February 10, 2010

Harvesting the backchannel bazaar of insights

February 10, 2010 - Categories: ibm, presentation, speaking

One of the things I love about virtual presentations is the richness of the backchannel conversation — the chat that accompanies a presentation. When people don’t have to worry about interrupting others and they’re free to discuss things in parallel, the conversation explodes.

It can be overwhelming for speakers and participants alike, but it’s a great way to capture a lot of insights, answer many, many questions, and start an ongoing conversation.

A few weeks ago, I gave a presentation on microblogging. There were 150+ participants. 51 people actively used the chat to share their thoughts during the presentation, typing in 461 messages in total. Topics ranged from beginner questions about getting started to advanced questions involving multiple tools.

I saved the chat transcript and uploaded it along with my session materials. Another participant converted the text transcript into a spreadsheet that also summarized messages by author. The spreadsheet also tagged replies with the ID of the person being replied to.

I reviewed the chat spreadsheet and categorized useful messages, assigning the following keywords:


There were many messages I didn’t categorize because they repeated information, were related to the teleconference itself, or were part of the general back-and-forth.

As usual, IBMers like talking about tools and sharing tool-related tips. You should’ve seen us during Dan Roam’s presentation on the Back of the Napkin – we were fascinated by the drawing tools he used! ;)

It’s interesting to see how people cluster around topics, too. When I look at the spreadsheet, I can see who cares a lot about adoption, who’s interested in personas, etc.

I’m sure there’s been research on the analysis of conversations. The backchannel is like Internet relay chat (IRC), after all, and IRC has been around for decades. I wonder how the real-time extra channel of speaking influences the flow of the backchannel and vice versa. I wonder how we can get better at picking up ideas and following up on them. I wonder how we can get better at strengthening the newly-formed connections.

In a real-life presentation, it would be difficult to have all these conversations and to get this kind of insight into what people care about. A presentation backchannel where people can chat is an incredibly powerful tool, and I’m looking forward to helping learn more about making the most of it!