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!)

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  • I love the backchannel too because it takes the guess work out of reading the room – and it helps you engage the audience.

  • This is one where I disagree. I’m an ardent student of Otto Scharmer and his excellent studies in Organizational Learning. His most prominent work is a book called Theory U where he maps key theory on how we put ourselves into a place where we are the most receptive to connect with the future. One of Scharmer’s primary teachings is to operate in a new state called “presencing”.

    My thought here is that multi-tasking is an illusion, it is overstimulation that interrupts our ability to be present. David Levy, professor at Washington raises a challenge in his lecture, No Time to Think in which he asks for us to invent a future place to think, much like we’ve invented the cause of creating a better environment.

    Not to worry, because while I believe in learning this skill of being present, I’ll still Twitter, blog and learn to connect my ideas with other ideas. I just can’t support the idea that we should multi-task during a lecture. Thanks for inspiring me to express myself.

  • Thanks for sharing what you think! =)

    I think that, used well, laptops or phones can help people be even more present. I’ve always found it difficult to pay attention to a lecture where I’m only a passive listener, not even a participant. Having a way to not only take notes, but to share my questions and communicate with others–that engages me so much more than just listening does. I recognize the value of that for others, too, which is why I happily encourage people to explore this.

    In a sense, I’m not multi-tasking. I’m engaging on a deeper level. I’m not eliminating discussion during the lecture. I’m opening up avenues for people to ask questions without fear of interrupting me, and making it easy for shy people to step up.

    And yes, most people might not have the comfort level or self-control to do this – but how else will they learn how to make the most of it, if not for people talking about and showing the value of the backchannel? =)

  • Now that I’ve read Beth Kanter’s stuff, I see this more clearly. She’s saying how do we make presentations more interactive. This is different that what I was talking about in my previous comments, as there I’m more opposed to people slicing time. You’re with me, now you’re not, you’re with me, now you’re not. A prime example would be that I’m in a meeting and I’m working on email, answering people’s questions totally unrelated to the meeting that I’m in currently.

    I’d agree that if we can enhance a presentation/lecture by moving the key topic out beyond the four walls or if we can make meetings more interactive, then we really can enhance the overall meeting.

    You’re right then Sacha that the meeting is trying to be “in the present”. You are also right that there is discipline to be applied here and also as Beth says, some delegation needed, as it makes a lot of a sense that in advance of a meeting, we might assign someone to be responsible for certain channels….o.k. you do the Twitter thing….you do the Liveblog thing, thus we ensure we have our bases covered.

    Thanks for kicking off a great topic.

    P.S. I tend to HATE one way conversation, especially upper management discussions that totally miss connecting with me.

  • Pingback: Is Twitter a good thing while you’re presenting? : Speaking about Presenting()

  • BTW, did you see her follow up post?

    some good engagement tips

  • hmw


    I like presentations where the audience is more than an audience in the proper meaning of the word. I like non-verbal and verbal interaction between the speaker and the audience during the presentation. Here I am totally on your way I guess. On the other hand I don’t like phones (and to some degree this is true for laptops and other gadgets, too) in my presentations. And the reason is obvious. People who are using this devices during the presentation behave often disrespectful and distracting. It’s my strong believe, that the other ladies in the audience have the right to listen to the show and to concentrate on the topic as much as they want. But they can’t if every now and then some mickeysoft equipped machines blow their nasty startup noise in the world or if some super important persons need to let the world know that there are calls coming in on their phones. According to my experience there are always some people in the audience who don’t understand the problem. Even if the speaker pleas for muted phones and other devices. How do you deal with such annoyances?

  • Oh, I wasn’t thinking about phones used as voice devices, but rather as ways to text or Twitter. And I’m definitely with you on the muted-computers bit, which I think everyone remembers to do. I don’t mind the clackety-clack of people typing on keyboards, though, while others are disturbed by it.

    I may remind people to put their phones on silent, but I don’t get bothered if people forget. It happens, and I just don’t let that throw me off. =)

  • A new study found that people who Doodle are better at remembering what they are listening too then people who do not… throws away allot of the ideas here! I am not a Doodler!

    We all remember things differently, and sometimes, honestly, I dont need to hear everything being said. So maybe a game of mind sweeper during these dull periods would get me ready for the parts I need to hear!

  • <laugh> I use dull moments to think about or write down notes on previous exciting moments. If there are no exciting moments to think about, I keep myself amused and engaged by thinking of how I could improve the talk, how I’d deliver it. Sometimes I take my notes as storyboards of the presentation I wish I could’ve been listening to instead, and sometimes I think about how to restructure entire presentations. ;)