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.