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The Networked Audience Is Here. Now. Are You Ready?

January 9th, 2010

We thought we knew the world of public presentations. We developed material, practiced the craft and delivered an experience to our audiences. Our craft was to entertain, to inform, to provide an experience. The audience’s role was to sit, absorb the experience, be quiet, and wait until some lucky few have had their chance to stand and ask a question or make a comment.

Then things started to change rapidly. Technology-enabled societal shifts started moving the ground under our feet.

Kids with laptops in a flower fieldThe Rise of the Networked Audience

Through global communication technologies, people of all types now have access to each other and access to information at any point in time or space. They’ve gotten used to the idea that they can and should be able to discuss, rate, rank, prioritize, link and create conversations in text with anyone, at any time. They comment on and rate everything—movies, web sites, blog posts, music, videos, books, vendors, manufacturers… and you… and me. Social media everywhere has made this hyper-connectedness a part of everyday life.

They expect to do these things with the premise that everybody gains. That it’s their right. That sharing information and opinions is a duty, a core ethos of society. It gives us all the ability to help mold the world by collectively indicating what we think is good, and what isn’t so good. It’s a way to help other people make choices. It’s a new way of looking at the world. It is a new sort of collaboration.

This kind of communication can be terrifying because everybody in the room and around the globe can now rate you, share their thoughts, comment about your work for better or worse and point out mistakes—or what they think are mistakes—even in the middle of your sentences. That is scary. For some people, it is scary beyond measure. Especially if you grew up in a world where ratings, sharing and communication would only happen after the fact, would only happen once in a while, were fairly diffuse – and thus easy to write off as “not relevent.”

Real time text communication between audience members during a public event has recently been referred to as “the back channel.” It is the whispers between participants, discussions in the hallway, notes passed surreptitously, expanded to global scale at instant speeds.

Calling this “the back channel” seems too clinical, and too “geek technically focused” in a way that hides the real change. The real change is that the audience in every room has now become networked. Today’s audience is real-time connected—networked to each other and the world—all the time. A networked audience changes the game for presenters, speakers, the audience, and the rest of the world outside of the room.

My Transition to Life with the Networked Audience

My transition to public presenting, speaking and working with networked audiences, in the stream of a high volume back channel, started several years ago. After living in a few instant-messaging driven organizations, I became the shepherd for a project in a large, public-facing customer environment. This environment included a multi-hundred thousand user base of “actively engaged” (to be somewhat euphemistic!) participants. Little did I know that this project had been in motion for two and a half years, had been claimed to be weeks from completion perpetually, and that the mere mention of the project drew community reactions ranging from snickers to public derision.

I was not prepared for what happened as I started speaking at community presentations, facilitated meetings and publishing blog posts in this environment. Presentations and meetings included voice and a highly active text chat back channel. The back channel often veered way off topic from the core of the presentation, and the content could sometimes be described as caustic. Not to mention that the volume of commentary often made me feel like I’d been tossed into white water rapids without notice.

Maybe this sounds familiar to people who have just experienced the public Twitter back channel at conferences for the first time!

Some people clearly “entered the venue with both guns drawn,” whether the venue was a live event or blog interactions. Within hours of a blog post there would be 30, 50 or more comments, some positive, some helpful, and some was decidedly not positive.

It took learning, experimentation and time to figure out a successful model for living with and in a high volume back channel world. People around me said “Joel, ignore the hecklers. Don’t engage them. It’ll only make it worse.” I found that advice to be somewhat unhelpful.

Hecklers as a Power Source—Really!

Over time I decided that most  hecklers are, at their core, good people. They care deeply, and are driven to help, share and improve the target of their ire. Their behavior is borne out of frustration. This frustration often grows from being ignored by the people they are trying to help. They often feel powerless to help fix what they see as critical, fixable mistakes that those in power do not see. An understanding of these dynamics has changed how I manage the back channel. Practice with approaches that recognize these dynamics have led to repeated public success even in the face of difficult situations.

With care these people became staunch allies, defended what we were doing and how we were doing it, and collectively kept discussions on track when I could not be around (or when I was asleep, as well over half the users were many time zones away in other countries!) When the project concluded, the community rallied, dozens of participants openly declared it was the best public process they’d seen, and many spontaneously commented that participation in the project had radically changed their impression of the company for the better.

Through practice, development of new skills and consistent demonstration that participants were my top priority,  these events became a collaborative creation process. “Turning” a heckler in the back channel from the dark side became a recognizable skill, as was enabling the participants to help with management of the back channel.

Living in the Public Stream

Living with networked audiences’ streams of public back channel communication is different from anything I’d encountered before. The scale of communication was sometimes staggering, leading me to wonder “How in the world is it possible to handle more comments than will fit on screen while trying to make progress on the plan I had in mind at the start of the session?” The engagement psychology is different when the participants in the room are listening while engaged with each other in text chat, and simultaneously engaged with people all around the globe. Everything I said or did could and often was blogged, snarked about in IM or Twitter, published in various forms throughout the community, and praised or criticized in real time or shortly thereafter. In addition to the real time challenges, the public record of the event would often be captured in the backchannel and preserved by search engines until… who knows how long… maybe forever?

I will be the first to admit that initially this was terrifying. It seemed impossible and unfair. Then I realized that every single person was there because they wanted to be there. They wanted to help. They wanted to be involved. They formed a powerful team once they decided that I was “for real,” that they were respected, and that they did not have to fight to be heard.

It’s Time to Jump, but Don’t Look Down!

At first I felt a lot like Wile E. Coyote, of Coyote and Roadrunner cartoon fame, just after he’s run off the cliff. You’ve seen that freeze-frame. He runs off the cliff, he’s suspended in mid-air, and he just hangs there. He looks around with a quizzical expression on his face. If you’ve seen this bit before, you start saying “Don’t look down!” to the TV. You know the minute he looks down and realizes he’s off the cliff, he’s going to fall, and it’s a long drop to the bottom of the canyon.

At this moment, I am pretty sure that a lot of us feel like we’re way out over the edge of the cliff as presenters and speakers, that there is no ground under us, no road under us. We are desperate not to look down.

I’ve been there. You may not believe it yet, but the new world is not that scary. It is different. There are new rules that can make you feel like you’ve landed in a foreign country where the language and customs make no sense. Make the jump. Once you do, I’m betting you’ll find it to be an even more satisfying place to live than the world you’ve known.

The good news is that past the Wile E. Coyote moment of today, there is a world that is interesting, powerful and positive. The audience is already headed there, and some have been living there for years. Now is the time to make the leap.

More Good News

There is an upside. Continuous communication and ratings open up a phenomenal opportunity to know what works and what doesn’t. To know what works for each audience and each venue and to be able to change things that don’t work, on the fly, into things that work and work well. Continuous improvement requires access to a continuous flow of information and the ability to manage and act on it. That is exactly what the networked audience, and the real time back channel offers you.

Whether you agree that society should work this way, that people should think this way, is not relevant. You may think “that’s wrong,” “it’s rude,” “they shouldn’t be comparing notes,” “they shouldn’t be talking to each other,” “they shouldn’t be chattering while I’m doing my important work.” Really, people have been commenting and reacting all along, but quietly in small groups. It’s been there, but we weren’t really listening because it was easy to miss. The social media phenomenon is training many industries to understand that people and organizations will be rated, and succeed or fail, based on their ability to listen and to take positive action based on hearing what their potential and current customers have to say.

Now the audience is engaged with you, the other people in the room, and their social networks. The audience, who we used to think of as the people in the room, now extends across the globe. Their reactions and comments happen during the event and after the event, are shared globally and persist far past the event. In some cases, the social network trail becomes an historical record of the event.

The Game Has Already Changed. Are You Ready?

The networked audience is here. They are here now in the room and across the globe. They have changed the game. Now we are the network, together. Let’s harness the power that we all create together and see what we can do!

This, however, leaves us with the sticky problem of how to catch up with the networked audience, to be ready to be participate fully and powerfully with them in the world that they already inhabit.

Maybe we’ll catch up by going to a few seminars or reading a book. You’ll see some things and hear some new words, but will you end up with the new skills you need? Probably not.

Maybe we’ll catch up by just “try it” in front of a crowd of hundreds or thousands and hope that it all works out? This may not be a good plan, and reminds me of one of my favorite book titles “Hope Is Not A Method.” If it doesn’t work out… well, there are already plenty of publicly documented cases to show what that experience is like.

I’ve got a solution, but this post is already plenty long, so I think I’ll leave this as a cliff-hanger and say “watch this space!”

  1. January 11th, 2010 at 03:00 | #1

    Interesting post….I found my years experience working in RSL clubs (like variety clubs in the U.S) in Australia with an Stage Show and as a soloist singer, has set me up well to deal with hecklers. Over 20 years in the buiz I developed a few great ways to either incorporate hecklers into my shows or silence them. Use it! is the best advice I can can give for dealing with hecklers, ignore them at your peril! it doesn’t mean give them what they want, and there isn’t enough room here to go into all the techniques I discovered, but lets just say I was the girl in our stage show that had to go down into the audience every night and find a “victim” and sit yes….sit in his lap twiddle his hair and sing “Daddy” to him…this performance cured me of any fear I ever had of an audience and I developed great come backs and abilities to deal with the audience as a whole, (they are often as one)…or individuals. Greifers at my live TV show get booted though I won’t even bother with them, but hecklers…..I love a good heckle 🙂 its part of the fun!

  2. January 11th, 2010 at 13:07 | #2

    Very well put, as like you have mastered Judo. The ability to use ones weight with the flow. I commend your thinking outside the box.:)

  3. January 12th, 2010 at 20:32 | #3

    Love this post on public speaking.

  4. January 13th, 2010 at 12:14 | #4

    Thanks for your thoughts @Paisley Beebe , @Lap Liberty and @Trevor . Although I’ve never actually sat in someone’s lap to work the crowd, that’s an interesting metaphor for how to help people be part of the power source for the event. I can see how that upbringing got you to fearless – good work!

  1. March 22nd, 2010 at 19:29 | #1
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