Audience power and the death of deference

How do you feel if you’re addressing a large group of people and some of them are hammering away on laptops and smartphones? Do you use your own kit when you’re a conference delegate? If you’re peeved at the first and averse to the second, then you are going to become increasingly uncomfortable as this behaviour becomes the norm.

Some would say that acting like this is disrespectful of the speaker. They make their judgements on their interpretation of what the audience is doing online. In short, they think that these delegates cannot possibly be paying attention. In fact, they could be doing a number of things, some of which are enriching their conference experience, some of which are not.

For example, they could be looking up things mentioned by the speaker, participating in the ’back channel’, Tweeting what’s going on, blogging, playing games, checking emails, or simply taking notes. In general, the speaker hasn’t much of a clue which, unless they hear a sudden burst of laughter unconnected with the presentation. This would probably be a reaction to something that’s been said on the back channel.

More than ever, the speaker’s challenge is to capture and keep the audience’s interest and stimulate their thinking. Their ability to do this will largely determine the audience’s subsequent behaviour. The audience mix will make a difference too. If they have different levels of understanding, their need to seek clarification online will vary. However, the knowledgeable are likely to be most active in the backchannel. And anyone could be making notes so the behaviour observable from the podium will be similar.

Many people claim to be able to multitask with ease – reading wikipedia while listening to a lecture, for example. With two incoming language streams, this seems an unlikely claim. It’s more likely to be a case of rapid task-switching, taking advantages of pauses, dull bits and so on. Back channel activities are highly focused on the event in progress, with pretty terse individual comments. Classically, they’re IRC (Internet Relay Chat), although IM (Instant Messaging) or Twitter are probably more common now. They provide a good way for audience members to keep in touch, questioning, commenting and, sometimes, reporting the action to the outside world. And, indeed, picking up feedback from outside.

Occasionally, when members of Freeform Dynamics are on the same conference call, we’ll set up a temporary Skype IM group, so that we can raise and answer questions internally without wasting the speakers’ time. We might also comment to each other, “isn’t this a rehash of the May announcement?”, or whatever. These things take seconds to say and read and barely ripple our concentration on the speaker. We can align our own understanding and, possibly, elect the most appropriate member of the team to ask the burning question(s) at the end. It works well and we believe that this approach helps us and the speakers get the most out of these briefings.

Some brave conference organisers have tried putting the back-channel on display to the whole audience. It doesn’t always work. While very ’open’, it can be a destructive experience. A classic case was when an audience member accused the speaker of spouting bullshit. It provoked fury on the part of the speaker, followed by a massive discussion, which eclipsed the purpose of the presentation itself. Maybe it’s better to do what some others do which is to assign a colleague of the speaker to monitor the back-channel and use it to guide the subsequent Q&A and, maybe, the direction of the presentation itself.

Just as power is moving to the consumer in so many areas of life, so it is moving to the audience in conferences and other gatherings. This is especially true when they have online access to information sources, to each other and to the outside world. If the speakers are engaging and accepting of this new phenomenon, the outcomes can be positive and enriching. If they see it as an affront, then they’re going to find themselves increasingly out of step with our customer-empowered world.

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