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Is “Back-Channelling” Good News Or Bad For the Public Speaker?


Whether you like it or not, it appears that the “backchannel” is here, and its use is only going to continue to grow over time. (The backchannel is the conversation taking place online while speakers are talking live, often via Twitter.) Wouldn’t it be wonderful for people to be tweeting great comments about your presentation both during and after you’ve delivered it? But then, what if the opposite occurs? What if the tweets aren’t so great, and someone starts making awful comments about your presentation online? What then? How do you control this? Is it possible?

Some speakers are even allowing the backchannel to be a part of their live presentations. Olivia Mitchell of Speaking About Presenting, a public speaking coach and consultant based in New Zealand, recently published a free ebook titled, “How to Present with Twitter (and other backchannels).” It’s an highly informative ebook that also serves to promote a larger publication by Cliff Atkinson, titled The Backchannel Book: How Audiences are Using Twitter and Social Media and Changing Presentations Forever.

With the opening up of the backchannel, finally, all of those folks trained via the National Speakers Association or Toastmasters are going to experience and have to learn to deal with the “classroom management” issues that school teachers have been addressing daily from the start of the profession itself. (Evil laugh!) Parts of this ebook really took me back fifteen years to my early experiences teaching high school.

Basically, there’s one primary problem with opening up a backchannel during a presentation, referred to in my recent blog post, “Constructive Criticism vs. A Communal ‘Lemon Squeeze.'” That is, when one or a few individuals are allowed make public negative comments, the collective negativity can grow and get out of control to the point where comments are not at all constructive for the speaker or remainder of the audience. They devolve, becoming simply mean, harsh, and useless. Unfortunately, as Ms. Mitchell illustrates, in some cases, the speaker loses their cool and the presentation is disastrous.

This can be prevented, and Ms. Mitchell gives several useful strategies for doing so in her ebook, which I recommend that anyone who might end up speaking with a backchannel read carefully. The only comment I would add is that instructing your audience in advance to give qualitative and specific feedback, whether positive or negative, will go a long way toward circumventing that problem. Comments like “that’s great!” or “that stinks!” really don’t say much when they don’t give a hint as to why. If you state your expectation that your audience be thoughtful and intelligent with their feedback, they usually will be.

But there are a lot more positives to using an open backchannel during a presentation. Here are several:

1) The speaker is forced to ensure that their presentation is relevant to their audience, or face the backchannel’s wrath! No lazy, ill-prepared presentations will be tolerated.
2) The backchannel allows the speaker an easy way to check in with their audience during the presentation to make sure the audience is still with them. For example, if there is a misunderstanding, the speaker will have the opportunity to clarify before the connection with the audience is lost.
3) The audience is can be more open with their speaker, which creates greater opportunities for clearer communication between the two.

With the right structure and preparation in place, any new technology can serve to open the lines of communication and understanding for everyone involved.

With more than a decade of experience, Lily Iatridis of Fearless Delivery knows the key elements in effective and engaging presentation, as well as how to support professionals in expressing their message clearly by giving them the “how-to” shortcuts, personalized instruction and even packaging their presentation for them if the need arises.

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