Many of us would remember the recent story of Danah Boyd who had a humiliating experience at the New York Web2.0 expo in late November. This resulted from the criticism and harsh comments displayed via the live Twitter stream at the event. So whilst the audience were watching this story unfold, Danah had no idea what was going on as the Twitter projection was behind her. You can read about her experience here. Since this incident I have heard of a number of speakers who are refusing to speak at events with live Twitter streams projected or even more extreme refusing to speak publicly at all.
Reading about Danah’s experience I noticed the resulting ‘humiliation’ was really caused by a number of events which culminated in the harsh Twitter stream. Danah’s experience was not pretty but we must remember it is an exception.
I have recently be part of a number of conferences organised by my workplace and been party to some of the ‘insider’ workings. In addition, I have had the opportunity to speak myself at a number of events over the past couple of years. From these experiences I was struck that the primary issue in Danah’s case was not the Twitter backchannel (it was just the manifestation of the result) and that the incident could have been mitigated and perhaps avoided altogether. The issue is one of responsibility – from the event management perspective and the presenter’s perspective.
For event organisers
1. Communicate, communicate, communicate
Event organisers need to communicate extensively with presenters. From the outset presenters should be provided with a speaker pack of information to ensure they have a sound understanding of the event and the audience. As the event nears, organisers need to communicate more frequently in regard to the venue setup, available technology, and expectations of the presenter on the day they speak. A contact person both prior to and at the event is also critical. By providing a positive (and easy) experience for the presenter you will assist in ensuring they are comfortable and prepared – which will ultimately result in the delivery of a better session.
2. Create the stage for the speakers
Make sure the environment allows presenters to perform at their best. At Web2.0 expo, there were three venue issues that contributed to Danah’s unpleasant experience:
* the Twitter projection was located behind the speaker – if there is to be a live Twitter projection ensure the speaker is able to see it also. They may not be able to follow but through the stream movement will get a sense of twitter participation.
* the venue lighting – Danah was unable to see the audience which caused issues in regard to her not being able to read visual cues from people and isolated her on stage. Ensure adequate lighting so the presenter can engage with the audience.
* appropriate equipment – ensure the speaker has access to the right equipment to allow them to perform at their best. If the podium is not angled ensure there is a document stand nearby for paper notes, if speakers are required to use venue laptops ensure there is one available prior to allow the speaker to play if it is an unfamiliar piece of equipment.
All of this resulted in the speaker being ‘disconnected’ from the audience and contributed to causing the incident.
1. Understand and know your audience
In my (brief) experience, many speakers often present the same (or very similar) content with minimal adjustments regardless of event or audience. As a speaker it is your responsibility to ensure you understand the event you are presenting at. Familiarise yourself with the program to see how your content fits in and most importantly ensure you have an understanding of the audience you are delivering to (this is obviously a shared responsibility between the speaker and event organiser).
2. Turn up early on the day
At the events I recently attended, the requirement of the presenter was to arrive a minimum of 20 minutes prior to their presentation. 20 minutes is not enough. I appreciate it is not always possible but speakers should ideally arrive at least 2 hours prior to their presentation. This is important for two reasons:
*to have sufficient time to become familiar with the venue including the space you will be presenting in and the available technologies;
*to attend another session and/or break to gauge the energy at the event and its’ participants.
The exception to this is of course if the speaker is delivering the first presentation of the day or the whole event however the speaker is still responsible for ensuring adequate familiarisation.
3. Be flexible
As a presenter it is your responsibility to be aware of, engage with and respond to your audience. If you are midway through delivering your session and you have a sense it is not working or there is unrest in the room – acknowledge it (at least to yourself) and do something about it. You should be professional enough to be flexible in your approach and be able to adapt to your situation in order to deliver the best results for your audience.
To sum up: Be prepared!
Perhaps if all of these things had occurred at Web2.0 expo Danah’s experience may have been quite different. But more than that, we can all learn from the experience and ensure we mitigate the risk of it occurring again. So speakers out there who do not want to put themselves back in the public forum, I encourage you to get back on the horse as you have significant control to not befall a similar fate – Twitter backchannel or not.