Book Review: The Backchannel

How to augment your live presentation using social media

Effective public speaking is a challenge for many executives. They must prepare interesting content, overcome stage fright and deliver a speech that will hold the audience’s attention. As if that wasn’t difficult enough, they are increasingly likely to find themselves looking out at a sea of faces illuminated by the glow of laptops and PDAs. Social media is invading the auditorium, and rather than tuning out while a speech is delivered, people are turning on laptops and cell phones to send out text messages, broadcasting to the world their opinions of a presentation.

Changing presentations forever

The BackchannelIn his new book, The Backchannel: How Audiences are Using Twitter and Social Media and Changing Presentations Forever, Cliff Atkinson explains how these new forms of online communication are shifting the rules of engagement between audiences and presenters. Instead of sitting politely until it’s time for Q & A, people are going online during the address to swap comments and opinions via an electronic backchannel.

At the very least, Atkinson claims, speakers and their communications support staff need to be aware that there is likely to be a backchannel in the room and learn how to monitor it or be left out of the conversation. Beyond this basic awareness, he encourages communicators to take the initiative and employ social media as an integral part of any executive’s presentation.

Practical advice

Atkinson’s book covers a lot of ground, from how to open a Twitter account to advice on expanding the conversation with the audience. He details how social media can transform a presentation from a one-off information dump into a longer-term relationship—one that starts before you step onto the podium. His advice includes:

  • Breaking a speech into “Twitter-sized chunks” to make it easier for people to post 140-character sound bites. One measure of success then becomes how many of these summary statements are posted and reposted online.
  • Using Twitter as a vehicle to extend your ideas to people outside the room, giving them a “virtual stage pass” to the event.
  • Creating instant polls using tools, such as Twtpoll and Poll Everywhere, to involve the audience.
  • Publishing a Presentation Home Page using wiki software. For example, I was inspired by Atkinson’s book to create listing my past and future talks. A Presentation Home Page is a convenient archive for reference material; blog postings; a Twitter feed; bio and contact information and more. This shifts the burden from overly busy PowerPoint slides as the sole way to communicate information. Also, by implementing a page like this prior to an event you initiate a backchannel that involves the audience, letting you gather comments and suggestions before you deliver the talk. After the event, the page becomes a repository for evaluation responses, blog postings, reference material and a transcript.

Double-edged sword

Atkinson acknowledges there are both risks and rewards involved in the backchannel. It enables people to connect online and become part of a shared community, but at the risk of leaving out those who are unaware of what is happening. It gives the speaker a way to reach a wider audience, but at the risk of distracting the smooth delivery of material. It provides an archive for comments and opinions, but a series of 140-character notes can lack context. And there’s the very real risk that the comments people make on Twitter might lack civility and shock presenters with their sometimes brutal honesty.

A two-way conversation

Though this approach is not for everyone, Atkinson describes a potent way in which social media allows a (frightening?) new level of transparency that speakers can use to transform a one-way stream of communication into a dialogue with the audience—before, during and after the speech.

The Backchannel might not bring welcome news to presenters who are wedded to the old school ways of controlling audience response and involvement, but is clearly shows how you can magnify the impact of a speech using social media.

So, in the spirit of the book, what do you think are the risks and rewards of a social media backchannel? Leave your comments below or tweet them with the hashtag #backchannelbook.

This review was originally published in

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Here’s an article by Jeff Havens who lists 5 reasons why it’s not a good idea to tweet during a presentation.

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