Speakers – Be Aware, Twitter is Coming

Business speakers (and leaders, keynoters, politicians, Pastors and, well, everyone…) need to be aware that like it or not, Twitter is coming to their speaking experience.

Be Aware, and Beware!

There's been a lot of buzz - and new insight - into what to do about people twittering while you are speaking. Olivia Mitchell did an outstanding guest blog on Laura Fitton's Pistachio site, and the next day on Chris Spagnuolo's Edgehopper, wrapping up a busy week with her own summary post. All great food for thought - but let's not get carried away. The "back channel" will only be useful in a small number of communicating environments - at least for the next year or so. Here's why:

The great majority of Twitterers, and bloggers for that matter, are early adopters, and tech/social media savvy. They probably would be lost without their computers/PDA's/phones (I know I would.) However the majority of the business world uses the tools, but don't lose themselves in the process. And I'm afraid that the thrust of the current Twitter buzz advocating twittering during speeches will cause an expectation of good communication that will not be met – and will lead the majority of people (like most of our clients) down the wrong path.

Now there ARE great new possibilities, particularly with high tech audiences like at SXSW, and others. So there’s the good, the bad and the ugly.

Let’s start with the ugly:

  • Until there was Twitter, there was only ‘Blackberry Abuse,’ which we blogged on awhile back. Here it was rude for people to go to their Blackberrys (or PDA's/iPhones) during a meeting or speech to IM or check email - but they did it anyway. Because they were bored!
  • The solution to Blackberry Abuse was to be INTERESTING as a speaker. Engage and excite your audience and they will be compelled to listen, and watch!
  • That’s still the solution to the almost 90% of speaking situations where Twittering would not be appropriate (see below). But we're beginning to see an expectation that people SHOULD Twitter, it’s OK, it will be constructive, and it’s not really because they’re bored. But the majority of Twitterers WILL be twittering because they are bored, because the majority of speakers are unfortunately boring. And so now we have a valid excuse to put our heads down, get our minds on the tweet and not the message, and be rude to the unsuspecting speaker.
  • Confusion will reign.

Now for the bad:

    • In probably 80-90% of most business and conference settings speakers have a message to give – at keynote speeches and large company events - the large audience venues. It is not a groupthink or collaboration (see below for “the good.”)
    • You can't read and listen effectively at the same time. This has been well documented by Edward Tufte and others, and I'll personally confirm that with my past 30 years experience in the communication and speaking business. It is cognitive dissonance in action.
    • Think of the problem with PowerPoint presentations filled with text, (also well documented in this blog and Presentation Zen and others.) We’ve all had the sad but common experience of reading ahead, as the speaker says, “Now stay with me.” And of course we don’t, and since we can’t read and listen at the same time we have cognitive dissonance.
    • And it’s even worse with Tweeting. If you think you can’t read and listen at the same time, it’s even worse to try to text and listen (and read) at the same time. If you have a group listening to a speaker (supposedly) and tweeting about the speaker’s 140 character sound bites (supposedly) and looking at the text and PowerPoints, and reading other Tweeter’s tweets, and looking up urls – chaos reigns in the mind. The speaker has lost control, and there is not only NOT better communication - it is far worse and more fragmented.
    • In this large conference/event/speech setting where the speaker has a point-of-view and a message to deliver, the speaker is responsible for the experience. You can’t command “No Blackberrys. No Twitter!” - because people will do what they want to do. But there are other ways - the speaker cannot abdicate his or her responsibility. He or she should be should be interesting, engaging and powerful, using arresting stories, visuals and Black Slides!

A new perspective – the good that will come out of this:

      • The growing dialogue and power of Twitter is opening up new ways to communicate, and we are just on the forefront. This is what this recent buzz is leading to, and take the time to read all of the ideas and comments in those blog links below – you’ll get some idea of where it is going.
      • Workshops, social media sessions, Jelly!, BarCamps, et al are far different than the traditional more formal speeches mentioned above. Although they won’t replace them anytime soon, they are offering new collaborative possibilities, and it is these where Twitter and the ‘back channel’ will flourish. Likely ALL the sessions at SXSW 2009 Austin in two weeks will be Twitter enhanced, providing a high level laboratory - much should come out of that.
      • On webinars and teleconferences there is much more potential for using Twitter, and this back channel becomes very useful where you don't have the speaker present, and need more visual engagement.
      • The thousands of smaller meetings and business conferences going on everyday should be living laboratories for experimenting and trying out some of these new ideas of Twitter that have already shown promise.

See Olivia, Pistachio and Edgehopper for dozens of examples of the benefits of Twitter in today's growingly diverse communications experiences. But don’t lose sight of the fact that in most speeches today, Twittering during a speech won’t be of use - but abuse.

21 thoughts on “Speakers – Be Aware, Twitter is Coming
  1. Bert,
    It’s an interesting subject. I was recently a speaker at the mom 2.0 summit in Houston.
    Before and after the day’s sessions, I checked out the #mom2summit conversation on Twitter.
    It was almost like there were two conferences going on. Twitter contained a lot of fascinating discussions about the conference topics.
    Also, as a speaker, it was fascinating to see which parts of my speech resonated with the audience – what they tweeted about. It was really valuable feedback.
    I’m with you on keeping the audience engaged. Having folks twittering during a presentaiton is a double-edged sword.
    It will be interesting to see how this continues to evolve.
    thanks for the great post!

  2. Of course you can’t follow a presentation or speech and twit at the same time, the brain isn’t wired for it.
    Why not programme pauses for people to twitter your speech highlights?
    It’s good marketing to suggest people twit about what you say.

  3. Thanks Holly and Steve – this is a fascinating subject.
    Right on about the brain not being wired to listen and tweet at the same time. And good idea to experiment (in the right situations) for Twitter breaks. That allows for the immediate feedback you can get later (see Holly’s comment above) and for some of your Twitter sound bites to get out to Twitter land.

  4. Thanks Bert for writing this post. We’re at the beginning of a trend, and you’re right to point out the contexts in which it won’t be appropriate and some of the pitfalls. Particularly, you’ve highlighted the issue of trying to follow a twitterstream and listen to the speaker at the same time. That was an issue for some people in the presentation that I did at the recent Presentation Camp. I love Richard’s suggestion above “Why not programme pauses for people to twitter your speech highlights?” Olivia

  5. At the last Blog World, there were screens set up in the conference rooms so people could twitter while the panels spoke. In one of the sessions, we had Brian Solis, Chris Brogan, Lee Odden and Jason Falls speaking on social media. A heavy weight panel, worth listening to.
    The twittering was so distracting that I had to stop looking entirely. And frankly, I found more than one speaker a little sidetracked by the screen as well. You can’t be on a panel and twitter at the same time. It just didn’t work.
    Guess we’re learning as we go along.

  6. Thanks Indra for the insight. I would have thought Twittering would have worked there, but not for all. I find different people have very different takes at the beginning of this ‘working out Twitter’ process.

  7. Thanks, Bert, for adding a different perspective to the discussion. I think I fall more into the “bad and ugly” camp than the “good” camp at this point, because of what you’ve written above and because of my own understanding of how distracting Twitter can be.
    Sure, people might be tweeting about your presentation while you’re speaking. But they’re probably also talking to all their Twitter friends at the same time and not fully engaged.
    It’s hard enough to engage audiences who are already distracted by their own thoughts, the pile of work on their desk, the sick kid at home and their impatience for a smoke break. Adding Twitter is a little scary to me.

  8. As someone who speaks often, my knee-jerk reaction to twitting while I’m speaking is abhorance. However, I did find the idea of having built-in pauses intriguing. I can picture an audience tweeting brief summaries, posing qustions, etc.

  9. Another useful distinction has occurred to me. That’s the distinction between tweeting the highlights of a presentation while the presenter is talking. That’s like taking notes of the most important stuff and generally helps you engage more with the content. On the other side, is trying to keep up with the twitterstream while also trying to listen to the presenter. As you say Bert, that’s not any different to trying to read a bullet-laden slide while trying to listening to the presenter. Olivia

  10. You’ve summed up the discussion very well, Bert. Thanks. (And thanks Olivia for starting it off.)
    I agree with all your points. I’m also with Lisa, ambivalent-tending-toward-scared about engaging an audience that has one more way to check out — as in, leave the room — intellectually and emotionally.
    I like Richard’s suggestion and, when I’m feeling adventuresome, I might try out a version: explicitly asking people to tweet during the Q&A periods.

  11. Speakers, Don’t Drink Decker’s Kool-Aid
    As a professional educator and a meeting planner that has hired more than 2,500 speakers in the past several years, this commentary causes me to pause. I disagree with the majority of the negative comments that Bert Decker has against twitter and texting in presentations and I’ve successfully used text in two opening general sessions in the past two years with audiences of 350+ people.
    Nearly 95% of my audience members come into a presentation with a mobile device that they can use for texting. According to our recent communications survey, 75% of our members, insurance executives and business professionals ages 35-65, are already using social media. One general session speaker we’ve hired, Scott Klososky, got our audience involved with texting and it was a huge hit. Scott asked the audience to text their comments and questions. Using Wiffitti.com, we projected our attendees’ comments onto a large screen while Scott was presenting. We had a small floor monitor in front of Scott that he could use and follow the comments and questions during his presentation. Our audience loved it, and they’ve retained a lot more of his presentation than sitting passively in the audience. In addition, Scott will tell you, that the rules of speaker-audience engagement have changed. He can tell if his audience is texting/twittering about him or they are involved in some other virtual conversation. He’s learned to read a new type of body language regarding texting and keep his audience involved.
    Listen up speakers; don’t drink Decker’s kool-aid. I’m looking for speakers that can engage an audience, provide content and a presentation for those present and my virtual attendees, and involve an audience with their mobile devices or laptops. I want people in my audience sending tweets, even tweets of disagreement, because they are documenting their point of view, engaging the virtual attendee and retaining more information. And, I’ve successfully attended conferences where I’ve been the one sending tweets, listening to the presentation, reading the slides and talking with virtual attendees. But according to Decker, I’m causing chaos.
    Decker’s comments against twitter and texting during a presentation smack of the old guard that has yet to adjust to new communication techniques. It sounds no different from college professors who refuse to allow laptops in classrooms, high school teachers that require all students to sit in desks lined up in straight rows and to be quiet and listen, and elementary school teachers to reprimand students for asking peers questions about what the teacher is lecturing. Large keynote presentations need to change because an audience is not really listening or retaining anything that is said anyway. Just because people are sitting quietly, hands folded in laps, does not mean they are learning. Quite the contrary, they are probably daydreaming.
    There is plenty of research that learners can only handle 10 minutes of a keynote’s lecture before they lose interest. Dales Cone of Experience, Howard Gardner’s education theory on how people learn, multiple intelligences and cognitive abilities, and Erick Jensen’s research on presenting with the brain in mind are all examples of how people learn and retain more information if they are actively involved than just passively listening. I guess if people can’t type, listen and read then they surely can’t write, listen and read. Texting and twittering creates a situation where the learner is actively involved and retention increases but according to Bert Decker, that’s chaos run amok. I guess CNN’s live streaming of the inauguration and Facebook texting is another example of Decker’s chaos theory. Just because Mr. Decker’s audiences can’t chew gum and walk, (listen and read), at the same time, does not make it so for everyone.
    Here’s where Decker and I do agree, if the audience is going to text, type or take handwritten notes, then it’s up to the speaker to engage that audience. Instead of frowning upon their use of mobile devices or writing negative blog posts about why Twitter won’t work in a presentation, why not take the positive approach and try it. It’s about the audience member anyway, not the speaker.

  12. Interesting post Bert…I agree with some of it, but also see some of Jeff’s point. I think he could have said it without being quite as incendiary…but it is an interesting aspect of communication. I like the idea of using the feedback that you can get from people twittering to see how effective you speech was and if there are parts of it that you have to change if people are getting bored.

  13. Thanks Travis. It would be good to get feedback, and the best ways to do that with Twitter will evolve. Right now I think the “Twitter Break” idea is worth pursuing, but I’m sure others will come to the fore.

  14. I’m on the same camp as Dahle, I see your POV but also agree with some of Jeff’s points (without the sarcasm). There’s no way to stop your audience from Twittering – it’s ‘note-taking 2.0’
    Having just returned from a social media conference (#digiday), I Twittered as it allowed me to add my perspective to what is being presented (regardless of anyone reading it or not as I’ll use it as my reference points later on). This in return kept me more interested and engaged than just listening.
    I was at a conference a while back and there was a heavy amount of back-room twittering. To alleviate the noise, the conference started live-streaming their conference # on a large screen. Quickly the back-room noise died down and tweets turned into a flow of highlighted take-a-ways and feedbacks/questions for the panel.

  15. I think the best way for a speaker to combat the fear or unease of presenting to an audience that tweets is to go to an event and tweet it yourself. I’m a speaker and journalist. As journos we are trained to listen and write at the same time. It’s a skill we work on. The best tweeters are doing this too, getting more out of the event, not less. I recently got back from an event where I live tweeted a couple of sessions. Why? Because I was so engaged. It was like taking short notes on the most important things the speaker said that resonated with me, I just got to share them in a public forum. I didn’t read the tweet stream or follow a powerpoint or large screen of tweets. It was just the speaker and those of us taking notes. My notes were occasional tweets. Someone else has said that as speakers we can write into our presentations a few tweetable lines. Thoughts that are 140 character consise, that make for a good tweet, and that we repeat, so they can tweet. I see this as a positive for a speaker. And I haven’t even addressed the backtory angle.

  16. Hi Indra-
    I was at that same session at Blogworld and I have to say I felt it was way more engaging. I am on the fence about giving a presentation with the twitter stream being projected. Seems distracting to all the points Bert discussed. I do really like it for panel board discussions. If someone is assigned (volunteer) this is a great way to keep folks on track.
    I am afraid we will not be able to stop folks from using twitter.
    Great post Bert!

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