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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Narrowing Gap between Face-to-Face and Online Presentations

Are people noticing this? It seems that face-to-face and online presenting are becoming more similar. Some aspects:

  • Wireless access is becoming more common in places where presentations occur. If you are a conference organizer and you don't arrange for wireless, be prepared for some negative comments. See Better Conferences.
  • A larger percentage of the audience these days brings a laptop to presentations and it seems that the factor of Laptop Distraction is quieting down.
  • If your audience is already on a laptop and connected wirelessly, then you can use techniques such as Twitter Conference Ideas with twitter as a back-channel or twitter to post links to the audience. You can get the audience to provide thoughts and suggestions just like chat online. In fact, this is on of my favorite things about online presentations (see Examples of eLearning 2.0 for how great the audience input can be). But now you can somewhat do this at Face-to-Face presentations.
  • It used to be that your online audience was distracted. Now your face-to-face audience may seem distracted as well. I had a recent presentation at a large corporation. 75% of the audience had a laptop. Some percentage of that audience was taking notes and chatting on Yammer. Some percentage was reading email. Hard to tell which was which.

The last bullet is probably the biggest change here. I'm used to presenting in-person where the audience is highly engaged, taking notes, etc. It was a bit different for me to see an audience looking at their laptops that much.

I've talked about this in Online Conferences and In-Person Conferences and made the comment that:

In-person conferences have an advantage of getting more attention from the attendees.

That's still probably true as there's a higher commitment level, but the gap is narrowing. Clive as points to this in Multitasking is now every presenter’s problem.

What struck me is how the gap is narrowing between face-to-face and online events. You could usually rely on a fully attentive audience face-to-face while bemoaning the ease with which multitasking occurs online. The reality is that the same phenomenon is now occurring in each setting.

What's interesting here is that it used to be that you could count on your in-person audience to be singletasking (is that a word?) and paying attention. Now, they are going to be multitasking just like your online audience. I've always said that one of the wonderful things about face-to-face presentations is that you can see your audience and get immediate reaction based on their faces. But what about when they are looking at their laptop? If anything it's worse than online. When you present online and the chat channel is active but on-topic, you feel you are doing good. When you are in-person and everyone is looking at their laptop, it doesn't feel good. Hmmm…

One last thought … I recently presented to a group of professional speakers about the use of social media. There was quite a bit of discussion around Face-to-Face vs. Online Conferences. I'm still of the opinion that Face to Face Still Matters. However, because of the dramatically different characteristics of Online Conferences and In-Person Conferences and because of the narrowing gap between face-to-face and online presentations – we will see a shift towards more online conferences such as LearnTrends 2009.

Update: Since this comment block is too small for such big questions, I've decided to make this the Big Question on ASTD for October 2009. You can find the question here:

New Presenter and Learner Skills and Methods

Feel free to comment here as well, but I'm hoping we will attract a few longer entries there.


Sue Waters said...

There's no reason why you can't see what they are doing while encouraging them be on-topic by using something like CoverIT Live displayed at the front of the presentation.

Using a hashtag you can set it up so that they can back channel within CoverIT live or use twitter and the hashtag to feed into CoverIT Live. This would provide for the live and virtual audience. With a couple of good moderators you could be responding to f2f questions and questions raised in CoverIT Live.

Off course to mix it up even more you could also be beaming out via tools like Elluminate or Ustream.

Obviously this means you need to be thoroughly organised and able to cope with multitasking as a presenter :)

Mike McC said...

Has anyone tested how much these multitaskers learn/retain? I suspect they learn/retain less than they think they do.

Tony Karrer said...

Sue - great point and I've certainly switched between slides and backchannel view during presentations. Most venues it's not easy to have both going. Sometimes it works out.

Then there's the whole issue of trying to multitask as a presenter. I'm still not there yet myself. I'm either in conversation mode or presenting mode - but I will lose my train of thought if I allow the backchannel to distract me - especially since that's actually more interesting than what I'm going to say (at least to me).

When I coach people on online presentations - I recommend they ignore the chat while presenting.

So maybe not a bad thing to flip back and forth.

Tony Karrer said...

Mike - great question!

I'm pretty sure the research suggests they will get less out of the presentation than people who are concentrating on it. And we know that people who take effective notes (written or electronic) will get more out - especially if they revisit the notes at a later time.

What I wonder is how much people who are multitasking including related conversations get from the presentation?

Ethan said...

I think you've done a good job defining the challenge, but think there are more solutions than just using twitter as the backchannel.

Thinking about how this applies internally my company, I have a couple of ideas of my own on how to control and or benefit from the laptops that people bring to your sessions.

WebEx is our online presentation tool of choice. If all of your participants bring a laptop, and join the web ex session while they are sitting in the room, you are able to run anonymous (or non anonymous) polls of your audience, which can be used to guide or shape your presentation. If you're in a teaching situation, you can quiz your audience using a similar method.

If you are concerned about multitasking during your meetings, simply ask people not to check email! You'd be surprised how a polite reminder at the beginning of a presentation can make a difference. You could even go so far as to show a screenshot of how to turn off Outlook alerts, so your audience doesn't get distracted by new messages.

Tony Karrer said...

Ethan - I completely agree with you that Twitter is only one way. Using WebEx (or other presentation tool) chat is great. Or using Yammer. Or ... there's lots of other tools as well for the backchannel.

Interesting point about asking people to not check email. I'm not sure how comfortable I feel doing that.

Love to hear thoughts on that.

Unknown said...

Very interesting observations.

I think this is another example of where trainers, facilitators, speakers, etc. have to personally and professionally adapt, be flexible and deal with the changing realities of a changing world. Isn't that what we want to help our learners achieve? These are 21st century literacies.

We also advocate being learner-centered, but I notice the pushback about giving over control to learners--including control over what they engage in during a f2f session--is often sounding very "me-driven" and instructor-centered. Also, most of the people I have personally talked to who declare multi-tasking in the presence of others to be "rude" do so in a very knee-jerk manner without any openness or interest in discussion and critical reflection about the issue, consideration of individual needs/differences/priorities or allowances for context and situational differences.

And, by the way: remember the Sesame Street studies? Pull out a copy of The Tipping Point if you need a refresher because Gladwell summed them up. Even preschool age children easily and naturally filter out the wheat from the chaff. They tune in to the important stuff and otherwise engage themselves so as to skip the filler. Studies showed the kids maximized their own learning this way.

I love the posts and discussions on this blog so much!

Jon Aleckson said...

Let's not forget that many people attending a conference F2F are recovering from travel. Listening skills are already at only 75%. Nothing like a bad economy to drive change. I'm sure the webinar providers are swamped!

Eric Wilbanks said...

I would like to point out another aspect that I think is missing from this discussion. The average "face-to-face" presentation is given at a rate of 120-170 words per minute. And while the data seems to be all over the board depending on which book or research paper you are seeing, there is no doubt about the conclusion: The human brain is capable of processing information considerably faster than 170 words per minute. So even in what we all assume is a “single-tasking” situation where the speaker has undivided attention, this too is a myth. Ask any pastor in America, who regularly presents to crowds an average of 100 times per year: Even the most astute and attentive listener is easily distracted by an underused brain. We are not only hearing the slow speech, but noticing every blasted movement and noise in the room, which is why (I believe) retention is often cited as being so low for speech only. Something to consider …

smccarty32 said...

It's Interesring you bring up coaching against paying attention to live chat while teaching. I've only recently taken my first class with live chat and I initially found it very distracting even as a student. After adjusting to the side conversations and seemingly disruptive comments I am now perfectly comfortable tracking the teacher as well as slides as well as live chat. I think Eric's point is a good one - we are capable of multi-tasking a great deal while learning.

I think the real issue is a more traditional one: some presentations are more formal and some are more informal. Multi-tasking is likely the latest ground rule presenters and instructors will have to define at the outset, similar to cell phones in recent years. In some cases it will be great to encourage it and in some cases perhaps not.

Anonymous said...

Multi-tasking while learning doesn't make sense. Learning requires focused attention.

Michael Eury said...

Well worth raising Tony. I am certainly seeing more 'independent learners' at workshops I run these days. In some sense people are creating their own informal learning framework and adding it across the top of the formal. That said, between Twitter and note-taking learners are in some sense distracted. On the other hand, perhaps the immediacy of the note-taking or tweet writing may assist (?) in embedding ideas more concretely? I recently read an interesting article that touches on the same idea (from a different angle) on Andy Nulman's blog, at

Owen Ferguson said...

This is a really interesting discussion and highlights one of the key challenges we face as learners and learning professionals over the next few years. I really don't think this is a groundrules, multitasking or best practice debate; it's about how well we understand how we (and others) learn.

Research by psychologists in Stanford showed that regular media multitaskers were more easily distracted than 'light' multitaskers. In addition, we know from cognitive load theory that excessive stimuli isn't particularly conducive to learning.

However, as Tony says, active note taking really helps with knowledge retention and the ability to fact check on the spot can add real benefits to a discussion.

The way forward with this is to help people to work in a way that best suits them by giving them the information they need to make an informed choice about how they want to participate. Setting groundrules and imposing constraints seems to suggest that we, as the learning professionals, know better than the participant how they learn best. I'm not sure that doesn't smack a little bit of arrogance.

Tony Karrer said...

Great discussion.

I tend to agree with those of you who are saying:

* What's effective will be personal.
* Helping and coaching people to learn how to effectively participate is important
* I think a lot of people underestimate the negative effect of multitasking, but often as presenters we over-estimate the value of what we are saying

I actually think there's more coaching and learning needed around options and effective practices. We all learned how to take notes in class. I've not really seen much in terms of teaching people how to do electronic note taking effectively. What's the equivalent of Cornell Style on a computer?

I've also not seen much about how this plays out when the notes are public.

The links that Michael and Owen provided are great. At first I didn't get the one from Michael. But it reinforces two things that I often mention during presentations myself:

1. If you're taking (effective) notes at my presentation, research tells us that you will get more out of it than a person who sits and listens.

2. If you spend all your time trying to frantically jot down every word on the slide (ineffective note taking), research shows that you don't learn as much. Oh, and here's how you get my slides.

Great stuff.

Robin McGuire said...

Actually, there is a report by the Department of Education showing their really is no difference between an online education and a face-to-face education. As technology grows so does the education around it and that is a good thing! DOE report.

Tony Karrer said...

Since this comment block is too small for such big questions, I've decided to make this the Big Question on ASTD for this month. You can find the question here:

New Presenter and Learner Skills and Methods

Feel free to comment here as well, but I'm hoping we will attract a few longer entries there.

Laura said...

I think the key might be to provide some interesting tasks that relate to the learning. I like the chat idea, where people can contribute and make comments even while the presenter is speaking. It becomes similar to the online conference or webinar. As long as the things that get a learner's attention away from the presenter are related to what they are learning, all will contribute.

The key to keeping the chat relevant will be to make it public! ;D

Tony Karrer said...

Great point. You really have to figure out how to make the interactions relevant.

Sue Waters said...

Yes I know late coming back to the conversation.

"When I coach people on online presentations - I recommend they ignore the chat while presenting" -- yes most people would struggle with the backchannel if they are new to presenting in a virtual classroom. Whereas I've been using virtual classrooms for elearning since 2005 and are also more use to multitasking.

Where ever possible I try to always engage the backchannel while also using lots of activities that get the participants to share their thoughts. Always helps if you have a second moderator who can be watching the backchannel and bring to your attention any aspects that are important.

Jake Coventry said...

Nice article. Really interesting point you made - "...because of the dramatically different characteristics of Online Conferences and In-Person Conferences and because of the narrowing gap between face-to-face and online presentations – we will see a shift towards more online conferences..."

Unknown said...

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