Should Twitter be Banned at Conferences?


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I was fortunate to be a keynote speaker last week at the LeWeb conference in Paris. It was definitely an amazingly well put-together conference. I cannot express enough gratitude to Loic and Geraldine for making us all more than comfortable during our stay. I did happen to notice one thing during the conference that bothered me a bit, so I decided I wanted to talk to you about it. Twitter tends to play a large role during conferences. However, I’m not so sure it’s a good thing.

Let’s face it – if someone is a presenter at a conference, they are there for a reason. The conference organizers invited them there to talk to you about something they felt you should hear. The day I spoke at LeWeb, there were several heavy-hitters who went before me that morning. These were dev-centric presentations, from people at Twitter and Facebook. My speech was less tangible, and more of something to really make you think about what exactly community is.

Not everyone in the audience was interested in what I had to say. That’s fine, I assumed that would be the case. You cannot make everyone happy. During the rest of the weekend, I noticed that many of the people in the audience were busy on Twitter. I also happened to realize that much of what was being said was negative, and sometimes even harsh.

The problem with people using Twitter during a presentation is that they are paying more attention to the voice that is in their head than they are to the voice on the stage. There’s a reason the voice is on stage, remember? I’m not sure what prompts people to not want to listen to a particular presentation. But I feel that if you don’t have something nice to say – then you should say nothing at all. People need to learn how to be negative properly.

We need to remember it’s not about us… it’s about the person on stage. Twitter almost takes away from the person on stage, more than it enhances it. People, again, are more interested in themselves than the speaker. If you aren’t interested in a paritcular speech, that’s ok! Just walk on out of the room and do something else. There’s always something else going on during conferences.

I can’t help but thinking Twitter needs to take a backseat when it comes to conference presentations. I’ve seen it detract too many times. Too much negativity can swell, and cause problems. It may be the thought of the crowd, but sometimes it’s ok to keep your thoughts to yourself. There are a lot of important people in the audience, yes. However, the person on stage is the most important one of all.

Those are my thoughts on the matter. It’s your turn. What do you think?

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27 thoughts on “Should Twitter be Banned at Conferences?”

  1. “We need to remember it’s not about us… it’s about the person on stage.” I would disagree with this statement and say that “It’s not about the person on the stage but what ‘we’ are getting from it’. Nobody pays to go to a conference just to eat what is being said without question.

    Twitter is a chance to throw a BS flag on the field if that is what is being presented. I say that the rule is: If you payed to hear the speaker, feel free to tweet criticizm to your heart’s content. If the conference is free (or non-profit) one should remain polite.

    Tonight I’m going to see Avatar. If it sucks, twitter will know about it which doesn’t offend anyone. That movie will cost me much less than any conference I’ve paid to go to.

  2. I thought your bit was good. It made me think about how I , however isolated in the mountains of Scotland, can connect as much as I choose to and I found it and you, polished and creditable.
    I guess it did seem strange that there was an audience full of people on laptops in front of you but hey…. you did great and you inspired… what else is there ???

  3. I completely agree with you Chris. I saw some of the negative feedback, and it’s rude. These people are trying to do a presentation, so they should give them there full attention, not tweeting how they don’t like it.

    Henry D’Andrea

  4. I am an avid Twitterer at conferences which actually came about because there are so often a lack of plugs for my laptop. While I do see your point my tweets from the audience are not there to criticize or even engage conversationally with others, but to pass on information from my session to the hash.

    This is also true for most of the tweets I see at conferences. I think I have learned much more that way, but seeing people’s tweets from conference sessions. Sometimes I have even changed my session based on what I see coming out of the other room because I realize it is much more relevant to me than the description made it sound, so I have to say I strongly disagree with a ban and would find it very detrimental to the conference learning process itself. Thanks for listening!

  5. I’d say become a more dynamic speaker then you wouldn’t have to worry about twitter or other things distracting your audience. People being more interested in Twitter should be a hint.

  6. Great point on the trolling that happens. I’d say it’s a problem that people have in their daily lives versus just being an online problem. The web just mirrors the problem.

    Maybe there should be some tutorials or expectations set at the beginning of conferences on the proper way to give negative feedback. From my experience and psychological studies, a 2 to 1 positive to negative feedback ratio is the best. Statistically, people learn more from positive reinforcement than negative.

    On the topic that twitter takes away from conferences, I think it adds when used correctly. It takes the crowds live thoughts and allows conference organizers and speakers to know what the crowd was thinking during the conference, word by word, as opposed to using hindsight once the presentation is done (Which is what is typically reflected in blogs or media created after the fact).

    The key then is educating the crowd on the best ways to frame feedback and comments during a conference, along with, the development of the right tools and analytics to provide speakers and conference organizers with the information they need to enhance their performance.

  7. Twittering criticisms during conferences and lectures is an extension of what’s been going on in forums and blogs for years. In fact, my husband and I were just discussing this week what you mentioned in your article – if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. Under cover of anonymity (in many cases) people post negative comments and personal attacks or they start flame wars. My husband is involved with a forum for a certain group of science fiction fans who make props and costumes and things, and if he sees some work he doesn’t particularly like, he moves on. If he sees anything at all positive and/or the person is asking for comments, he may make a suggestion or point out a particular aspect that he likes. Unfortunately, though, some posters will make downright rude comments about how awful something looks, with no thought of the person on the receiving end. We’ll never know if these posters are trying to incite something, if they are simply thoughtless or tactless, or if they think it’s funny to be mean. But why should people behave any differently nowadays? What examples are held up for public view? Caustic comments get people like Perez Hilton lots of money and attention. Animal cruelty gets Michael Vick his own show. The celebration and sensationalism of rudeness, stupidity and cruelty is only going to beget more of the same. It’s too bad for humanity.

  8. Sorry, can you repeat that again? I was too busy tweeting. :p

    The way I see it, twitter is almost like writing down notes, except instead of using paper and pen, you doing it digitally and sending it out to how ever many people are following you. I remember sending out a few tweets while some presenters were talking at Gnomedex, and there were a couple of presenters where nobody was doing anything but listening intently to what was being said. I think it all depends on the conference, the audience, and the speaker (and what he’s talking about).

    One or two tweets during a presentation is fine, but if you’re tweeting every two minutes, you’re not paying attention to the speaker.

  9. I have mixed feeling on this. When I’m at a conference, I love to Tweet out and share the great bits of information I’m getting and I really do watch the Tweets coming from conferences when I am not able to attend.

    But I think that there does need to be some etiquette too. Before I tweet something about a person, product, etc I think about whether it is something I would say publicly to this person’s face. If the answer is no, then I think twice about my tweet.

    I bet that when the tweets turn sour, most of those people would not say those same things to the speaker’s face. And constructive criticism is one thing, but like you said, if the speaker’s topic just isn’t your thing, just leave because it might be someone else’s thing.

  10. I don’t Twitter much, but it seems to me that Twittering during a lecture or other presentation is the equivalent of passing notes in school. Childish behavior.

    If I want to share an Idea I have about a lecture, I take notes and talk about it with others after the lecture.

  11. Twitter is GREAT at conferences.

    Specially at panels – if the panel is boring the office, they know & can adjust.

    Its harder if you have a prepared ‘speech’ but speakers should be prepared to adjust as they go – think on their feet.

    If you piece is boring the audience – its not their fault – its the speaker’s. Yes it going to require more agile speakers who are better prepared and may have to make more of an effort to engage the audience.

    If you aren’t engaging the audience though, you’re either a bad speaker, or at the wrong conference…..

  12. It takes courage to stand before an audience, and the advent of social media only makes that more true. There will always be people who enjoy being critical, even harsh, in their dealings with others. Feedback that used to come to speakers relatively privately in the form of written evaluations now gets posted to the world in real-time via Twitter or Facebook. I don’t think it can be controlled, only dealt with.

    As presenters we need to do our best to keep criticism in perspective; as audience members we need to remember that speakers have feelings and deserve to be treated with dignity, whether or not we were enthralled with their presentations.

  13. I personally think it’s rude to use either a phone or laptop during a presentation. If you’re not interested why are you there? If you are interested you surely can’t be listening and learning if you’re Twittering. However, I’ve seen this topic discussed before and it seems that the majority disagree with me and think it’s a great thing.

    The most ridiculous thing I’ve seen yet is when they had a large screen behind the speaker at a recent conference that actually showed what the audience was tweeting while the speaker was talking.

  14. I can see your point, but Twitter is no different than anyone else who might be taking notes or blogging. I cover lots of conferences and blog, live blog, or Twitter during the talks, depending on what seems to work best. I got very positive feedback from one talk that I tweeted throughout.

    Perhaps it is the issue that now everyone is broadcasting and not just the few journalists/bloggers with their laptops open?

  15. To me it’s just the me vs. you mentality that’s the problem. I think Twitter might be a great addition if people saw the conference as a collaborate work in progress, rather than a chance to go back to high school and make fun of people. Constructive criticism, done with compassion can be a VERY good thing.

    Unfortunately, Twitter at a conference can give people free reign to be douche bags. Twitter and social media in general has brought a lot of good will, and community-oriented thinking to the world. That should be encouraged. Trolling should be strongly DISCOURAGED.

  16. “We need to remember it’s not about us…it’s about the person on stage.”

    Seriously? So, the attendee is not the customer, the speaker is? So the speaker should have to pay a fee to speak then.

    Gosh, that’s like saying any business that has services or products is not really for the customer, but for the busienss owner.

    You’ve got it backwards from the start. The conference is for the attendee, period. If the audience is not listening, regardless of Twitter, they will check out. Speakers are having to step up the plate and deliver good presentations that engage the entire audience or they should NOT be on stage. It’s the speakers fault if the audience is not listening. The speaker needs to change what they are doing and present differently.

    For the first time, speakers are having to deal with real time feedback, instead of the complaints in the hallway after the presentation. Welcome to the 21st century.

    Chris. It’s not about you or any of the speakers. If so, why don’t yall just speak to each other and the attendees will stop paying because you’re not meeting their needs.

    PS…I’m an event professional who plans conferences for a living and I won’t allow someone on stage that can’t engage an audience. I don’t “ban” real-time feedback. I’ve learned how to use it to our attendee’s benefit.

  17. I think Tweeting at conferences takes a few forms. One is the person who just sits there transcribing the content. That’s useless. If I paid good cash to see a speaker, I don’t want that content being sent for free into the twitterverse.
    Next is the professional journalist or blogger who is covering the event and microblogging it. That’s fine. It’s likely that they’re sharing relevant tidbits and perspective on the conference instead of just the quotes verbatim. It gives people who aren’t at the event some taste of the conference without diminishing the value of the event to the people there.
    Last is the legion of complainers. They have their place, but a better use of live tweeting and griping would be to lock down the hash during the event, moderate it, or even set it up as a topic group.
    Over on http://tweetworks.com or other group sites, you can set up a topic-based discussion. That way people who want to discuss a panel, a speaker or an entire conference can do so without alerting spambots who attack hash tags, without angering the rest of the Twitterspherer because conversations wouldn’t be munging up the stream, and with a more focused purpose.
    I love live tweeting events. I love the snarky comments OCCASIONALLY. And I think Twitter has a place.
    But it should be policed a little better.

  18. Your blog article, however intentioned, demonstrates a sad ignorance of the true value of Twitter and social media in presentations. I perceive your comment “we need to remember it’s not about us… it’s about the person on stage” as a pathetic, arrogant example of a speaker’s insecurity. From my perspective, as an attendee, If it was about the “person on the stage” I would be at a Broadway theater, not an educational session.

    Presentations are about learning, and learning comes through many channels, not just a lecture-style “one to many” format. Twitter is an attendee engagement tool that has opened the door for conference attendees to discuss presentations in real-time. Effective learning comes from shared perspectives, disagreement, analysis and collaboration. Twitter is a tool that helps make that possible.

    In my own experience, I have found Twitter to be a very effective tool for note-taking. Instead of distracting me from a presentation it forces me to pay attention to all that is being said. While the “eye contact” with the speaker may not be there at times, my mind is always focused on the messaging of their presentation, assuming there is a message. While I may be interested in what the speaker says, I’m also interested in the opinion of my peers.

    I am insulted by your statement “there are a lot of important people in the audience, yes. However, the person on stage is the most important one of all.” If it wasn’t for those people in the audience, you would be talking to yourself, Chris. Your audience (a.k.a. your customers) is the reason you are in business as a speaker in the first place!! Without them you would be looking for work elsewhere.

    People attend face2face conferences for a variety of reasons. First and foremost they seek networking opportunities. They want opportunities to exchange new ideas and best practices with their peers, make new contacts, meet their customers and yes, get some education.

    My guess is you are afraid of Twitter, and of the people using it, because you are nervous about what you might learn about yourself, or the true impact of your presentations. The days of a speaker with an “it’s all about me” attitude standing on a stage preaching to anyone who is willing to listen are rapidly coming to an end. Conference attendees will no longer tolerate this approach to presentations.

    In the “new normal” of business today, customers expect to have a voice in what is happening around them. They crave collaboration, and interaction because it enhances their attendee experience. Speakers finding a way to fold in communication tools such as Twitter into their presentations will become popular with attendees because they have listened and responded to customer needs.

    @michaelmccurry

  19. I think banning Twitter is a bit extreme, but I can see your point of view as a Speaker. I think the best solution that events can put into action and we will begin to see more of, is to have an official Event Community Manager.

    The role of the community manager would be to monitor Twitter and other social media platforms for all types of feedback and to address any negativity right away. Negative feedback can get out of hand,but is still an important part of business growth for the event and the speaker. The event should have a voice of their own to interject into the conversation and to do crowd control when necessary.

    I’ve found Twitter to be very helpful at events and have used it effectively to promote the event and myself with relevant and useful information coming from the keynotes. My followers have appreciated it and have actually made decisions to attend events in the future based on what they learned from following the event hashtag.

  20. I was moderating a panel at a conference and asked everyone to close their laptops, etc. during the presentation (for which I was called a “douche” in multiple tweets, natch). I did say, however, that people could send out a Tweet if, before doing so, they could honestly say to themselves, “The World must know!”

    In the past, yes, people did take and even pass notes during the presentations. Nowadays, however, if you are taking notes on your laptop, you are subject to myriad distractions that don’t exist in a pad of paper and these distractions are amplified if you are simultaneously adding them to Twitter and tracking what others are tweeting.

    Ultimately, thought, the main problem is that audiences today are equipped with technology that has emerged fairly recently while the “person standing up and giving a presentation to a relatively passive audience”-thing has been around for centuries. We need to experiment with a presentation format that fits the new world – ad hoc group discussions, “flash” presentation, whatever – rather than ask people to return to the 19th century lecture hall every time someone approaches a podium.

  21. Well done! Although I don’t completely agree w/ twittering in conferences, I do agree that there needs to be tact and a little respect to the speaker.
    In any case, I did really enjoy the speech.

  22. Sorry Chris, you’re way off on this one. It’s only about the audience and not about the speaker at all. If you are a good speaker (you have something to say) your audience will only widen through the attendees’ use of twitter. If on the other hand you have nothing to say, twitter is a great way for your audience to say, “This presentation is lousy but since we’re all interested in the topic let’s get together in the hallway outside and exchange real ideas.” Then they can get up and leave.

    Perhaps we should also ban speaker evaluations…wouldn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings after all.

    As a conference/tradeshow producer, sponsor, exhibitor, attendee and sometimes speaker I think Twitter is one of the best things to happen to conferences. I like to display the twitter feed during my presentations for real-time feedback.

  23. Hi Chris,

    Thanks for this post. I came across it while putting together my own thoughts on the subject ( http://monicahamburg.wordpress.com/2010/01/28/talk-amongst-yourselves-or-not-so-much/ ) and thought your point about how “The problem with people using Twitter during a presentation is that they are paying more attention to the voice that is in their head than they are to the voice on the stage” was spot on.

    I have conflicting thoughts on the subject. Overall, as a speaker, it can be exciting to see the feedback after a session and to learn what resonated most with the audience. On the other hand, it is a huge distraction – and more so than taking notes – because of the truncating to 140 characters. And there is a huge risk that what is said is oversimplified and (in even greater supply) taken out of context.

    As a participant, I miss a ton when I tweet. Which is why I (try to) avoid doing so.

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