Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
ISSN 1534-0937
Libraries · Policy · Technology · Media

Selection from Cites & Insights 4, Number 6: May 2004


Speaking and Attention: It All Depends?

Walt Crawford

Elizabeth Lane Lawley (henceforth Liz) posted an entry on her high-profile weblog, mamamusings, entitled “confessions of a backchannel queen.” She was at an invitational symposium. The meeting room was “laptop-enabled, with power and Wifi to spare…so I headed straight for IRC.” (Internet chat software, for those even more ignorant of this stuff than I am.). “At the last few tech conferences I’ve been at, there’s been an IRC channel specifically to talk about what’s happening in the presentations…so I set one up for today’s symposium, and people started trickling in.” This means that people who’ve chosen to go to a conference session immediately set up a real-time text conversation so they can be typing in their own commentary while the speakers are speaking in the same room.

You can see the whole essay and the dozens of comments that followed at; it’s in the March 2004 archives.

Liz says she’s more comfortable expressing opinions in the text-based IRC environment than she would be face-to-face—and she “was an active participant in the ongoing backchannel as the various speakers presented their information.” After lunch, she posted critical comments about a speaker’s presentation and someone else called her to task. He wondered whether it was fair to criticize someone not there to defend themselves, noted that this was a scary audience, and suggested they should be more generous. Liz felt this comment “had a chilling effect, and it made me reluctant to do the kind of stream-of-consciousness chatter in the channel that I find often sparks the best responses and conversation. Context is everything, of course.” She notes that people who know her know not to take her snarkier comments too seriously (sometimes we do, sometimes we don’t—I think Liz takes it easy on me because I’m just a grumpy old coot).

Did Liz stop backchatting and “monitor the content” (that is, give the speakers undivided attention)? Nope. She set up another channel “specifically to house the smart-ass remarks.” The results, apparently, were that the original channel quieted down—and the second channel got extreme enough so “people were noticing the ripples of laughter at times when laughter seemed inappropriate.” Still, she concluded that what she got from the backchannel(s) “equaled or surpassed” what she got from the speakers—and planned to be back on IRC for the rest of the conference, “maybe in more than one channel again, maybe not.” She also asserted that the backchannel is intended “to help make your presentation better.”

Weblog Comments

There were lots of comments on this posting, but if it hadn’t been for the very first one, I might have skipped the whole thing. Dorothea Salo (who I’ve never met but whose thinking and writing I also admire) said, “Knowledge that such a channel would be available and employed would nudge me pretty strongly toward not presenting at a particular conference.… There’s just something that feels wrong about using the comfort you find in the textual environment to rip into the comfort of others—especially others who, at that moment, are putting a lot more of themselves on the line than any of the backchannelers.”

Liz, an educator and pundit, responded that she spends most working hours “dealing with rooms full of people looking for stuff to tear down about what I’m saying” and that the backchannel “doesn’t create these ideas or comments. It simply reveals them.” She would rather “let this stuff out in a semi-open environment than try to pretend that it doesn’t exist.” She believes the backchannel lets her “understand how people are responding” and modify her presentation if need be—and to be “more realistic about the value of being up in front of a room of people, talking at (instead of with) them.” She went on to suggest that people are opposed to backchannels because they haven’t taken part: “Fear of the unknown is a powerful thing.”

Salo responded that feedback is good but negative feedback has a tendency to snowball—then said, “We can agree to disagree. The impression I still get, though, is that yes, these channels can create negativity where it didn’t exist before and no, they don’t improve the presentation for everybody.” She also noted that a speaker will typically not be part of the backchannel, at least not if they’re doing a planned presentation! She noted the difference between a challenging room (where “energy flows openly between speaker and challengers”) and a negative room, with people snarking and laughing for no apparent reason.

That was the beginning. To cite some of the many other comments:

Ø    One person who has never used chat software during a conference presentation noted, “It strikes me as being a way to keep distance from what’s going on.”

Ø    Scott A. Golder thought that the backchannel looked like “rudeness, however cloaked in ‘technology’ it may have been.” He considered it disrespectful to go to someone’s talk and not pay attention—as though you opened up a newspaper while the speaker was speaking. He thought a speaker should be given time to say what they have to say before dialogue takes over—and would hate to see wireless access make it socially acceptable to be disrespectful to a speaker.

Ø    Liz didn’t buy that. She called the backchannel “an opportunity for people to raise valid questions and criticisms, and have a dialog about them” and “an occasional outlet for shifting focus from the speaker.” She didn’t think that was always rude—an assertion followed by noting that lecture mode “is an awful way to convey most kinds of information” and that you don’t learn well while sitting on uncomfortable chairs for hours on end, listening and not participating. She didn’t consider it disrespectful to comment on a talk while it’s going on—and wondered whether a whispered conversation with tablemates was better than a text backchannel. Finally, Liz noted that you can’t dictate attention, and that the burden is on the speaker “to make what you’re saying relevant and accessible.” And that some people’s presentation skills don’t improve because they don’t learn from the responses of the audience.”

Ø    Golder responded: most of the time it was rude not to pay attention, critique and dialog should take place after the presentation (with the benefit of not missing anything potentially of value), and when you’ve committed to attending a talk, you should go to the whole thing.

Ø    I stepped in (after more pro-backchannel comments) to side with Salo.

I’d be reluctant to present at a conference where I knew participants considered it reasonable and not impolite to carry on their own e-discussions (or actual discussions) during my presentation, commenting on that presentation. Particularly if they somehow believed that those discussions, which I wouldn’t see (at least not in real time, not without disrupting the presentation), were supposed to be for my own good.”

Fortunately, as I noted, I’m not part of the technorati and unlikely to be invited to events like this.

I guess social norms are different for different situations. Where I am speaking—always by invitation, pretty much always to librarians, never more than a few times a year—I expect that people who bother to show up will at least be listening for the first few minutes, not splitting their attention between me and backchatter. If I don’t keep them interested, then that’s my problem, to be sure. I’d look for signs of obvious boredom, too many people walking out, or significant snoring as indications that things had gone awry. (Incidentally, I do not regard it as impolite to quietly exit a presentation if it doesn’t interest you—I regard it as realistic.)

Ø    Shane Curcuru also saw differences of social groups and norms. At conferences like JavaOne and ApacheCon, “I’d say that speakers should expect that there will be backchannels.” At library conferences, maybe not, “although I know a number of librarian bloggers that would create one…” “The social appropriateness will vary widely depending on the kind of conference it is. Curcuru went on to say that ubiquitous laptops, Wifi, chat software “means that online behavior during large group gatherings is probably here to stay no matter what.”

Ø    Back-and-forth about the actual circumstances followed. Joi Ito chimed in, noting that he dropped out of school because he won’t sit through boring presentations. If a conference presentation is boring, “I’ll start reading email or walk into the hallway and have a discussion with someone.” Ito thinks the backchannel is more on topic than walking out of the room. Ito would love to receive text messages during his presentations.

Ø    Ralph Poole objected to inattention: “If one is not interested in the topic or the speaker, leave the room!”

Ø    Eirik Newth, a professional lecturer, discussed the practical problems of split attention for the lecturer and the extent to which the speaker loses visual feedback from an audience typing away on wireless devices.

Ø    Ito came back to slap down anyone who argues that people should pay attention. “Isn’t ‘stiff competition’ generally good? I think lecturing as a form of transmission of information has had too little competition and maybe a little back channel will help get rid of the boring drills and ugly power points.”

Ø    Adam (no last name given) disagreed. If the speaker’s taken the trouble to work out a line of argument, the whole thread may break down if they’re not allowed to develop their point. “If you as listener are gracious enough to let me have enough space to express what I’m getting at, then you can have an informed place from which to disagree with me if you are still so inclined.” Adam finds himself increasingly in situations “where there’s what I regard as an intolerable disrespect for the basic (twentieth century) conventions of discourse.”

After that, things got strange (and I do mean strange). One person noted cases where panelists appear to be checking email or backchatting, on the podium, while another panelist is speaking! The discussion continued with Liz differentiating between “engaged” speakers who work with their audiences and those who just run through their PowerPoints, reading a canned presentation. She suggested that backchat happens primarily with the latter; when the speaker’s involved, so is the audience.

Finally (for now), Salo added a posting on her own Caveat Lector weblog. Excerpts:

I know what it is that bugs me about the backchannel. I think. Let me write it down and see if I’ve got it right.

Individual people tune out of presentations individually, and do individual things to cope with their boredom (or their two-track nature, whichever). This is inevitable—and what’s more, it’s okay. It doesn’t threaten a presenter’s status as The Important Thing Going On In The Room.

…But a backchannel? Could well be more absorbing than a presentation, for reasons that have little to do with the nature or quality of the presentation. [We humans] prefer running our mouths to running our ears. Can even good presentations stand up to that? Should we really ask them to?

A Few Unpersuasive Arguments

I didn’t intersperse my comments above (except for the comment I made on the weblog) for the same reason I no longer intersperse responses to letters in Feedback. While I left out quite a few postings, I wanted to retain the flow of the discussion.

First, some cases where I find arguments wholly unpersuasive:

Ø    Unless the backchannel is visible to the speaker during a presentation (with the agreement of the speaker), I don’t see how it can “make your presentation better.” If the speaker does the same presentation repeatedly and the backchannel is archived, maybe there’s a case. (I can imagine an audience member handing me a transcript and telling me to “study it for your own good,” or pointing me to an online archive to do so—but I can’t imagine my reaction!)

Ø    There’s no contradiction between talking at people and talking with them. Good conference presentations include time for discussion, questions, even challenges—but good presentations also have narrative flow.

Ø    I don’t buy the idea that speakers (and listeners) who dislike the idea of a backchannel just haven’t tried it.

Ø    “Hours on end of sitting on uncomfortable chairs listening and not participating” is terrible. I agree. No conference should be set up that way. I also agree that lectures aren’t a great way to convey information—one reason I never set out to arrange speeches and don’t attend many lectures. Neither point has much to do with whether, once you’ve decided to attend a speech, it’s polite or reasonable to start chattering away with others while the lecture is going on.

Ø    Joi Ito may hate lectures. That doesn’t mean that lectures have no place or that all presentations are ways of enforcing rote learning. “Boring drills” haven’t been part of any presentation I’ve been to; wish I could say the same for ugly PowerPoint presentations.

I originally called these straw men. That’s too harsh. This list is also a distraction from the points I’m clumsily trying to make. Let’s get on to that before all of you out there fall asleep.

My Own Take as a Speaker

I speak occasionally—four to six events most years, never more than eight trips per year. I’m not on the “speaking circuit,” rarely repeat the same presentation, and almost always speak by invitation. Maybe this discussion hit me harder because of timing. As I read it (and wrote the first draft of this essay), I’d just returned from one freestanding speaking engagement. A couple of days later, I left to keynote a conference. And a couple of weeks later, just before revising this piece, I attended—but did not speak at—a conference dominated by the technological elite. I was looking for things at that third event that I would never have thought of before this discussion. (I didn’t find them, which may or may not be meaningful. It’s worth noting that no more than 5-10% of participants in any session used notebooks during the session, although many more had them handy.)

If your group has invited me to speak, that imposes no obligation on you personally to attend the speech. Don’t show up if you’re already pretty sure you don’t want to hear me.

If you do decide to attend, I appreciate the courtesy of, say, five minutes of full attention—listening to me long enough to get some sense of whether I’m worth listening to. I find it hard to believe that you’re really listening to me if you’re simultaneously monitoring a backchannel, much less participating.

I do not expect you to sit raptly (or feign attention) through my entire speech if I’m boring you, telling you things you already know or otherwise not deserving your attention. If you leave quietly (and I notice), I’ll assume I wasn’t meeting your needs or you had other demands on your time. If it’s clear that many people are fading away, I’ll wrap it up or change directions. Unless a presentation requires PowerPoint, I keep the lights up so I can see you and you can see me. I’ll use PowerPoint later this spring for a presentation that absolutely requires visuals—and it will be the first time in five years or so.

Feel free to leave if you’re bored. If you disagree with me me, stick around and speak up during the discussion period. I always try to leave room for discussion, and I welcome challenges.

Carrying on noticeable or audible conversations during my talk (or anyone else’s talk) is simply rude. Go out in the hallway. If you’re more involved with your electronics than with what I’m saying, I regard that as a little rude as well, and if you later raise a question that suggests you weren’t really listening, I won’t be surprised.

If you’re backchatting without being obvious, I won’t know about it. It won’t improve my presentation—I won’t have a notebook running while I speak, and my speeches change direction often enough already without adding real-time chat to the mix. All I’ll know is that you’re not paying attention. But hey, as long as it’s not widespread, I’ll just tune you out as you’re tuning me out. If it’s lots of people I’ll stop dead in my tracks and start the discussion.

If you leave after giving me a fair chance (five minutes minimum, ten minutes maximum), feel free to give me a bad rating on the conference survey form. If you stick around and hate it, make that clear. Maybe I’m a bad fit for the conference. Maybe, if you have specific comments, you will help me improve later presentations. Or maybe you just don’t learn from me in “lecture” form. That’s fine with me. I do a lot more writing than speaking and plan to keep it that way. You’re welcome to make snarky comments about my speeches during hallway discussions and over drinks. Some of you (too few!) will make them to me. Don’t be surprised if I agree with your criticism.

…and as a Listener

I do not feel I’m obliged to stay throughout a presentation, at least not in most cases. If I’m not getting anything from a speaker and there’s a way to leave unobtrusively, I’ll leave. I don’t think that’s rude. Life is too short. (Sometimes, particularly after I’ve spoken, it’s just fatigue and the loss of adrenaline setting in: I’d rather leave than fall asleep.) If I conclude that the speaker is an idiot, that I know a lot more about the topic than they do (and they’re not providing new perspectives), or that the topic just doesn’t interest me—well, I’m out of there. Usually.

I do feel I should give a speaker a chance. That means giving the speaker my undivided attention for five or ten minutes. I take notes—in longhand, because I found early on that even as a touch typist, typing distracts me from listening, where handwriting doesn’t. (That may be generational. I’m a fast touch typist, but maybe if I’d started using a notebook computer in high school, typing would be as non-distracting as handwriting. For me, it isn’t.)

I may take snarky notes. I rarely challenge a speaker in a hostile manner, and in most cases I won’t challenge a speaker unless I respect what they’ve said. Again, life is too short. I have no compunctions about discussing a session’s shortcomings in casual conversation.

It’s my job as an attendee to make intelligent choices on which sessions to attend. It’s my job to give you a chance. It’s your job to tell me and the other listeners something new, fresh, different, interesting. Much of the time, what you have to say is worthwhile, but just isn’t relevant to my needs. In which case, I’ll leave…as quietly as possible. It may not be a reflection on you at all. (If you’re horrendously bad, I’ll probably stick around to see how it all turns out.)

If I engage in vocal backchat during the session and in the room where you’re speaking, I’m wrong, I’m rude, and I apologize. But once I’m out in the hallway, you’re fair game—just as I’m fair game for listeners and ex-listeners.

Type of Conference, Type of Presentation

Maybe the norms are different for different types of conferences and for different types of sessions within a conference. I could be snarky and suggest that some of today’s technorati have decided politeness is old-fashioned and nobody deserves their full attention, but I’m sure that’s not true. A few possibilities:

Ø    A single-track conference (no choices: one speech at a time) where the presenters fill their time slots from beginning to end with canned presentations, leaving no time for discussion or challenges. This is the worst possible situation from an attendee’s view. If you’ve paid big bucks to attend, you probably feel the need to sit through all the speeches. You have my pity—and if you open a backchannel, I can understand why.

Ø    A humane single-track conference with lots of time between sessions and lots of time for discussion within sessions. Here I think there’s less excuse for listeners expecting to divide their attention between speaker and backchannel. Maybe some people really have mutated so they’re able to listen attentively to a speaker and carry on a textual conversation simultaneously. I’m skeptical; in my experience, multitasking usually means doing several things badly. Maybe I’m wrong.

Ø    Multi-track conferences where speakers are expected to leave time for discussion. If you don’t care about what’s being said, leave. You’re using a chair that could be used by someone else, someone who might benefit from the speaker.

These are all traditional events. As a speaker, I’m frequently in the oddball situation—at a multitrack conference as a keynote or plenary speaker without directly competing program sessions. There are always other things to do—exhibits, hallway conversations, sleeping in late, taking a long walk, chatting with friends in the lobby bar. I don’t expect everyone at a conference to attend a keynote. I do expect that when I’m part of one of several simultaneous sessions, people will be there because they want to be, not because it’s expected.

What about other kinds of presentations and other kinds of conferences?

Ø    If the technorati gather with the expectation that text feedback will go on during a presentation, visible to the speaker, more power to all involved. It’s a different kind of speaking and situation. I imagine it could be quite effective or quite disruptive. I don’t see how an effective linear argument can be mounted in an atmosphere of continuous interruption, but maybe that’s because I haven’t been to these conferences.

Ø    I agree completely that lectures are a lousy way to learn for many people, myself included. (That’s one of several reasons I stopped at a BA.) You can have sessions where an invited speaker is really a discussion leader—tasked to offer introductory remarks, then lead discussion for the rest of the session. Last year at the Alaska Library Association conference, after hearing feedback on my keynote, I transformed my other two programs into introduction-and-discussion sessions. It was great. If anyone wants to invite me to do a session in that manner, I’d probably love it—but are you going to pay expenses and an honorarium for a few minutes of prepared remarks? (I’ve seen one keynote where the big-name speaker, paid far more than I’ll ever see for a keynote, read a previously-published essay for five minutes, then said he wanted to discuss whatever topics interested us for the rest of the hour. As a discussion section, it might have been great; as a keynote, “ripoff” was my immediate response and that of some other audience members.)

Ø    Then there are panel discussions. There’s a big difference between a multispeaker session, which can work out so the last speaker has little or no time because other speakers hogged their slots, and a true discussion (brief remarks from each speaker and lots of back-and-forth). I’m not sure what the social norms should be in either case. I am sure I prefer the latter (and dread being the last speaker in a multispeaker panel, unless I know there’s a hardnosed timekeeper).

Wimpy Conclusion: It Depends

As a speaker, I’d appreciate your full attention for a few minutes—and I’d rather have you leave than sit there pretending to listen or chatting with others.

As a listener, I believe the speaker and listener both have obligations. If the speaker isn’t meeting my needs, my obligations shouldn’t require staying the course but do require minimizing disruption.

As a conference attendee, I want discussion. I also want to be inspired and intrigued by speakers, in ways that open discussions rarely manage.

I don’t want to hear you read that published article aloud, when I could read it myself in one-fifth the time. I do want to hear what you have to say, have the chance to probe further—and, ideally, have informal chances later to discuss things.

Is text backchat rude? That depends. If it’s done as a matter of course, I think it is.

Is audible backchat within the meeting room rude? Pretty much always.

Can you really get the most out of a speech while participating in a backchannel? I can’t prove otherwise, but I’m doubtful.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 4, Number 6, Whole Issue 49, ISSN 1534-0937, is written and produced at least monthly by Walt Crawford, a senior analyst at RLG. Opinions herein do not reflect those of RLG. Comments should be sent to Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large is copyright © 2004 by Walt Crawford: Some rights reserved.

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