So what’s all the fuss about the backchannel?; Issue #208 April 20, 2010

PowerPoint Tip: So what’s all the fuss about the backchannel?

A lot has been written recently about incorporating the backchannel into presentations. If you aren’t familiar with the term “backchannel”, it refers to comments people in the audience are sharing with the world via Twitter and other social media sharing sites. In my opinion, all this talk has little relevance for most presenters. Here’s why.

First, in order to consolidate the comments about a presentation, Twitter users attach a hashtag to their tweet. Usually it is a tag associated with the event as opposed to each specific presentation. For example, all of the comments at last year’s PowerPoint Live conference were tagged with the #pptlive hashtag. This is now common with many large conferences. But that’s the thing. Only conferences assign a hashtag. There is no way every project update presentation, sales pitch, or training program in an organization is going to have its own hashtag. So for most presentations, the mechanism for consolidating comments doesn’t exist. And I don’t see most regular presenters creating a hashtag for every presentation they do.

Second, if you don’t have a large audience like a conference does, it becomes pretty hard to be tweeting while the presentation is going on. In a room of six people gathered for a presentation, if three of them were constantly tweeting on their phone or laptop, the whole meeting would fall apart. They are gathered there to exchange information and make decisions, not tweet. There is no place in most corporate presentations for tweeting.

Third, in most presentations, if you have a question or concern, you put up your hand and ask. If you agree with something the presenter said, you nod your head. You don’t whip out your phone to tweet about it. Most presentations work on interaction between the presenter and the participants, and between the different participants as they discuss the topic at hand. If you have genuine interaction, there is no need for a backchannel.

And I guess that’s the big problem I have in thinking that the backchannel applies to that many presentations. It assumes that the front channel, what you say in front of each other, doesn’t work. In a conference setting with hundreds or thousands of people in the room, the front channel is a challenge. But in my opinion, the number of presentations done in corporate meeting rooms, a training room, or in someone’s office is far, far larger than the number of conference presentations. Sure, conference presentations get more glory perhaps. But the majority of the real work of presentations gets done in smaller settings amongst people who are there to get work done and make decisions. In those settings, you can interact with your audience and engage them with conversation, so there is no need for a backchannel to exist.

The bottom line for most corporate presenters: Don’t worry about the backchannel, it won’t impact the presentations you do every day.