I like reading Andrew McAfee’s blog. I’ve known him for some years now, and count him as one of my friends. Reading his blog is a bit like chewing on good chillies or drinking decent sancerre, there’s a lot of value in the aftertaste. It lingers, pleasurably, and makes you think.

A few days ago he posted this: The Good and Bad Kinds of Crowd. It was all about prediction markets, something I’m deeply interested in. Tom Malone and his crew over at the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence are doing some really good work in this field, do take a look if you’re interested in the subject.

Back to Andy’s post. While it was primarily about prediction markets, there was a distinct and separate makes-you-think aftertaste:

Do you have any tips on how to be a good Twitter-assisted public speaker?

So I put that on my back burner. I’ve been thinking about it for a while now, primarily in the context of education, and I wanted to step back and think again in the public speaking context.

And forgot all about it.

Then, this evening, I was reading Gary Hamel on The Facebook Generation vs the Fortune 500. Gary makes some useful observations on the reasons for the “versus”. He proposes a dozen “work-relevant characteristics of online life”, which I list below:

All ideas compete on an equal footing
Contribution counts for more than credentials
Hierarchies are natural, not prescribed
Leaders serve rather than preside
Tasks are chosen, not assigned
Groups are self-defining and -organising
Resources get attracted, not allocated
Power comes from sharing information, not hoarding it
Opinions compound and decisions are peer-reviewed
Users can veto most policy decisions
Intrinsic rewards matter most
Hackers are heroes

Gary prefaces this list by saying “In assembling this short list, I haven’t tried to catalog every salient feature of the Web’s social milieu, only those that are most at odds with the legacy practices found in large companies.” And that resonated with me, it resonated with the findings that Andy had made while observing us at the bank during his early Enterprise 2.0 research.

Which brought me full circle to his question. How does a public speaker make good use of Twitter? And this is where I found myself:

1. Twitter is a hecklebot

A hecklebot is “A device that allows audiences to provide feedback to speakers using wireless technology to tie into an open IRC line”.  I’ve been partial to hecklebots ever since I first saw Joi Ito talk about it, use it, demo it in 2004. [I’m convinced that there is a lot of value to be gained in using hecklebots in primary and secondary education, but more of that later. That’s a whole another post.]

2. Twitter is a backchannel

This is what Wikipedia has to say:

Backchannel is the practice of using networked computers to maintain a real-time online conversation alongside live spoken remarks. The term was coined in the field of Linguistics to describe listeners’ behaviours during verbal communication, Victor Yngve 1970.

The term “backchannel” generally refers to online conversation about the topic or the speaker. Occasionally backchannel provides audience members a chance to fact-check the presentation.

First growing in popularity at technology conferences, backchannel is increasingly a factor in education where WiFi connections and laptop computers allow students to use ordinary chat like IRC or AIM to actively communicate during class.

Roo Reynolds has a worthwhile piece about backchannels at the recent SXSW. [Note to self. You were born in the wrong country to be at Yasgur’s farm. You’re past it now,  officially too old to go to Burning Man. You haven’t been to one SXSW as yet. Must try harder.]

3. Twitter allows rich context to be embedded and replayed

If you go to the Roo Reynolds post I refer to above, you will see a link to the video I show a still from. Hearing the podcast is one thing. Watching a Youtube video is a little better. But watching the video with a backchannel overlay is something else. A much richer experience.It’s like smelling the burger van at the soccer ground, you get the ambient intimacy that Clay Spinuzzi talks about.

4. Twitter is my teleprompter

A teleprompter (or autocue) assists presenters by spitting out predefined scripts on to a visual display. What Twitter is capable of doing is something richer. It can make this process interactive, by allowing the audience to influence the “script”.  Think of it as what would have happened if the Cluetrain gang had designed the first teleprompter.

5. Twitter is my ambient tag cloud collector

With tools like Wordle, one could take the RSS feed for tweets related to a conference (ostensibly using appropriate hashtags or equivalent), get them Wordled and shown up on a screen that the presenter can see.

I think there’s a lot that can be done. The hecklebot and backchannel are both great inventions, but they lack one thing that twitter has in spades. Accessibility. You don’t have to be a geek to tweet. Which means that people are more inclined to participate in what you’re doing. [If, as a public speaker, you don’t want people to participate in what you’re doing, I would suggest you take up time-travel. Backwards of course. You’re in the wrong century].

There’s another big thing about using Twitter as the backchannel. Questions and comments are constrained to 140 characters. Which means that the speaker finds them easy to assimilate.

Also, as I’ve tried to show with the Wordle example, the presenter can sense the mood of the crowd by looking at the tag cloud created by the tweets. And tailor what she’s saying accordingly.

The presenter gets valuable feedback loops, questions, directions, atmosphere. Participants get simpler and easier access and embedded context. Absentees get to feel the atmosphere as an overlay on the video. There’s something for everyone.

Just musing.

Incidentally, somewhere in Andy’s post, he mentions that “Pistachio” Laura Fitton will be observing his class and commenting on their tweeting. The last two times I met Laura (who knows more about twitter than anyone else I know), Andy was present at one of the occasions and Chris Brogan(who knows a great deal about social media and public participation) at the other.

So Andy, Laura, Chris, what do you think? Am I making any sense?

15 thoughts on “Twitterprompter?”

  1. So, in typical mashup fashion, I use it for a lot of those things above all in one. I often ask Twitter questions right before I go on stage, and then use that as results to show my audience. I watch it as a pulse-taking device during presentations (if I can). I use it for various means of extending the conversation and inviting participation outside the walls of the event. I use it to put a marker in time (at least in Google’s records) that I was at an event sharing knowledge with a passionate and engaged audience.

    Funny, that last part. I measure engagement by whether people tweet during my session. In the old days, that’d be considered rude. Hmmm.

  2. Good point Chris. I too use Twitter to prepare and interact. Last time I spoke to people about cloud computing, I asked Twitter followers to define it and made a tag cloud of their definitions.

    Never considered the “put marker in time” value. Worth thinking about.

    Thanks for stopping by.

  3. All of this makes good sense to me. I like it that the back channel is linguistically from before the digital. It’s reassuring.

  4. Chris I love this post. I gave the keynote on Thursday at SES and in reading the twitter feeds #sesny, I wished I had them running real time as I was presenting.
    I would have learned that people liked the interactive nature of the presentation, so I could have asked the audience to choose which examples they wanted to see.
    I could have done real time Q&A. And finally I would have learned I was depressing a few people with the economics that set up my argument. I’m not sure I would have changed this, but it would have been good to know.
    Really interesting idea. John
    @johngerzema on twitter

  5. I started experimenting with simple hacked together tools to create standard format subtitle files that can be created from twitter searches over a particular period of time (eg the time a presentation was happening) and then uploaded to eg Youtube and overlaid on top of a Youtube published recording of the session.

    The hack can be found here:

    and an example from Lord Carter talking about the Digital Britain interim report can be found here:

  6. Great post! I love the things you have discussed here. I wish I could convince my fellow students and my professors to use some of these tools to improve the interaction and peer to peer learning and teaching in and outside of the classroom. Thanks again for the post and I will be sharing this with some of my professors.

    On a side note, I was a teachers assistant for a beginning web design class this last semester and I got some of the students to join twitter and follow me. Throughout the course of the semester it was really fun and easy to help the students that were interacting with me through twitter and in general they did better in the class. I am not sure if the correlation has to do with the the better interaction and help they got from me via Twitter or if it was because those were the type of students more willing to try new things and improve their knowledge and ask for help. I might never know but it was still an interesting experience.

  7. I’m sorry to bring this all down to my level, but I can’t stop giggling at the thought of what 6th grade boys would do with a hecklebot.

  8. Frymaster, if it means that 6th grade kids will start looking forward to being in school that is a good thing….

  9. I really like the idea of Twitter as a back channel because it also means others in the room can get a feel for what’s happening.
    As for the presenter… depending on their experience maybe they can have a moderator help them? Is that too “junior”?
    I’ve never seen a video overlaid with tweets before – that is so rich, it just gives it a whole other dimension of meaning.

  10. JP, thanks for some nice reflections.. you have me thinking. Since I deal with enterprise adoption of disruptive tech, your point about “you don’t have to be a techie” struck home.. one thing that the Obama campaign showed in spades was the enormous value of diminishing the cost of participation. I speak a lot, too, (mostly to enterprise groups), and I will implement this approach.. I poll the group frequently, but the backchannel, what people are saying amongst each other, is far more powerful and must drastically increase the speaker’s connection and relevance. Thanks for this convo! Cheers-

  11. Great post – It’s this type of analysis which helps explaining why 2.0 communication tools such as Twitter are extremely relevant for companies, especially large ones. One of the benefits that I see in “microblogging” is the implicit “synchronisation” that binds participants.
    Sharing a continuous flow of micro-information creates a “sense of proximity” which makes “other form of communications” more efficient since introduction/closure become less necessary in an “always connected” world.

  12. Belated point of information. Twitter has been made into an actual teleprompter. Via an arduino, a guy I know gave a speech that was tweeted out every five seconds onto an adapted till roll printer.

  13. following on from our brief Twitchat last night on this JP, a few things to add.

    last year at Thinking Digital in Newcastle I started using Twhirl during my presentation to get realtime questions and feedback and as much as I could monitor the backchannel. doing so actually seemed to increase the backchannel as people like to see their comments on the big screen during the presentation. Though Thwhirl isn’t ideal for this, it served a purpose with it’s “toast” pop up’s. It’s something I do now in almost every presentation and works well to engage the audience. What I’d really like is an applet I can run during right inside PowerPoint…i’m off to ask the PowerPoint team right now.

    which brings me to my second observation. During the MIX09 conference last month in Vegas, the team from Vertigo built a very interesting portal for the event. Alongside the live stream of the keynote was a twitterstream on the hashtag #mix09 and people in the audinece were following this instead of watching the live keynote in front of them. it says something about the desire to discuss (in realtime) with others the events going on. fascinating to watch.

    and finally, per my Tweet last night I’m sure the Tweetstream on TV cannot be far away. Over the last few months I have taken to watching events on TV like the Champions League or The Masters whilst using Twitter and watching the discussion build up as the event goes on. It happens with any major show now such as The Apprentice or MAsterchef and can be seen developing on sites like Twitscoop. Clearly we like the social discussion at events, be they live or on TV etc…

    I’m not sure where all of this goes but it fascinating to watch and participate.

    Maybe that’s it…the participation era is was Twitter is ushering in?

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