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Thursday, October 29, 2009

Presentation Backchannel Multitasking

Some great responses to this month's big question New Presenter and Learner Methods and Skills.  I'm learning a lot from the posts.  A few random reactions and a few of the nuggets I've pulled out from the discussion.

Caveats to Multitasking is Generally Bad for Work and Learning

See my post on Multitasking for a summary of this.  Or better, take a look at Ken Allan - Binge Thinking.   Or Clive Shepherd's How should presenters address multitasking? simple statement:

Multitasking is an illusion – we are simply not capable of doing it.

But some caveats to this general rule.


Doodling and Notetaking are good.

Binge Thinking

I have learnt to take notes while giving nearly full attention to a presentation. It’s one multitasking practice that I’m good at.

Better Presentations = Less Multitasking

A log of the responses point out that a distracted audience is first a symptom of the presenter's ability to engage the audience. 

Kristine Howard October Big Question

If you are going to present online or in person, do what it takes to do it well.

Clive Shepherd - How should presenters address multitasking?

  • The very best presenters will always hold attention.
  • Presenters tackling issues which are highly relevant to the participants will always hold attention.

Be Aware of What the Audience / Learner is Doing

Multitasking learners? Opportunity, not threat

I may very well be back channelling, bookmarking, googling, or even writing notes in my blog a a draft.

I like learning through dialogue. I enjoy the conversation around what that sage on the stage is talking about.  My “multitasking” devices are a way to have that without being disruptive, so I’m not convinced they are a bad thing, just a reflective tool.


If a presentation is not engaging me, I will multitask in a less presenter pleasing manner, and by that I mean I may do some admin, catch up on what’s been going on.

Claudia Escribano: Presentations Re-Imagined

Why do people multi-task?

  • They’re distracted by other obligations.
  • They’re bored.
  • They’re sharing your presentation with their network.
  • They feel they learn better when they’re flitting between several activities.

Which several of these lead into the following.

Plan Better and Communicate Expectation with the Audience

I think Max Bezzina What presenters could do when the audience multi-tasks says it well:

Embrace the fact that people will be tempted to multi-task. If this is an issue for you and/or for the success of the presentation, tell them about it in the beginning of the presentation.

Kristine Howard October Big Question has some great specific suggestions:

  • If you can’t handle the constant laptop action while you are speaking, say so. 
  • Don’t dictate, but negotiate a reasonable solution with your audience of adults.
  • If the backchannel doesn’t bother you as long as it stays in the back—for instance, you’d love a transcript for the evaluation aspect but can’t be involved with it while you are presenting–say so. 
  • Suggest a hashtag for tweets right at the beginning and then move on and let it take care of itself. 
  • Ask for a show of hands whether anyone is going to publicly share a summary or comprehensive notes via a blog (just like you share whether you will be providing copies of your materials). 

Rani Gill: Social norms, expectations, attention, a game?  also has some great suggestions:

  • Establish a new norm in your learning environment – via ground rules or other means. Discuss and create the norm up front.
  • Discuss how the backchannel can be used. What appropriate to say and not.
  • Expect the back-channel conversation – bring it to to the foreground occasionally during the presentation or have someone moderating it and bring it up.
  • Give the audience the #hashtag so you can let them know that you  know and so that you can follow.

Claudia Escribano in Presentations Re-Imagined really provides an interesting way to handle this including asking people to volunteer to be distracted.  Interesting thought.  See her post for more detail than I'm providing.  But I really like the thought and a good way to help establish the norm along the lines of Rani's post.

Tell participants upfront that your presentation is a little different from what they may be used to. It’s not just you talking to them; it’s a total participatory event in which everyone plays a role. Then present the roles and ask them to identify what role they’d like to play:

  • Listeners
  • Sharers
  • Note-Takers
  • Questioners
  • Activity Leaders
  • Distracted People

You could ask for a show of hands for each role. Or you could set aside parts of the room for each role and have people select their role as they come in and sit down.

This idea is somewhat echoed by Geoff Cain 

You are still thinking of this as a problem instead of an opportunity - you have to learn how to harness the Google jockeys and tweeters.

Clayn suggests:

Each class period I randomly select a student to be the back channel moderator for that day. I see the moderator as filling the same role as an assistant sitting on the phone during an auction. They act as a proxy, voicing the bids of individuals over the phone. The back channel moderator will strive to respond to comments made, if they can, or voice the question -when appropriate - for general class consumption. Not only does this free me from trying to do this myself, it forces students into a more active role in the classroom.

Great idea to assign moderator to someone else during the session.  This is maybe a role to add to the list the Claudia gives.  And directly addresses the concern raised in Multitasking learners? Opportunity, not threat

I have presented online without a moderator before, and after a reasonable amount of experience, still find it hard to listen and read a backchannel, or talk and read a backchannel.

Which is how I feel.  In fact, that's often my recommendation to anyone presenting at an online event.  Of course, I'm moderating in most of those cases for people.  When I myself am presenting, I know to ignore the back channel for periods of time and then tune back in.  But having assigned a moderator, I can quickly ask them for help with what I should address.


My general sense is that people are split on whether "bad" multitasking is disrespectful. 

Multitasking learners? Opportunity, not threat

I’ve heard many trainers complain online that it’s disrespectful to them when people multitask. I counter that it’s disrespectful to learners to present something that does not meet their needs, not wonder why they are not paying attention, then get offended when they don’t listen.  If people aren’t paying attention, or multitasking in a bad way, it shows you that something isn’t working, and if handled well, can perhaps highlight some areas for improvement, whether they be with you, the content, the venue etc.  It may also highlight that sometimes life just takes over and it’s got nothing to do with you as a presenter.

Clive Shepherd - How should presenters address multitasking?

I don’t mind this as long as they are polite about it: show some interest when the presenter starts up; look up and smile once in a while; try not to look as if the presenter has somehow intruded on your personal office space. Personally, if I’m paid to speak, I’ll put up with a lack of politeness; if I’m not, I’m quite prepared to walk off. Life’s too short.

What I recently saw was the audience being much more upset than the presenters about backchannel discussions that are straying being rude.  I prefer an active audience myself.  Of course, there are boundaries such as being offensive to the presenter in any backchannel.


Harold Jarche said...

I agree with Kristine & Clive. When people are engaged there is no multi-tasking. Just look at anyone playing a computer game. They are totally immersed in the process. If learning activities were like this, we would not need to have this discussion.

During a recent presentation by Peter Senge, I decided to live tweet the talk. I was totally engaged in synthesizing his words. I would say that I remember more from that one presentation than all the rest over three days. The back-channel can actually engage people even more.

Dave Ferguson said...

"Multitasking" is a conceptual tarp that people thrown over all kinds of behavior, from essentially incompatible tasks (trying to do two or more complex things at ones, like driving and texting) to behaviors that dovetail nicely, like Harold Jarche's live-tweeting (in which he's essentially taking notes in a sharing application, instead of on paper).

People have always engaged in behavior that's disconnected from structured presentations--shuffling through paper documents, working on a pressing project, or just plain daydreaming. Public backchannels make that more obvious, though not always. If there's a twitter stream, all I need to do is leave out the hashtag, and you as presenter have almost no idea what I'm doing. Though the typing/tapping may distract my neighbors.

I'm pretty dubious at the idea that people will not multitask because the presenter says she can't handle the typing, especially in a larger group (say, more than 30). In a conference setting, where I'm paying to attend, I'm not keen on people telling me what form that attendance should take.

"Tell participants upfront that your presentation is a little different from what they may be used to?" You'd better deliver on that promise, fast, or you're going to get slammed in the backchannel.

To me, the notion of "what role do you want to take?" smacks of MBTI, learning styles, and other oversimplified categorizations. Get on with it, already. Maybe I'll want to shift roles at least once.

You mention boundaries like not being offensive to the presenter. At last month's Higher Ed Web conference, a keynote speaker was if not offensive at least ignorant regarding his audience, talking about things like Kazaa to a highly sophisticated group. I wrote about The Keynote and the Harshtag on my blog; the topic generated lots of discussion in many areas.

One thing to note: in a group of some 400, web-savvy people who attended that keynote, slightly less than 25% participated in the Twitter backchannel. Others may have texted or just whispered to others at their table. The point is that 75% of participants did not contribute to the Twitter backchannel.

My hunch is that most of those weren't monitoring it, either -- which suggests that you can place too much importance on it.

"Any questions?" is not the best way to elicit feedback. At the same time, the fact that I haven't said anything in the backchannel doesn't mean the backchannel is the only place to say things.

Tony Karrer said...

Harold - what's interesting about your comment is that there's an open question of whether some kinds of alternative actions can be done while immersed? I believe that note taking, blogging, tweeting are other activities that add value for the individual doing it.

However, once you get into the backchannel with multiple voices and possibly other thoughts running around, does that then become multitasking and therefore you begin to lose value? Or does the backchannel add value and engage / immerse even more?

Tony Karrer said...

@Dave - great comment / thoughts.

Absolutely right about delivering on the promise!

In terms of taking on roles, maybe it's that you ask someone (or two) to act as moderator and then mention other kinds of roles - that way people know what you expect. But leaving it open for people to shift roles is probably okay. It's more that we need to help set expectations / set the norm.

I'm a little lost by your comment on "Any questions?"

Unknown said...

Probably three different things wrapped up in this:
1) boundaries of acceptable behavior in terms of norms (not yet clearly established),
2) whether or not you personally like or agree with the norms and common practices plus how you personally manage that, and
3) which practices are efficient or effective for learning purposes.

@Dave - I don't like anyone telling me how to participate, either. I'm not big on rules and/or trying to "make" anyone do or "not do" anything. But if I were trying to stop backchannel participation or something similar, when I need something from someone I tend to ask them for it (and then they choose whether to give me what I need or not). For those presenters who are quite bothered and distracted, I missed your actual suggestion about what they could do (but the gist of your response sounds like your answer is "tough; just suck it up").

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora e Tony!

I'm with you in all of this. Moderation in everything.

I also agree with what appears to be a consensus. Clive summarises it in his latest post, "Presenters tackling issues which are highly relevant to the participants will always hold attention." There is a need for better presentations, that's for sure!

Thanks for the mention.

Catchya later

Tony Karrer said...

@Kristine - well said. I believe those are the issues, but the first two definitely relate.

@Ken - good point.

Dave Ferguson said...


I was too succinct for clarity. All I meant was that "any questions?" asked like that can sound pro forma, the sort of thing you say because you're expected to. I realize that's not always the case, though I do think it's easily seen as having a yes/no answer, where a more open question might invite greater participation. (Even "have you seen examples of X being used to do Y?" or "Has anyone done anything else with Z?" could seem more genuinely interested in what participants know or have done.)

I agree about setting expectations, though I try to set them with regard to myself. In other words, if I'm going to talk about basics of using Twitter, or about concepts of inventory management to help you understand how Predict-a-Pallet will help you on the job, I'll try to make that clear.

Not that you said this, but I'm certainly not going to add, "so stay quiet till I get through this first 15 minutes."


You're right; it's good to ask for what you want or what you'd like. I may just be pessimistic about what I'll get.

There's actually some irony here; I once suggested to Tony CLICK CLICK CLICK that some people might CLICK CLICK CLICK find live-blogging distracting CLICK CLICK CLICK.

My hunch is that relatively few live-blog, because compared to folks on twitter, there are fewer bloggers; the conceptual entryway is narrower. Also, you can tweet from a smartphone or even a fairly dumb one, and perhaps be less distracting to your neighbors. Or they might just be more resigned.

I didn't say "tough, suck it up," though I might think "wishing won't make it so."

I think presenter-coach Denise Graveline, who also posted about the HEWEB09 keynote crash-and-burn, has a number of practical suggestions, most of which apply whether you have a digital backchannel or not.