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December 15, 2009


The Backchannel: What Affects Its Efficacy?

by Peter Skillen

So before David Jakes started his keynote presentation at RCAC the other day, he walked past our table – where a bunch of twitterers were poised to backchannel as he presented.  David made a comment about the efficacy of backchanneling while a speaker is on stage.  We ended up in a quick discussion about this phenomenon and about the criteria surrounding effective backchanneling.

I believe that this is in its infancy (with these new media) and requires some controversial discussions.

Types of Backchanneling during a Presentation (via twitter, chatroom, etc.)

  • to share the content out to a wider audience
  • to create online notes (easily retrieved later via a hashtag)
  • to pose questions that the presenter to which a presenter could respond (best managed by a moderator)
  • to make associations with prior knowledge and note/describe that
  • to share related links to websites or other resources
  • to discuss or engage in conversation with others (in the room or at a distance)

Mental Effort and Cognitive Load

I would suggest that the first three of these are extremely similar to things we have traditionally done in the past…taking notes.

However, the last three – and specifically the last one – require a greater intensity of mental effort.  Mental effort is not unlimited.  It is somewhat finite.  So if we are expending a percentage of our mental effort into conversation, we are taking our concentration and effort away from what the speaker is currently saying.


I was teaching my daughter to drive with a standard transmission yesterday.  She is an experienced driver, but because managing the clutch, the gearshift, the gas, and the brake were quite new to her, she was quite overwhelmed.  However, her level of expertise in the other aspects of driving – traffic patterns, rules of the road, etc. – allowed her to more easily cope with the new demands

If you are merely note taking or posing questions, this does not necessarily draw upon a great amount of mental effort.  However, if you are engaged in making associations and documenting them, or involved in a discussion about issues in the backchannel, you are definitely expending a greater amount of your mental energies in those activities.

Factors Impacting Efficacy of Backchanneling

Having said that, there are other factors that are at play here.  It is not a simple equation. Consider the following factors of the presentation and its delivery:

  • level of expertise with the material/content (more expertise with the content may require a lower cognitive load and therefore free up some mental space to engage in other activities)
  • engaging characteristics of the speaker/speed of delivery
  • variety and quantity of modalities provided in the presentation
  • mood
  • learning style

In other words, a fast-paced presentation rich with multimedia on material that is new and complex will likely be demanding.  A droll, slow verbal delivery on well-understood material will require less of you.

Other Observations from an Old Guy

Novice Behaviour

In my years as an ICT-using educator, I’ve watched new technologies/software come along.  And I have studied novice behaviours with these.  You will all recognize the characteristics when people get their hands on a new piece of software. People typically use it in playful ways at first.  They use all the features. They use every font and every colour and every effect.  They use the tool for everything – even when it isn’t appropriate to do so.  I remember kids using Logo.  They always typed forward 1,000,000,000 to see what would happen!  Who remembers that?  After a while, and perhaps with experience, the tools become more effectively used.

I think, in some ways, we are seeing this with backchanneling.  I believe it will settle into an appropriate rhythm.

Effects on the Speaker

I will not dwell on this point, but I do wish to mention it.  Audience feedback – body language, eye contact, looks of engagement – have a cyclical impact on the ability of the speaker to do a great job.  It is important to respect the individual speaker’s comfort level and desire for backchanneling.

Some speakers engage a moderator to manage the backchannel – and define ways in which the audience could use it to, for example, bring questions or issues to the speaker.

Other Notes

David Jakes said to me in our brief conversation in advance of his presentation, “the extraneous discussions are really off putting for everyone”.  I agree.


Other Resources

9 Tips for Enriching Your Presentations With Social Media

12 Comments Post a comment
  1. Mike Mcilveen
    Dec 15 2009

    Great post, very thought provoking. Can we make a distinction between formal and informal backchannel?

    The moderator has a key role in the formal backchannel, managing the chatter to be within the ‘group norms’, moving the conversation forward. This is a productive, serious form of chatter. You’d expect productivity here. Without a moderator there would be no enforcement of norms.

    Perhaps the informal backchannel is your cup of tea, chattering away about the funny faux pas or choice of tie, preferring to stay outside the formal channel. This is a tabloid form of chatter, not necessarily elevating the conversation. Informal backchannel is not so serious. It does allow for free association and free expression.

    It’s really important to me to value the informal backchannel, to give people more and easier ways to share ideas, even if they are trivial! Yet, I’d like to see a formal backchannel for just about every group presentation where we expect the audience to absorb and learn.

  2. Dec 16 2009

    I first became intrigued with backchanneling at NECC in Atlanta. At that time, Twitter was still very new to all of us; we used Skype to facilitate a discussion during the presentation we were attending. Initially, it was interesting and engaging.

    But as I gained more experience with the process, it became something that facilitated our own independent discussion more than interpretation of ideas presented in the session. Of course, the presentation served as the discussion starter, and then we were off, sitting in a room with a presentation taking place, but having our own discussion that, as I recall, became more separate and distinct as the time went on.

    For me personally, backchanneling distracts me from processing the speaker thoughts. Maybe I’m just not smart enough to do two things at once, but cognitively, I agree, you cant do two things at once.

    As a presenter, it’s distracting. I depend a great deal in reading my audience, and if they have their heads buried in a computer, well, it makes it more difficult. It’s virtually impossible as a presenter to focus on giving the presentation and doing anything with a backchannel, much in the same way it is for the audience to listen to the speaker and then add value in a backchannel. For that reason, I think a backchannel, for it to be effective, absolutely requires a moderator.

    I think there is some value here, albeit with some more structure. I don’t want to say rules certainly, but some simple guidelines may be helpful-and the moderator thing is a must.

    As far as Twitter goes, the ability to assemble a stream of ideas and comments via hastags is promising in a way, but I don’t think twitter is necessarily the best for a backchannel discussion. I’m wondering if Etherpad might be a better vehicle for this-I’m not aware of anyone that has tried Etherpad for a large backchannel (which also brings up the ideal size issue of a Backchannel-too large, too much noise).

    Thanks for the post, see you in Philly, where we can backchannel everything and nothing at the same time. 🙂

  3. Mike Mcilveen
    Dec 16 2009

    Backchannel makes a lot of sense for me. It’s an extension of note taking. It keeps my brain processing the information from the presenter. When a particular point of interest is made I can go off on a tangent for a bit and reinforce the point. Of course if the presentation is not of interest then the backchannel can connect me with what matters to other people in the room.

    As a teacher I would like my students to practice backchannel talk, with the proviso that they are accountable. A formal backchannel for my classroom would be great! Enforcing the group norms would be critical as students learn to use the channel appropriately, to move the conversation forward.

    At the same time I stand by my support for the informal channel which is an expression of freedom of association and thought, and as a teacher I don’t need to know what students are talking about in their personal spaces.

  4. Dec 18 2009

    I came across this post from someone I highly respect in the academic world, danah boyd. Looks like we aren’t the only ones rethinking the process of the back channel and trying to work out some best practice with it!
    As an occasional presenter myself, my heart goes out to her regarding this awful experience!

  5. Dec 18 2009

    I love this topic. The backchannel can enrich a presentation but can equally detract from it.

    I have attended couple of presentations where the keynote encouraged comments and questions in the backchannel. One in particular flipped over to his tweetdeck and read off the first 3 comments which happened to be very critical of his presentation. The speaker took a moment, regrouped and then preceeded to repond to the pointed statements. I actually agreed with the comments and appreciated the fact the audience had a voice but a the same time the keynote was called upon to present his view on certain topics and deserved the stage to do so.

    I agree with David Jakes comment that the backchannel can distract from what the speaker is saying. Some of the backchannel topics can be very engaging but may pull too much attention away from the warm body standing at the front of the room. I know it was very difficult to get comfortable presenting to a room full of people to hear you speak but 1/3 are looking at you, another 1/3 are texting or tweeting, and the final 1/3 are typing on the notebook.

    Perhaps the backchannel should occur during a break or perhaps after the presentation to allow for synthesis of the topics delivered and then some debate. Technology has allowed for instant feedback. Now we can give feedback as the message is delivered.

    I must say after all that I have encouraged a backchannel when I speak. The jury is still out on the benefits. I can say that when I do “tweet” during presentations others who were not lucky enough to attend really did appreciate the statements I tweeted from the presentation. I do enjoy the conversation and we do live in a multitasking world!

    Like I said, I love this topic and thanks for a great post!


  6. Speakers who want the feedback DURING presentations should certainly engage a moderator to manage the backchannel… for most, the backchannel simply serves as a useful POST-presentation evaulation and extension format. That’s been my preferred response to back-channeling during my presentations…

    As an audience member… I’m likely to be very connected whenever possible:
    – I do not commit ideas to paper… I put them into born-digital format that documents my learning while making it available for rethinking, reworking, mashups, collaboration… etc.

    – I’m the person with GoogleWave, Tweetdeck, Skype and U-stream open and running 😉

    – as a professional, I would not dream of being derogatory within a backchannel… my digital silence during your presentation, as I find nothing new or thought provoking enough to share is noteworthy enough.

    – I am committed to my PLN… I learn from them daily… I add to the collective pool… I will always share the learning from a great speaker who has had the profound to stimulate my thinking.

    … my 2 cents worth.

  7. Dec 18 2009

    Remember when the back-channel was passing notes in class?
    Well, I don’t see the back-channel that way. Such passing of notes is almost always off-topic in the classroom, and would be distracting to both speakers and audience members.

    In the even the discussion is simply restating the presenter’s points, I’d consider that a live blog, and while purposeful, not truly a back-channel discussion.

    I would suspect that the combined knowledge of an audience would surpass that of almost any keynote presenter, so I can see how learners might be tempted to exchange knowledge during a presentation. Is such sharing, truly harnessing the collective knowledge of the group?

    When the focus is a collective building of knowledge, discussions that take place during presentations offer the opportunity for the group to make sense of what they are hearing and seeing. The contribution of questions, ideas or hyperlinks can either serve to enrich the experience of a topic-familiar audience member, or to overwhelm a participant who may not have the same depth of knowledge, and/or ability to multitask.

    I’m sure you’ve been to a conference where the most memorable discussions took place in between sessions. I see participation in back-channel discussions during an event, as one way to build on this experience. Even if such discussions are at the expense of missing out on the full experience of a given keynote presentation, today’s conference attendees are going to find ways to connect with one another, whether or not they connect with the content of the planned talk.

  8. courosa
    Dec 18 2009

    Thanks for the excellent post, Peter, and for all of the responses so far.

    I want to pick up on Di’s last comment, and the idea of professionalism. I’ve encouraged the backchannel in most of my presentations. In fact, I’ve relied on the backchannel to make some key points. In a sense, I’ve always found myself fortunate when speaking at an event that in some way, I seem to ‘know’ the majority of those who are participating in the backchannel. In a sense, the audience is already friendly and is usually willing to help demonstrate the positive possibilities. For the Canadians out there (and to David Jakes who is a real Canadian expert), it’s somewhat like Riders playing in Calgary – even away from home, you have a large portion of people in the stands that are friendly and willing to support you. In those cases, there is a level of professionalism that comes easy. And in a sense, I do feel quite positive about educators in general, that in many cases, teachers and academics continue to be quite respectful in such situations.

    I think many of the incidents we’ve heard of as of late are at very mixed type or industry conferences. In many cases, the audiences are more splintered, come from a variety of work cultures, and seem to be generally a bit more rowdy. I am not saying educators are always ‘better’ in this sense, but I do believe we as a group generally have a strong empathy toward the ‘teacher’ at the front of the room. Not always, there are certainly exceptions, but I think it is a part of our culture – to be respectful.

    I forget where I was going with this … oh yea … Riders 2010! (must be the twitter backchannel making me lose my concentration).

  9. Mike Mcilveen
    Dec 19 2009

    As a presenter I’d like to have someone in my corner on the official backchannel. I really cannot overstate the importance of a referee if the channel is to be broadcast while I’m speaking.

    Danah Boyd (bsherry’s comment) has highlighted what can happen when the official backchannel is anonymous and unimpeded by ground rules for appropriate comments. For serious professional discourse stand behind you name.

    Putting the backchannel in front of the audience and behind the speaker’s back is a bad idea, without some kind of moderating influence. As a speaker I’d have to insist on someone normalizing the comments, just like we do in face-to-face PLC’s.

  10. Dec 19 2009

    Thank you all for your comments on this issue. You have helped us to think more deeply about it… educators vs more diverse audiences; formal vs informal; visible vs invisible; ‘passing notes’ vs ‘providing resources’; ‘present’ vs ‘post’ presentation knowledge; enrichment vs detraction; moderated vs unmoderated; attention vs inattention; courtesy vs rudeness; and, then the heartfelt story of danah boyd’s.

    Lots to consider…but worth consideration. 🙂


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