How to avoid the Audience:Presenter Disconnect

Published Monday, October 18th 2010

A 11 minute read 3.2k words

I've just finished two fantastic days at Web Directions South, a conference that has great organisers, great participants and largely informative and inspirational presentations from experts in their respective Web disciplines from around the world.

There's a full wrap up coming shortly with my views on where we're going and the biggest topics of the conference but that's not what this post is about.

Most conferences these days have a twitter backchannel usually revolving around the hashtag of the presentation or the conference. For Web Directions this was #wdx. This means the conferees can focus their messages and you end up with conversation and often with a semi-live transcript of the presentations with insights that people not attending the conference can view at the same time.

Over the course of WDX the backchannel was largely positive with nearly 3000 tweets in two days from over 500 contributors. This highly engaged audience is much more "tweet-happy" than any other conference I attend over the course of the year.

At two points during the conference though, the mood turned bad - the closing keynotes of both days. The backchannel created a feedback loop of negativity that created a unruly mob. This isn't unique to WDX, I've seen it have a few times now - a real time back channel can significantly amplify the point where a speaker loses their audience and this is what I call the Audience:Presenter Disconnect - the moment where the two occupy the same space and time but two entirely different activities are occurring.

At this point I'm going to point out that I am a speaker, I've presented at Web Directions previously and some other conferences large and small. The thought that an audience could turn on me like this makes me feel sick thinking about it but hopefully this gives me a perspective that can explain the behaviour and provide thoughts on how to combat it as a speaker.

Why the back channel turns feral:

The backchannels can turn feral for a variety of reasons, but here are some of the main ones I've seen.


I've seen this happen in numerous presentations and is simple "Idle hands doing the devil's work". This sounds like a ridiculous explanation but I think it counts for a lot. Conferees come expecting to mostly be informed - entertainment is a bonus but mostly it's about information delivery.

I sat through one of the most awful presentations of my life at the CIO summit earlier this year and no one turned on the speaker because as bad as his presentation was, his information was brand new and clearly understood by the audience.

If you are providing a solid stream of information, your audience won't have time to do anything other than process the data and concentrating on shaping your messages into 140 character bursts of insight and throwing them to the wind.

A great example of this was Simon Pascal Klein's presentation on Web Typography. His presentation wasn't the most entertaining but it was one of the most information dense of the conference but was paced well. The volume of messages flying out was consistently high during the whole session. The overall sentiment was of extreme positivity and he will get a lot of deck downloads afterwards.

Dan Rubin, Dmitry Baranovskiy and Matt Balara were other positive highlights because of the amounts of information packed into their presentations.

If your presentation lags in terms of its information density people start thinking "why am I here?" and start saying as much.

Misjudging the audience

At any technical conference, be it Web, engineering, medicine or otherwise a speaker should never underestimate the knowledge of their audience. A conference is a place for people of similar interest and skill level to swap information and learn from others so the whole group improves over time.

The biggest danger a speaker has is pitching low - better to go high and force some of the audience to "step up" their knowledge afterwards rather than go low and appear patronising. Dmitry Baranovskiy and Steve Souders both did excellent jobs of this - loads of people walked out of their sessions saying "wow - that will take me a while to digest" but no one walked out saying "I knew all of that, what a waste of my time".

As a speaker at a technical conference you are either there to inspire generally such as Scott Thomas did with his Designing Obama opening keynote or more likely you are there delivering knowledge as a "First amongst equals" like Dmitry, Steve Souders and Daniel Davis did. The best presenters I've seen do this (and all these three did it) and take the attitude of, "I found something you might think is interesting, check this out".

I spoke to Steve Souders after his talk about some of the content and his results. Even one-on-one I found him to be extremely humble and willing to listen to some ideas that might help him from some random guy even though he's written the books on site performance.

Everyone is a specialist at something but in the development and design of the web we're all technical peers and behaving like one gains a lot of positive sentiment.

The feedback loop

The twitter backchannel moves quickly, if you are sitting in the audience with a laptop or iPad (that is, any device where you can consume and contribute very quickly - phones are a lot slower in this regard) the conversation is reacting in as close to realtime as possible with only seconds passing from a speaker making a point or displaying a slide and feedback appearing upon it.

Again, where the speaker is informative or entertaining you see a feedback loop of positivity - someone tweets quickly and a slew of people retweet the original or add further comment. Ben Schwarz' presentation on Thursday had a lot of this - he was making some fairly controversial statements about the W3C and as it was delivered well he received an immense amount of "yes I agree" style responses. The audience was onside and he turned that into action by illustrating how he stopped bitching and started doing - launching the HTML 5 spec for Web Authors during his presentation, possibly the most highly shared piece of content of the conference. We had to follow his actions with our own.

Contrast this with the closing keynotes. Once people started making negative comments, more people retweeted or chimed in on the "I agree" bandwagon.

One of the presenters got a lot more pointed criticism at his presentation because the audience was mis-sold. The session was "Where are we going?" but spent 30 minutes on "What has influenced where we are going?". The audience got grumpy. To Josh's credit his last 10 minutes were inspirational and gave us a future vision of location services - the audience rallied around him and he managed to largely turn them back onto his side by the end.

The backlash backlash

The feedback loop is a fickle thing and it can turn positive or negative very quickly. An interesting side effect is the "backlash backlash". This is the equivalent of a Cnut moment where several people start trying to stop the negative loop by saying "hey it's really hard being a speaker give the person a chance" or "I don't see you standing up there - put up or shut up".

Unfortunately this typically fans the flames and it was interesting to note that neither Maxine or John from Web Directions waded in during the presentations or afterwards which is a great approach for the following reasons.

As a speaker if I screw up I'd like to know about it afterwards. A tweet transcript is a great way to get feedback about a presentation. I can review it over time compared to my deck and see what was a problem. Likewise, I have the right of reply. If someone's said something you can bet I'm going to answer them later.

Because of it's immediacy, even with the dangers of the feedback loop, twitter is a very good release valve. On stage you can feel the audience's attitude, whether they are engaged and watching you or whether they are talking amongst themselves. Scott Berkun in his book "Confessions of a Public Speaker" talks about this a lot.

This creates its own feedback loop as positive audiences provide energy to the speaker but negative ones sap it. In my view Twitter provides a valve that stops negative feedback washing onto the presenter and causing them to do worse.

This means that at a high point the speaker can still turn the audience onto their side and get the positive effect rather than going flat. Josh Williams' presentation showed he had "some left in the tank" towards the end and finished very well because of it.

What can you do as a speaker?

As if standing in front of several hundred people wasn't harrowing enough (I even get physically sick from nerves), as a speaker you now have the backchannel to worry about and whether or not you'll be eviscerated on twitter. Below I've got some thoughts about what can you do to stop the Audience:Presenter Disconnect and create positive feedback in the back channel.

Focus on speaking not the back channel

One of things I love about Web Directions is that it doesn't display the twitter stream during sessions. This stops the feedback loop going out of control and influencing non-tweeters in the audience and allows the speaker to focus on delivering their presentation not splitting their attention between the two.

If you are presenting, find out whether the feedback loop will be shown and if you aren't comfortable that you can zone it out of your awareness insist it's turned off. Say to the audience you have a really low attention span and you'll watch it instead of delivering your presentation - they won't care as they can still see it via their clients anyway.

Engage the back channel before the session

Craig Mod gave an excellent presentation on how Digital affects books & publishing. One of his most interesting ideas was this notion of the "Immutable Artifact" - in his case a book. I would suggest a presentation is an Immutable Artifact; it's almost impossible to change once you've started delivering as it's scripted and tied to a deck.

However, Craig talks about how the lines of the immutable artifact can be blurred by getting contributions before it's creation. This can be done through various channels beforehand asking what people want to know about before you construct your presentation. Afterwards it's about taking feedback and commentary and working it back in whether by adding appended notes when you upload it to Slideshare or by reworking parts for your next presentation.

Conversing with your audience before hand connects them to you more closely and gives you humanity through prior engagement - it's harder to lay into someone you "know".

Deliver information first, entertainment second

I made the point earlier that I've seen some horrific presentations but they were so information packed and thus valuable. Any presentation that is remotely information led, imparting knowledge from your brain to your audience's with some nuggets of insight should put the information delivery first and worry about the entertainment second.

Some presenters are witty and full of energy, bouncing around on stage and can talk without notes. At WDX, James Bridle did this, so can John Allsopp. If you can't present like this, don't even try. I am so nervous during a talk that even if I had a perfectly scripted joke it would come off flat and fail dismally. Steve Souders' presentation was information dense, it wasn't comical or witty but it was an outstanding presentation and his is well worth watching and learning from in terms of style.

Contrast this with one which has very little information density and is trying to be entertaining by showing videos and funny pictures or cracking jokes. It comes off poorly for being vacuous and the audience feel ripped off for having sat through it.

At a conference the audience is paying for the speaker to inform them. Entertainment is a nice surprise when it happens. If I want to be entertained by people on stage I'll go to a concert, the theatre or see some stand up comedy. Conferences are a different context and one that all technical presenters should consider when creating content.

Delivery of information will stop the "Just get on with it" or "Tell me something interesting" type chatter in the back channel. If you create a steady stream of points people will be so absorbed taking notes and passing on your insights they won't care if your slide is out of alignment, you fumble some words or haven't told a joke.

Consider points that can be tweeted

I hate this idea as it's a sign of our waning attention spans but it's a fact of life so you either roll with it or stick your head in the sand. Our communications are turning into microbursts of activity. When you take notes at a conference you note the points not the words, when an audience member tweets, they compress and express the insight, not all the details.

If you are taking a long time to get through a point or have made the same point ten times the audience is going to start getting frustrated as they have stopped annotating your talk. This is complex because sometimes you have to build a story to illustrate a point. The challenge is to get there quickly and avoid the "I wonder where this is going?" style comments.

Something I've started doing recently as a result of observing my own behaviour at conferences is reviewing every slide I'm presenting and expressing it as a tweet or short annotation. If I can't, or it takes me a paragraph to express then it's a problem and I can try and fix it. If your presentation has gone more than about 3-4 slides (about 2-3 minutes) without something tweetable or notable then you're on the limit of the audience's attention span wavering.

Unfortunately, Tim Harrison suffered from this heavily - in 50 minutes I tweeted only a few points he'd offered and didn't write any notes. Contrast this to Simon Pascal Klein's presentation where I sent 20 tweets AND wrote 3 pages of notes! Craig Mod similarly scored 15 or so tweets and a few pages of notes as well.

We live in an age of soundbites and 140 character points - make it easy for your audience to rebroadcast your message and they will.

Don't go silent

This is a strange one that I've just realised due to seeing a series of videos used in a talk. Video is a powerful medium if it's used well and I've come to the conclusion that the only time you can use it is if you are providing a commentary or it is extremely short (I'm guessing less than 20 seconds).

Steve Souders and James Bridle did excellent presentations incorporating video - not least because they were showing things that were relevant to the presentation but they were annotating the moving image with their own insight.

Scott Berkun writes about the moment when hundreds of people channel their energy directly at the speaker - which can then be harnessed into your presentation. Directing that at a 3 minute video when you're not speaking squanders that energy and turns your presentation into a cinema experience.

Challenge the common view and provide more than Google

One of the most common tweets to start a negative backchannel looks like this - "You need to consider X when you do Y - yep we've all got it lets move on". This often happens when a speaker dumbs down for their audience who consequently get bored of a point that was made in 30 seconds but is taking another 5 minutes to deliver.

Assume that over half the audience know close to as much as you do in your topic area. You're the specialist but only by a small amount. Also assume that the other half are more than capable of understanding what you're talking about and will be inspired enough to go and find out more because of the information you've delivered.

If you follow these two assumptions then you won't belabour a point or regurgiate information that can be found with a google search.

Ben Schwarz' presentation on HTML 5 showed this beautifully as the information he delivered in the second half of his talk was almost impossible to find. In 20 minutes he aggregated months of work into simple points everyone could take away and research further. Dan Rubin and Steve Souders did the same thing - is it any wonder their resource links on their last slides were some of the most shared pieces of content of WDX.

A great way to avoid this is to test your presentation on other people. Steve Souders' presentation showed this - it was honed so there was nothing superfluous. User testing is always a worthwhile thing to do.

Don't disrespect the audience

This goes without saying but it's a minefield. Disrespect can come out in a lot of different ways, lack of preparation, appearing bored or not giving your audience enough credit. Again, testing your subject matter and the way you're going to deliver is well worth it here. I've pulled slides numerous times because of feedback that it was pitched too low.


There are plenty of much better speakers and presenters than I am or ever will be - I work with at least two and I am in constant awe of people that can deliver amazing presentations effortlessly to any sized group. Conversely, I don't think I'm the worst speaker or presenter ever - mostly because I am so nervous that I don't lack for preparation - I literally have backups of backups of backups to account for things going wrong.

I don't know whether the things I've written about here are right, or if they are right for you. They work for me, it's how I approach a presentation and if they help you out too that's great.

I think I have a unique perspective because I present and also a vocal and active member of the backchannel at any conference - it's what I do. I think the backchannel is a great method for freeing information and catapaulting it outside of the conference hall, promoting the work of the presenter to others that couldn't be there who can in turn pick it up and amplify it.

An audience doesn't come to watch a presenter fail. They come to be informed, to hopefully be entertained but mostly to go away feeling as though the presentation was worth the money it cost and the time they invested to view it. Twitter can be a powerful amplifier of your message if you can get the backchannel working for you - unfortunately it can also go negative but at least now you know the reasons why and how to prevent the Audience:Presenter Disconnect from happening before you've even stepped onto stage.

Title image by Martin Fisch

"How to avoid the Audience:Presenter Disconnect" by ajfisher is licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 International License.

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