Monday, November 23, 2009

Backchannels: To Twitter During Presentations?

Some presenters like using Twitter and backchannels for participants while presenting, others do not. I believe the decision to use them should rest upon the circumstances of the presentation, content, style and outcomes of the presenter, and audience makeup - NOT upon a love for technology or a "I always use them" stance.

Regarding backchannels, this point is not up for debate:

Over the last twenty years, Meyer and a host of other researchers have proved again and again that multitasking, at least as our culture has come to know and love and institutionalize it, is a myth. When you think you’re doing two things at once, you’re almost always just switching rapidly between them, leaking a little mental efficiency with every switch. Meyer says that this is because, to put it simply, the brain processes different kinds of information on a variety of separate “channels”—a language channel, a visual channel, an auditory channel, and so on—each of which can process only one stream of information at a time. If you overburden a channel, the brain becomes inefficient and mistake-prone.

I appreciate that people like being able to talk with their neighbors and experience collaborative learning moments whenever they wish, but I appreciate creating the environment necessary for maximum retention and learning more than giving the opportunity for a freedom that, when used without knowledge of cognitive processing, can do more harm than good.

If one person is talking into your left ear while you carry on a different conversation - even if it on the same topic - to someone on your right, you stumble and are a less ineffective communicator. The same is true for reading or typing and listening to someone speak at the same same time. If the human brain (not just "some people") attempts to focus on multiple language sources at the same time, it fails, and it loses nuance and meaning from both point sources that are disseminating the content. And if either of the sources are delivering complex information, forget it, it gets worse. Brains must tune into one language channel at a time, or they are forced to toggle, bleeding a bit of comprehension with every jump. Try listening to two audio recorded lectures of university professors at the same time and you will hear what I mean.

In some circumstances, backchannel discussion can gash the body of the outcome the presenter is working to create. To achieve their outcomes, presenters rely on thousands of purposeful words, gestures, postures, volumes, tones, and visuals that work in sync with each other. Personally, in a presentation where I am there to create understanding on specific content within a short time (like a keynote), it is out of my integrity to create a back channel. Not out of opinion, but rather based on how humans are able to use language.

I am not saying that backchannel conversations cannot be useful or that people cannot learn anything from them. I am saying that when they are used simultaneously while a presenter is delivering, the presenter is being listened to and understood less. (Yes, I know sometimes this can be a good thing.)

Giving opportunities for people to have conversations both short and long, verbally and typed, written and drawn, one-to-one and in small groups, is really valuable for learning. It's just solid collaborative learning theory. But when we put complex and shifting dialogue on screen while someone is presenting complex information we are ignoring the capacity of possible attention in our brain.

If participants want to create a back channel within a presentation on their own, they should feel free. If they do this, it is a signal that one or more of several things are happening:

  1. The presenter is boring and the audience would rather engage with each other more
  2. The presenter's specific content is boring and they would rather go parallel on it or talk about something else
  3. The back channel people need to chat online to get their information load fix
  4. The back channel people are rude

Point number three is interesting to me right now, because online chat is a cultural phenomenon that has developed only in recent times. When I present in technologically undeveloped areas or with audiences who would rather not be on a backchannel, the audiences are often engaged at a higher level with my specific content.

I know there are presenters who have opposing experiences and will disagree with this. It is just that when I am presenting and ask a question or when someone in the audience makes a comment out loud and there is no backchannel pulling attention away from the conversation I am having in live air, everybody hears it and the response rate is usually higher.

The presenter is a channel. You get more viewers on a channel when you show better content, yes, and also when the other options are fewer. There can be value in limiting options. You can't eat all the food in your refrigerator before some starts to go bad. (Hungry.)

I have seen some presenters use back channels because they love technology so much that they can't see the forest for the luminous screens. They nobly want their audiences to be engaged, so they bring a backchannel into their presentations. But the forest the presenter is missing is an understanding of the brain's capcity to receive and comprehend information. Brains ability to give full attention is a limited bandwidth, not infinite. This is backed up by plenty of recent research on multitasking and processing channels (if you care to search).

Some presenters use back channels as a crutch in the same way that other presenters use their slides as more of a focal point than themselves. In these cases, why not just email the audience the PDFs and save everyone the tedium of your delivery?

Again, before all the All Backchannel All The Time people get defensive, please understand what I am saying: I like online conversations and I like groups of people to have them for learning. But there needs to be discernment in how and when to use them. This discernment comes from understanding how brains process information and what presentation means best support the dynamic's learning outcomes.

We can cry "Times are changing!" but it does not mean that all change is good (or that it just "is"). Some changes can and should be dissected and explored more deeply before jumping on the bandwagon. 

We all carry our own belief systems around that make sense to us, and one recent push in the live speaker scenario is that the use of backchannels is modern and about being "with it" technologically. Before blindly accepting this, I encourage all presenters to learn more about how the brain receives and comprehends information and how people learn best in different dynamics. There are times when backchannels can be useful and times when they can hurt the learning process.

In many cases I do use backchannels myself and love or hate them depnding on how and when they are used.


Jeff Hurt said...

Wow, that's harsh. I guess you don't want people taking notes during your presentation either. [BTW, I use Twitter to take notes during a presentation & then print my transcript afterwards using It also includes everyone else's tweets as well so I get a more diverse view of the discussion.]

Your definitive, authoritative attitude that you know what is right, best and perfect for audiences causes me to pause. As an event professional that has hired more than 2,500 speakers, I can’t risk having a closed-minded presenter like you in front of my audience.

There are lots of reasons to use back channels none of which you mentioned here. And there are lots of brain-based reasons to use it as well. But you are entitled to your opinion as this is your blog. No reason for me to even have an honest discussion with you about it because you've already made it perfectly clear, that if anyone is using a back channel during a presentation they are rude.

Sam Smith said...

Hi Steve,

First that I want to say that I respect you for putting your opinion out there.

Second, I think that you and I look at the backchannel a little differently. This is where we don't agree. I see the backchannel as an opportunity to give the audience a voice. Otherwise the only way you can get feedback is through clapping, some grunting, walking out of the session, falling asleep, playing with gadgets or by submitting a feedback form. Feedback as you know is an essential part of the communication process.

Where I live - most people speak english as a second language. While some of these people are good speakers - many of them are petrified to ask a question in front of the audience. they would prefer to type the question. The backchannel format - allows them to sensibly ask their question without being embarrassed.

Also - what happens when I have a question on the 3rd slide of your presentation that is 70 minutes long? Does that mean that i have to wait until you finish your 6500 slides before getting the chance to comment or ask a question? I will probably forget my question by that time. The backchannel allows me to ask the question when I think about it.

When it comes to learning - I would like to throw some facts your way:

(1) Most of what you communicate is done through non-verbals > your body language, your visuals, etc. Those fancy words account for a small part of the communication.

(2) We remember 20% of what we hear, 30% of what we see and 70% of what we do.

(3) E-learning experts have proven that using backchannel communications improve learning. Universities are starting to include these tools in their classrooms.

(4) Right now conferences are starting to see 4 generations in the audience. Each group has different communication styles, learning styles and learning needs.

So - when I think about learning and communication - I see the backchannel as an essential element in that process for conferences and large events. Otherwise - the conferences are just one way communication. The audience is too smart these days to put up with that.

Thanks for putting your opinion out there. Again, while I don’t agree - I respect you for making your argument.

Sam Smith
blog: http//

PS If you want to complain that the event organizers aren’t supporting the speakers properly or are not using the tool effectively then I agree with you. There is a better way.

Steve Arrowood said...

Jeff, I apologize for sounding authoritative. Please look past my inadequacies as a writer to get solely to my ideas.

The idea on this post was to push the misunderstood and more ignored point of view that backchannels can hinder a presentation. I know that that they can also help, depending on the outcomes. Perhaps I was too dramatic in my writing. I will look at that.

I stand by the research that says that our brains cannot comprehend multiple language sources at the same time - we must bounce back and forth. Taking written notes on spoken content is great, and when we write we do lose comprehension of other language sources that are occurring. So when we engage in thick conversation we lose meaning from the presenter, just as when we spend all of our time writing a narrative we do not understand what words are being said in the same room.

To further clarify, when I facilitate, I am not presenting. I am running workshops and not speaking as much to get ideas across as I am putting the audience into groups to converse and reflect and create together. I do this through online and off means.

Steve Arrowood said...

Sam, I agree that it is important for the audience to have a voice. I love it when presenters give a group that voice in a way that everyone can participate through open questions and elicitation of comments. I think backchannels are a great option for those who are too nervous to speak up in a large group, or for asking a question that one does not see as vital enough to interrupt the presenter. I also know learning happens through backchannels.

My main point is that when writing and reading occurs at the same time as speaking, it conflicts with the auditory channel. It is two 'presentations' occurring at the same time.

I am not saying that people do not like having a 'channel surfing' choice. I know there are many who would rather write and read to each other than listen/watch a certain speaker. I am saying that two language channels cannot be simultaneously comprehended and therefore meaning is lost - not 100% lost, but we must bounce between, picking up bits. A scrolling screen up front that occurs while content is being delivered is a problem if you want the presenter to be entirely heard and understood. This is the same as we cannot effectively read and write with any complexity at the same time. And I understand that we are often satisfied with getting some of the content and not all from a presenter, and we could get more from each other.

Regarding those ever-fluctuating statistics on remembering what we hear, say, and do, I think we should exercise caution with those stats and consider the dynamics of the situation. Sometimes it is mostly what we say - when we are in a class taking notes we are not writing down how the teacher moves or their tone. We are writing down verbal or written content that the teacher is delivering because that is what we know is most important to learn. But when we are speaking to a spouse about a sensitive topic, we are giving and receiving physical indicators that are crucial to maintaining relationship and reaching a mutually acceptable agreement that respects emotions. In those moments I would bet that what we will remember is the tone and and emotion read in the face of the other person. Am I being respected? Loved? Am I doing so for him/her? The verbal content can sometimes become less important than those things that are communicated more effectively by non-verbals.

The means by which we best remember content is based on personal learning style preferences. Kinesthetic and visual learning is more dominant than auditory, but there are people who prefer auditory and visual learning above kinesthetic. And remembering is not the same as comprehending or learning to apply the comprehended info.

I would be interested in seeing the specifics of those E-learning experts. It could be some new information that I would appreciate.

Anonymous said...

As someone who is not a speaker or presenter or whatever, I think that sometimes backchannels can be damn annoying and detrimental same as texting in class even if I was texting about the class. I know for one I have no idea what the prof was saying really when I am reading or writing. But yeah at the same time I guess I like having a backchannel available. I just think it should not always be there since it can take away from the point.

Jeff Hurt said...


Thanks for clarifying. We are on the same page about facilitating and presenting.

I read your post that you were discussing presentations coming purely from a one-way, vertical, sage-on-stage presentation, not the guide-on-the-side facilitator. I agree that in true facilitated sessions, using the backchannel is more challenging, if the facilitator is engaging the audience.

As for some of the research about online e-learning trumping face-to-face instruction, here are four docs to read:

1) US Department of Education's 2009 report that online learning better than face-to-face instruction

2) Real time face-to-face instruction versus online, polylogue discussions

3) How Supersynchrony, bending time and allowing increased data flow to attendee increases retention, learning and productivity from Dr. Davis Foulger

4) Research from Cisco's Hybrid event

Steve Arrowood said...

Thanks, Jeff. What I am really interested in is research on the use of backchannels as simultaneous learning channels and how they impact comprehension and learning. There are so many different types of events and 'presenters' (keynotes, public speakers, teachers, day long workshops, standup comedy, etc.)

Maybe this is still too new an area to have such specific research?

Michael McCurry said...

Steve, like Sam I respect you for putting your opinion out there and the truth is only from having different points of view can we all learn from one another.

That being said, I was shocked with the harsh and narrow opinion you expressed regarding using a "back channel" with events. There are many documented contexts, too many to list, where this communication channel has proved highly effective over the past year alone.

The average meeting attendee, in today’s business environment has a passion for interaction, collaboration and shared learning. The back channel enhancement provides all of those benefits and more. Like Jeff Hurt, I use the back channel as a way to take notes and also learn from other colleague’s perspectives on the content being delivered.

A Back channel is also a great way to create connectivity in a Hybrid event, where there are both virtual and live attendees. Regardless of whether the program is a lecture format, panel discussion, or roundtables, there is definitely value to its use.

I discern from your post that you are passionate about the work you do and that is great. I also understand that you feel strongly it’s important to understand how the brain works, when designing and delivering educational content. However, there needs to be a balance between the physiological and emotional needs of a presentation.

The fact is people go to meetings to network and interact with one another. As Samuel pointed out most events these days are comprised of people across many different generations, all with different preferences for communicating and learning. The days of the “talking head” are numbered, as most people don’t have the tolerance to sit quietly and listen for a long period of time to one person lecturing them.

So, in my humble opinion, I think you should consider the positive side to the back channel, and not just dwell on what you perceive to be the negatives. Perhaps the real issue here is not the back channel itself, but how it is managed by event organizers, as Samuel said.

Thanks for starting a very interesting conversation!

Steve Arrowood said...

Thanks for the comment, Michael.

I love conversation around how and why backchannels are valuable to live presentation and learning and how and why they can hurt. Regardless of some perceived opinion on this post, I am not oblivious to the value of backchannels.

I am calling into question how and why they are used. I take issue with people who say backchannels are only good all the time at any and all presentations. In my opinion, these people are not very aware of comprehension and learning dynamics, and are speaking their view from a view of solely their own presentations or events they do and attend.

I may be missing the "harsh and narrow" perspective I have written. My intention is to bring light to some research on how we cannot fully 'get' what someone is giving us on our language channel while we are 'getting' input from another source on the same channel.

Olivia Mitchell said...

Hi Steve

Fantastic discussion you've sparked!

I'm only superficially acquainted with the research on multitasking, but I think there's a distinction to make between inputs and outputs.

If I'm taking notes during a lecture then I'm taking in one input and producing one output. Taking notes seems to be generally accepted as an effective way of processing information.

My mother is a simultaneous conference interpreter. That means she has one input (in one language) and is at the same time producing one output (in another language).

So just from my own experience, although we may not be good at taking in two inputs, we seem to be able to input and output at the same time.

From reviewing backchannel conversations, it seems to me that when the speaker is compelling most tweets will simply be tweeting highlights from the presentation. This is pretty similar to taking notes. It's only when the speaker is less than compelling that the backchannel tends to become more conversational between backchannelers.

The backchannel is still pretty new for most people. Audience members are experimenting. Ultimately, each individual will find a balance between tweeting and paying 100% attention to the presenter which works for them.


Steve Arrowood said...

Olivia! Thanks for joining in. I always value your thoughts and love your blog.

Speaking, listening to speaking, and writing all use overlapping language processing regions in our brain.

The trouble with trying to input and output at the same time is when the content is different. For example, I may be able to translate what you are saying into Spanish via typing or speaking as I listen to it, but I could not effectively listen to you teach me how to correctly deploy a parachute while writing a research paper on Albert Mehrabian. I would have to toggle.

So while I totally am with you on the value of backchannel 'highlight' notes, the comprehension gap widens and we lose ability to multitask when both conversations (speaker and me, rest of audience and me) become more complex.

Michael Eury said...

Hi Steve
I agree with you that people tweeting during facilitated workshops may distract from learning, however there is still a part of me leaves some room for possible benefits. I present facilitated workshops and more straightforward presentations.
Over the last year I've certainly noticed an increase in the use of twitter during presentations, I like it and actually encourage it, sometimes using Twitterfall on a separate screen - I've found this to be positive. People's views add to the message I'm presenting, often providing relevant links for people to follow or raising worthwhile ideas.
I have also noticed some use (actually not all that much) of twitter during facilitated workshops. I have traditionally asked people attending workshops to turn their phone off, now however I just ask for silent. It's no big deal really, if I engage the group they learn and tweet, if I don't engage the group they tweet. In this instance I don't use Twitterfall as I think it would distract from activities and focus, but I really don't mind if during a formal workshop people simultaneously engage in less formal learning via twitter, it's all good!
I also wonder whether you can actually 'ban' the backchannel anyway? I think that if you did people would wonder why and then tweet anyway, and probably less positively.

Steve Arrowood said...

Hi Michael Eury!

So true, I would never ban it. That would be far too destructive. But I have talked about how language processing works as cognitive function, and how we have limited attention bandwidth in examples when I speak about communication. It is always well received because the groups that backchannel tend to be pretty educated and thoughtful, and I don't ever try to control groups (just influence).

An interesting piece of research I came across by David Meyer in the Brain, Cognition and Action Lab at U of MI was about the mild 'high' we get by constantly buzzing our brain with info overload. Doing this can condition our brains into a constant overexcited state that makes it harder to focus even when we want to. (Those of us who can no longer watch an entire movie or TV show without jumping back online may know what I mean.)

I appreciate it when people use backchannels to have conversation that reinforces or pushes the session's/work's content. 'Backchanneling' simultaneously and at complex involvement levels does reduce comprehension of anything else going on in the room.

With some basic information about how our brains work, we as teachers/trainers/facilitators/presenters can make the best choices about how to use backchannels.

Also, just to say again, if anyone finds specific research on their use and what effects they have on learning and attention, please let me know!

Bert Decker said...

Hi Steve,

Lot's of long comments. Need a little quick backchannel for that!

You got it right I think - much distraction and some good uses of the backchannel, mostly for collaboration type of communicating. So one must be discerning - rather than on the backchannel bandwagon.

Good insights. Thanks,


Steve Arrowood said...

Hi Bert.

I know, I have a lot of passion wound up in communication and how our brains work with regards to it.

Thanks for the comment and for recognizing the debate I am attempting to push (albeit sometimes clumsily).

Anonymous said...

KILL THE BACKCHANNEL! Focus people focus! Are we going to have a backchannel in church, and Congress/Senate, and soon in every comedy club just so everyone has to give their 2 cents on every little thing?