Meet a Presenter's Nightmare (or Friend): The Backchannel

In his new book, “The Backchannel: How Audiences Are Using Twitter and Social Media and Changing Presentations Forever,” Cliff Atkinson provides an example of the effect that a Twitter-enabled backchannel (an online conversation between audience members) can have on a presentation. At last year’s South by Southwest Interactive festival in Austin, Tex., Pam Slim led a panel discussion titled, “From Blog to Book Deal.” The panel consisted of Hugh MacLeod, Guy Kawasaki, Stephanie Klein and Kate Lee. Kawasaki turned to the topic of getting book deals without having to write a proposal. Lee started to respond that not everyone has that opportunity when Kawasaki interrupted. Moderator Pam Slim studied the tone and body language of the panelists and determined that Kawasaki didn’t overstep his bounds.

But audience member Whitney Hess saw it differently. “She felt that Guy was being chummy with the other male panelist, and now he was aggressively taking over a female panelist who was not challenging him on it,” writes Atkinson. Hess tweeted that Kawasaki started taking over the panel when he told Lee to let him finish talking. Demonstrating the power of the backchannel, Kawasaki was monitoring Twitter from his laptop and saw Hess’ comment. “I want to know who Whitney Hess is, because she just said I’m being a total dick. What is this?” he asked.

Atkinson defines the backchannel as follows:

A backchannel is a line of communication created by people in an audience to connect with others inside or outside of the room, with or without the knowledge of the speaker at the front of the room. Usually facilitated by Internet technologies, it is spontaneous, self-directed, and limited in time to the duration of a live event.

The backchannel can either be a good or bad thing, depending on how the presenter and the audience use it. Presenters can use the backchannel to extend a presentation and engage the audience inside and outside of the room. The backchannel can also destroy a presentation when the audience posts negative feedback online for the world to see, or changes the mood in the room entirely.

Atkinson’s book covers in details the risks and rewards of the backchannel, explaining the different types of backchannel that can affect a presentation. These help the presenter understand what they are getting into when they join or discover a backchannel. He demonstrates how to prepare for a backchannel, and how to integrate Twitter-friendly ideas into a presentation, such as creating a hybrid of presentation and conversation, taking “Twitter breaks” and involving the audience through Twitter and the Internet.

He also shares a variety of real-world examples and how the speakers handled them. Atkinson tells Chris Brogan‘s story of having to deal with an unruly backchannel from the presentation prior to his. Brogan changed his introduction to post the backchannel on the screen. He opened with a few lines of rap and managed to loosen up the audience with laughter.


“The Backchannel” targets presenters more than audience members, although audience members can also benefit from the book’s insights. The next time you make a presentation or join a panel, you can either be prepared for the backchannel or let it take over. If you want to be prepared, “The Backchannel” gives you the guidance you need.

What is your experience with the backchannel?