The New Backchannel


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This is a pre-print of my article to appear in Speaker magazine, a publication of the National Speaker's Assocation.

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The New Backchannel

  1. 1. the new Engage your audiences by tuning in to their real-time conversations on Twitter and Facebook.18 | SPEAKER | June 2011
  2. 2. I t’s not unusual to see IT audi- audience members and colleagues who my talks,” said Mark Sanborn, CSP , ences typing away on their aren’t attending the event. This pres- CPAE. Sanborn recognizes that speakers laptops and smartphones while ents new challenges and opportunities need to engage their audiences and fully a speaker is making a presenta- for speakers to engage their audiences. participate in this backchannel. tion. But lately, I have seen the If you have seen a rise in your com- This is called a “backchannel” logged-on proportion at non- puter-equipped audiences, this article because your audience is conversing ontechnical audiences start to swell. will provide some solid tips on how Twitter and Facebook and using other Welcome to the new “backchannel.” to cope, exploit them and make you a social media tools during your speech.No, these laptop-toting folks aren’t just better speaker. There are even some conferences, suchbored and checking their emails. They “We used to ask our audience to put as South by Southwest, held each springare actively listening to the speaker away their phones, but now I ask them in Austin, Texas, where the Twitter feedand reacting and sharing their com- to just silence them and feel free to use is projected on screens at the front ofments with their peers, including other them to communicate with me during the hall for everyone to view. June 2011 SPEAKER | 19
  3. 3. wh y “Smart event organizers will offer to watch the Twitter stream and field ques- “That is one downside,” says Steve Hughes, a humorous keynoter andis the backchannel tions to the speaker, but most don’t offer. trainer. “You can look like a real loser ifimportant? For less formal events, I might have a sep- you give out your Twitter handle and no“During some events, the backchannel arate laptop on the lectern where I can, one takes you up on it during your talk.”is happening, whether you as a speaker once or twice, quickly skim the Twitter Hughes also gives out his cell phoneare participating in it or not,” says Chris stream and see if there’s a good ques- number and asks his audiences to eitherHouchens, a marketing speaker based tion,” Berkun says. Tweet or text him during his speech within Bowling Green, Ky., who has spoken any questions. That way he can manageon using social media to help authors the questions when it is appropriate. “Ipromote themselves at the #140conf, a r e will respond to them on the platformamong other venues. your audiences at specific points during my speech,” he “If you are blindly going forward andoblivious to this channel until the end Twitter-friendly? says. “But I am the kind of speaker who likes taking lots of questions from theof your session, you are missing out on Not all audiences are Twitter-friendly. audience, and this is just one more mech-getting yet another means of feedback For less tech-savvy audiences or more anism that I use.”about your craft. It is essential for speak- conservative industries such as banking, The size of the audience is also criti-ers to get real-time reaction to engage Houchens finds you can’t really expect cal in how a speaker incorporates thecertain audiences,” Houchens says. much in the way of social media backchannel. “I did an event where I “Many conference organizers are cre- conversations. took questions via Twitter, but you can’tating a common hashtag to promote “It is probably more distracting than effectively do that for a larger crowd,”their events and you should also create useful, especially for people who are says Houchens. For speakers who havea specific hashtag for your sessions too.” used to being more passive listeners. staff, he suggests they plant a wingman(Hashtags are ways that groups of Twitter If you don’t see any laptops or people in the audience to monitor the Twitterusers can search for each others’ postings looking at phones, you don’t go to social feed and cue them when questions areon a particular event, using the ‘#’ char- media.” One way to predict an audience particularly relevant. Or work with theacter and a short label in the Tweet.) is to monitor their Foursquare check- meeting manager to recruit a volunteer “I might Tweet something during the ins—another social media location-based for this purpose.morning keynote and mention that I service—or to see if anyone has used the p r e -am doing a session that afternoon, but conference-provided hashtag prior toyou have to add value and try not to be the event.too swarmy,” says Houchens. He also And not all speakers are Twitter-handles Tweets from the podium, “but it friendly either. If your presentations and post-event socialdepends on the types of audience. Some aren’t designed to be interactive and high media promotionsGen Y audiences aren’t even looking at concept, then having Twitter background It isn’t just your time on the plat-you; they are engaged with their phones chatter can be more of a distraction. form that requires social media skills.and laptops. You have to work with them Carol Weisman, CSP is based in St. Louis , You need to be working the socialusing the tools that they are using to com- and speaks mostly to non-profit boards of media channels before and after yourmunicate with you.” directors who aren’t usually social media events, too. Remember the old days “If I’ve prepared well for the talk, most mavens. “I hate Twitter while I am speak- when doing research on your audienceof the Twitter conversations will be posi- ing because I usually do keynotes where involved making a few phone calls (ortive, and I can follow up with questions I don’t take any questions. Plus, at one even emails) to the meeting planner andlater,” says Scott Berkun, who wrote the keynote, there was a Twitter feed on a conference advisory board members?book Confessions of a Public Speaker and screen in front of the room and there They seem so quaint now. Now youspeaks to technology-savvy audiences. were only a few postings.” have to engage your prospective20 | SPEAKER | June 2011
  4. 4. “Many conference organizers are creating a common hashtag to promote their events and you should also create a specific hashtag for your sessions, too.” Hashtags are ways that groups of Twitter users can search for each others’ postings on a particular event, using the ‘#’ character and a short label in the Tweet.listeners by following their Tweets and The free service can be • Stay aware of your Twitterstreamfriending them on Facebook. a very handy reference, and some con- reputation. “I have connected on Twitter with ference planners are setting up special Second, start thinking about how youa lot of people before a speech,” says accounts where all the PowerPoint decks can include social media as part of yourRich DiGirolamo, Chief Cook & Bottle can be collected in one place for easy ref- natural business operations to marketWasher of One Less Meal, Inc. and the erence, which, in some cases, precludes yourself, extend your brand, and initiatespeaker with the beanie cap from Marion, meeting organizers from publishing out- conversations with potential audiencesConn. “Usually, I am searching for par- dated printed copies of the proceedings. and clients. “I got work as a result of aticular hashtags, conference names, or (It also means that some speakers can wait Facebook post on a client’s page and theymeeting planners and selection committee until the last possible moment to make ended up giving me a referral to a newmembers to find people who are attend- changes to their presentations, too!) client. I have also sold product as a resulting. This can help craft and customize of staying in touch with my audiencemy speech, start engaging with attendees, members,” said DiGirolamo.and introduce and market myself with thesponsoring organization.” f i r s T “It isn’t technology versus the Amish,” Hughes says. “It is about interacting with Don’t forget about email, either. steps my audience and taking questions inBerkun says: “I always follow up with So how should speakers start learning whatever format someone feels the mostquestions wherever I find them. Many how to use the social media backchan- comfortable with.”people still prefer asking questions over nel? First, you need to set up Twitter and Berkun says: “If you prepare well andemail—they’re not worried about embar- Facebook accounts at a minimum, and speak well, Twitter amplifies your impact.rassing themselves. It is the modern era, start engaging and understanding how If you don’t prepare well and speakand your audience will interact with your audiences use these tools. A great poorly, Twitter amplifies the negative feed-you in a variety of methods. In my own book to get started is Cliff Atkinson’s back too.”case, I have had comments on my blog, The Backchannel (New Riders, 2010), “I think we have a lot more toFacebook messages, direct Twitter mes- which has lots of examples, recom- learn from people in the non-speakingsages, emails and even Instant Messages mended tools, audience and speaker world than from what other speak-from my attendees post-event. guidelines, and more. There are sample ers are doing with social media,” says Many speakers have created extensive chapters and resources at http://www. DiGirolamo. “Watch what your audi-social media plans that involve reaching ences are doing with Twitter andout to prospects prior to an event, publiciz- For example, Atkinson talks about Facebook to educate yourself anding an event and post-event follow-up, all having the following simple code of understand the interests of others.”using various social media. For example, I conduct for audiences to use when theylist my trip on before the event, Tweet during your presentations: David Strom is a St. Louis-basedwhich will let others in my network know • Tweet unto others as you would have speaker and writer who talks tomy travel dates. At the end of my speeches, them Tweet unto you. IT audiences about new ways toI put up the link to, which • Be accurate. use technology productively.has a copy of my PowerPoint® slides that • Say something good before you say His blog is at strominator.comanyone can download. something bad and he can be found on Twitter@dstrom. June 2011 SPEAKER | 21