Best Use of Twitter At Conferences: Change the Context

Combine technology, tools, and time and you eventually see dramatic paradigm shifts.  Obviously, social networking tools are shifting social norms around interaction, public and/or online.  An emerging area of “digital etiquette” that fascinates me is the use of Twitter and other micro-blogging tools while at a conference.1616049-2-cloud-vs-tweet-300x300

Why? First, because so many more people are doing it (Webber Shandwick study of top conference organizers puts it at 58%) and, second, because there are extremely passionate opinions on the pros and cons of live tweeting (check out interaction between Ira Basen and Joe Thornley from early 2009, or the banishing of live tweeting earlier this month in certain scientific conferences after Daniel Arthur’s coverage of a Biology of Genomes meeting; Martin Ebner also presents findings of a survey of attendees across five different conferences that demonstrate usage patterns).

Some say this behavior is both rude and a meaningless distraction, others swear by it and the new layer of interconnectivity these tools provide.  Clearly, it’s such a new dynamic we’re all just trying to figure how to best leverage it for greater creativity, productivity, and interaction.

I’ve been looking into this specific Twitter dynamic to learn and to push the conversation.  Analysis of live tweets generated during two very different conferences (Charlene Li session at SXSWi and Chris Brogan keynote at SOBCon09) showed most of those using Twitter were seeking to extend the reach and value of the event for themselves, others in the room, and those not in attendance.  Mike Edwards found similar activity in his analysis of tweets at the 2009 NonProfit Technology Conference–and he went further to identify the dynamic of “dominant hubs” in the form of two or three trusted Twitterers attending the conference.  

But, from a presenter’s perspective, the dynamic of having so many people heads down in a laptop (just like teaching a college course these days) computers-and-lecturewhile you’re presenting can be frustrating or distracting.  So, how do we harness the tools in a productive and creative way?

The more I look into this, the more I think it’s all about context.  When a conference presentation is prepared, set up, and delivered primarily for the benefit of the attendee and not the presenter, I think these tools become natural and integral to the experience.  Let me explain.

As creatures of habit, we learn appropriate behaviors for different situations.  Context matters.  If you don’t think so, try wearing your swimming suit to church next Sunday.  This demonstrates how the same behavior is both essential and offensive depending on when and where it is applied.  Duh.

A conference keynote–or even a breakout session–is a situation in which someone has prepared information to share with a large group of people.  Social norms put us in round tables (or lecture style rows) with attention focused on the speaker and visual aids (PowerPoint slides) on the screen.  Pulling out a laptop and connecting online feels odd and even disrespectful to the presenter.

Now, shift the context.  

For years in my career I’ve used various laptop-driven tools (WebIQ or ThinkTank or GroupSystems) for collaborative sessions with large or small groups.  frame1This is a situation in which a large group of people are assembled in the same type of conference set-up, only this time the presenter becomes a facilitator and attendees become participants.  The person at the head of the room still has important information to share, but the laptops in front of most everyone in the room are set up with the express intention of capturing live reactions, ideas, and feedback.  Suddenly, in this context, having a laptop open and connected online is integral to the success of the meeting.

What if we took this approach to presenting at conferences?  From the outset, explain to the audience the intent is to share important ideas for the purpose of getting your reaction and pushing the thoughts and ideas to a new place.  Embracing this both in what you say and how you present can dramatically shift the context for the presentation and remove the social norms fussing about the guy next to you opening his computer right as the presentation starts.

Isn’t this the same as what we’re telling brands to do now in letting go of the control they believe they have in their communications?  As a presenter, wouldn’t both our material and our audience be better served if we were to cede some control and hand it back to those in the room?  How much more would you get out of a keynote session in which the presenter asked you to weigh in and help shape the ideas and thoughts moving forward?

Obviously, this is a paradigm shift that requires different skills and preparation to be successful.  But that’s the point of new technology, right?  Push us to a new, and hopefully better, place.  

Several smart, experienced folk offer ideas around this area.  

And there are tons more.

The real breakthrough, though, will come when someone truly changes the context when presenting by acting like a facilitator rather than a speaker.  Just like we keep learning how to make better use of PowerPoint slides and/or other visuals when presenting… let’s see who can embrace micro-blogging tools like Twitter/FriendFeed to change the dynamic of conference presentations dramatically.

paradigm-shift-cartoonThat’s a paradigm shift I’m looking forward to, both taking the challenge as a presenter/facilitator and, most important, as an attendee/participant at conferences that will, in this context, be a lot more creative and productive.

What do you think?

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06 2009


  1. Consumer Centric » Blog Archive » Hurry… Ban Twitter! No… Don’t Try to Control, Find Relevance. 17 08 09

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