Backchannels at Meetings – Advantange or Risk?

Backchannel tweets

Ever since Cliff Atkinson’s book, “The Backchannel”, the implications for meetings and forums has taken a whole new twist both socially, and quite possibly, legally.  Meeting participants stroll in with their smartphones and tablets and are no longer sitting quietly taking notes during live presentations. Instead, you may find that you are feeding a “backchannel” where they are connecting with others inside the room and out.


So, here is the scenario.  You are giving a presentation or holding a business forum – the information you are providing may even be somewhat sensitive, or, you are dealing with a select group of people.  The doors may be closed, but the internet through social media is not.  Unless you have either made it clear through some form of confidentiallity entrance to the discussion or specifically requested a blackout of mobile, PDA or Tablet use, it is highly likely that parts of your presentation are being discussed or distributed outside of the room.

The use of Twitter as a “BackChannel” is widely now recognised.  Participants Tweeting interesting points to colleagues can be flattering, but have you got a handle on whats being sent or have you a way of tapping into the audience to further engage them.  Using Twitter as a social media tool within a conference has become a great way to do just that. But Twitter isn’t appropriate for every situation, especially if the information being presented is commercially sensitive. So, if you can pick up on the undercurrent – you have a greater chance of adapting and engaging when the backchanel comes up with – “I don’t understand.” or, “Why doesn’t he answer the question?”

So – what is the Backchannel – it’s everything going on in the room that isn’t coming from the presenter, where people ask each other questions, pass notes,  and give you the most immediate feedback you’ll ever get.  The advice of most professionals is – Don’t ignore the backchannel, leverage it. Tapping into the backchannel lets you tailor and direct your presentation to the audience in front of you, and unifying the backchannel means the audience can share insights, questions and answers like never before.

A backchannel wields power, but may represent the feedback of only a small part of the audience as a result, the backchannel can have disproportionate influence.  If you are distracted by only the opinion of one person, it’s unfair to the rest of the audience to devote a lot of time to the issue in the brief time of a presentation.

The advantages of using a closed system to encourage any comments, with dynamically engage participants and keep the material and discussion relevant.  It can also serve as an analysis tool to finetune future directions and even feed into business planning by being aware of concerns or questions raised by those interested in your product. You can even continue the discussion well after the event with those that attended.

By using tools like Twitter or other “closed systems”, create a bulletin board with either a moderator – or, display the comments directly so all can see and engage. The questions or comments may well be your best way of either addressing concerns or steering a concensus, or really tapping into the hearts and minds of your audience.

The worldwide web isn’t called “WWW” for nothing, and as meetings evolve and engage social media,  policies need to be developed  around how to behave online, confidentiality & disclosure. This should protect the company and individuals against any legal risks. There are legitimate legal concerns for the unauthorised backchannel.  Havinging information which is mistakenly believed to be “off-the-record”  retweeted,  can carry risks in legal eyes, and within competitive business practices.  While the backchannel can be a powerful tool, make sure you understand the game if you intend to use it – or, that it may already be happening without your knowledge.



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