good thing while you’re presenting? (thanks to Beth for the reminder!)

One Pingback/Trackback