The Backchannel: The elephant in the room

Book review
The backchannel: How audiences are using Twitter and social media and changing presentations forever.
Cliff Atkinson.
New Riders, 2010.  222 pages.

You’re comfortable presenting to audiences and you’re well prepared for this conference.  But . . . . A minute into your presentation you notice that many people are busy texting on their mobile phones.  Are they checking email?

They’re certainly preoccupied. They laugh at the wrong time.

Chances are they’re using Twitter to message each other about you and about your presentation. They may love you, or they may be encouraging each other to leave and check out another presentation.

Welcome to the world of the backchannel, where your presentation is only one of the many interesting things going on in the room. In fact, this virtual conversation is not limited to the room. Because Twitter is public and open, anyone can follow or join in the conversation about your presentation, even when they’re in another state or on another continent.

The backchannel is a recent phenomenon. In fact, it’s impressive that a book has been written about it so soon.

A seasoned presenter, Cliff Atkinson provides anecdotes, case studies, a bit of communication theory, and how-to examples, to help you feel more comfortable as a presenter facing this new elephant in the room.

Atkinson’s book Beyond Bullet Points (which I reviewed here) remains an important book on the subject of effective presentations. (It was named a Best Book of 2007 by the editors at Now, in The Backchannel, Atkinson describes how to how to prepare for the backchannel, how to make your ideas Twitter-friendly, and how to manage this virtual conversation.

This is an important skill for presenters to learn. At its worst, the backchannel can get out of hand and degenerate into harsh criticism of your presentation in real time. Atkinson provides examples of speakers falling prey to negative comments and how they have succeeded, or failed, in defraying the tension.

On the other hand, speakers can learn how to use the backchannel conversation as a rich source of information that can engage the audience and improve the presentation.


2 Responses to The Backchannel: The elephant in the room

  1. Paul Gibler says:

    Hi Paul,
    Interesting review of the book and the topic. The “backchannel” challenge is one that more and more speakers and conference organizers will confront. Olivia Mitchell author of the blog “Speaking about Presenting” has an eBook called “How to Present with Twitter and Other Backchannels” that you and your readers might find interesting. (
    SAP has developed eight PowerPoint add-ins to integrate Twitter into your presentations that also are quite interesting if you want to gain some control over the backchannel. They can be accessed at:

    Happy New Year!
    Paul Gibler

  2. paul says:

    Thanks for the comment and for the links, Paul. I’ll check out these resources. It’s a fascinating trend and I’ve enjoyed being able to follow conferences by following Twitter streams. I’ll enjoy watching it play out at upcoming conferenes and meetings.

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