Thursday, 29 October 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.

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