Paying Attention at Conferences

textiingI’m very lucky to get the opportunity to attend a number of conferences, both because of my speaking engagements and because I work in an active region that regular holds opportunities for learning for members of the emergency response community. And I know that I’m lucky, so I take every opportunity to attend these conferences and trainings and do my best to share what I’ve learned as widely as I can because I know that not everyone is as lucky as I am, but they still have the need to learn about these topics.

And sometimes that can be problematic. You see, after the conference or training, I have to go back to work and back to blogging and back to my family and life. I don’t have the time repackage and redistribute this information. So I do it in real time via Twitter. And that’s problematic because I’m usually staring at my phone or tablet and typing furiously.

Think of the last time you were in a conference and saw someone pounding away at their BlackBerry. What did you think they were doing? Did you roll your eyes and wonder why they even came to the conference? Yep, that was me livetweeting.

Livetweeting. Hearing what’s being presented, digesting it, repackaging it to Twitter length, typing it up on a tiny phone screen, adding a hashtag (sometimes adding pictures) and posting it. And doing it quickly enough that I can accurately represent what’s being said and being sure to get all of the really good parts. So not only am I not not paying attention, I’m probably paying more attention than many of the glassy-eyed folks who gets the the benefit of the doubt with regards to “paying attention.”

And I’m not the only one that does this, in fact, the younger your audience the more likely they’ll be devoting time during presentations to digital devices. So what does that mean for, in each of the three roles you fulfill around presentations: as speaker, as a member of the audience, as someone who is not even at the conference.

First, as someone in the audience, this should be easy to deal with. The person sitting next to you tweeting away has identified themselves as someone who is a) taking lots of notes and b) very happy to share it. Say hi. Give them your card. Ask where you can find their notes and if you can download them. (And if they’ve just been playing Plants vs. Zombies for the last hour, they’ll totally be shamed into paying attention during the next session.) Voilà! Instant notes and a new colleague.

As a speaker, here you might need make some changes, but all of them are positive. First, every recommendation about how to improve presentations you’ll find talks about presenting less information on slides and focusing the content. This helps your livetweeters get the gist of the slide more quickly, but it will also helps your non-tweeting audience digest and integrate your presentation. One idea per slide. Plain language. Descriptive images. Your livetweeters will love you, your audience will love you and you’ll be a better presenter.

The second great reason speakers should embrace social media is all for them, they’ve got the opportunity to get real, free, unfiltered immediate feedback on their presentation. Sure it’s difficult to see it while you’re presenting (even I haven’t mastered that–yet), but if your audience all used a hashtag (maybe one that you recommended to them) think of how easy it would be to collect all of those notes into one place. What a great repository of real-time feedback on your performance, kudos you’ve received and a contact list of folks who were interested in your topic enough to come and listen to you.

As an outside observer, people using social media conferences is simply the bee’s knees. You’ve got the world at your fingertips, all you need to do is follow along. Look for the announced hashtag for the conference you find most interesting and check it out to see if anyone is tweeting during the conference! If you’re stuck for topics to follow, check out the Healthcare Hashtag Project, where folks register conference hashtags and help get a transcription of them.

The reason I bring this topic up is because of a conference I recently attended. The conference was actively advertising their hashtag and having their staff livetweet vociferously. And yet there were still complaints from folks in the audience deriding those on their phones. Which I think is a shame, for all of the potential good reasons above. What do you think about livetweeting and using social media during conferences? (And I’d love to know if you hate it!)

EDIT: someone did an academic research study on this! (PDF)


21 thoughts on “Paying Attention at Conferences

  1. Tweeting from conferences is great but you can’t both Tweet and take comprehensive notes about what you are hearing or even necessarily comprehend the context of what is being presented. Tweeting a conference presentation takes a specific skill set and some practice and skill. However if you choose to do this, you will add greatly to the reach of the conference.

    1. Definitely takes practice. I’m much better now than I was before. As for notes, I find that I end up using my livetweets as my notes. Similar to taking notes, I tend to grok the material much better when it’s written down. Having to reformat the idea or thought into 140 characters forces me to learn it much more quickly. I find it to be like speed-reading, definitely not for everyone.

      All that said, my purpose for posting this was that I still get the stinkeye when livetweeting. Why the hate for livetweeters?

  2. I find it hard to tweet and listen at the same time but I also find It adds a little edge to my focus on what I am picking up. Since im not transcribing when im tweeting, I often find myself digesting the info vs just recording it. Maybe we need technology that tweets while we think…though I woukd need some sophisticated filters :)

    1. I agree with you there, Nicole. I definitely am at the top of my game and hyper-focused when livetweeting. When I’m not, I find my mind wandering. Maybe I just adult ADHD!

  3. When I live-tweet, I make sure to use my laptop. That way, I can use text-expanding software to quickly write things. Or I’ll write it all in a text document, run it through an RSS feed creator, and have it near-live-tweet as I go.

    1. Teach me, master!

      Do you think it makes a difference in how you’re perceived by the other conference attendees? Is what you do more acceptable because you do it on a laptop, and I do it on a phone?

      1. Yeah, the laptop is more acceptable. I’ve seen people around me and on roundtable talks look at me funny for having my phone with me. I even had a professor at that university that rhymes with “Bob Hoskins” reprimand me for “playing on the iphone instead of paying attention” when I asked her to clarify something she mentioned. I didn’t take it personally because I knew how it looked for me to just be typing away on the phone.

        I’m thinking of writing up a blog post on how to do the notes-to-twitter thing. I’ll let you know when I do. It requires MS Excel, a notepad application, a twitter account, a DropBox account, and a account.

  4. Even though I am an avid twitter user, I have mixed feelings on conference livetweeting. I appreciate the positives that you outlined because I hadn’t thought about several of them. On the other hand, I have encountered a few challenges: (1) As an audience member: I have found it difficult to tweet and also catch all of the resources/info being shared. Sometimes I’ll stop to digest and re-package something for twitter, and realize that I missed the last comment or audience question. In addition to taking notes, I also like to jot down the information’s relevance to my specific project or colleagues. Sometimes I don’t have time to think about those connections when I’m busy tweeting. (2) As a presenter: I get a lot of energy from the audience. It is great to make eye contact with the audience and feel their engagement and interest in the topic. When many people are looking down (whether tweeting or checking their email), I would argue that it can be more difficult to create that same relationship between the people in the room. Perhaps it would be beneficial if presenters can ask for a show of hands at the beginning of a session- “who is livetweeting?” It could make connections between social media users, identify (as you mention) who to approach for notes afterwards, and remove some of the stigma/stinkeyes being thrown their way. (3) As an outside observer: I find some conference tweets more valuable than others. If they are just random quotes, I skip right by. If they are links to specific resources or slides, then I tend to click on it.

    1. Those are great points, Leah, and I really like asking the audience beforehand, I’m definitely going to try that at my next conference.

      I’m hearing a lot of people saying that they find it difficult to take notes and tweet at the same time. I completely agree. I could never take notes and tweet at the same time. Instead, my tweets ARE my notes. I realize that doesn’t work for everyone’s style of note-taking, but it brings up the point: if we’re taking notes, isn’t that just as distracting?

      So what do you guys think? Do you miss things the speaker says while taking notes, or are we just better at taking notes today and someday might be better at capturing digitally?

      1. I’m with Leah. While I’m trying to turn the last key point into an understandable, correctly spelled 140-char tweet, I miss the next point. I much prefer having analog notes and tweeting out my takeaways at the end. Of course, when I’m not able to be at an event myself I always appreciate the point-by-point livetweeters. I’m just not the best person to be one of them!

        But I do enjoy being at a conference and using Twitter as a backchannel to comment/clarify/add resources to the conversation. Seeing what others have found are the key points can be useful, and it’s a lot easier to RT people who are doing a good job of catching everything than to compose my own.

        As a speaker, it’s always fascinating to see what people chose to highlight from what I said. Not always what I would have thought people would take away.

  5. I had a thought while talking to a friend (@michellesipics) on Twitter. When I think about livetweeting, I think about tweeting the whole thing. But that’s not how it should work. If there were three or four people in the audience each tweeting the 20% of the presentation that they found important or interesting, or that they heard, that should cover all of the pertinent points in the presentation.

    We shouldn’t be livetweeting so much as we should be crowdsourcing!

    What do you think about this tack?

  6. I’ve been taking meeting minutes for quite a few years, so live-tweeting comes pretty naturally to me. (At this point, it feels more normal than regular note-taking.) I’ve found it to be a great way to share information with our audience at work. I also love watching other people live-tweet events I wanted to be at, but couldn’t make it to IRL. That being said, I always feel self-conscious because I know it looks rude. Maybe we should make up some “I’m not rude, I’m just live-tweeting” buttons to wear at conferences.

  7. Interesting conversation. I always live tweet at events I attend. I never paid any attention to everyone around me because I was so engrossed with paying attention and tweeting. I use a laptop and phone, sometimes both to add pics to tweets. As for official events here in Chicago, the official live tweeter is introduced to the audience. It lets them know that there is an official account of the event and it helps promote RT/sharing. We also announce the hashtag and welcome the audience to ask questions through Twitter. I always sit off to the side and in the front so I don’t bother anyone. I think this prevents anyone from complaining if it’s officially sanctioned. We did this for a Healthy Chicago event where Sec Sebelius was a guest. In fact, before she went on stage, she was standing over my shoulder reading my tweets as I was posting them for CDPH. Wish someone had tweeted a pic of that! Also, you don’t always know who the journalists are that attend these events, and they always tweet and take photos, exactly what we want.

    1. I LOVE this idea! I’ve got a couple of presentations this week in Illinois. I’ll definitely announce and try to normalize it. Thanks!

  8. My job doesn’t allow for me to leave for conferences, full stop. It’s either never written into my job title, or there is no money to allocate for it. Conference tweets are generally the only way I can hear about information I should be getting – I’ll see an interesting bit or two, then reach out to the person for more information and to see if I can get a set of slides or more comprehensive notes. It’s an easy way to see what is going on in the greater conference world as a whole, and one of the only way I’ll get any information out of the sessions at all.

    1. This is SO true. While I get to go to a number of conferences these days, absolutely none of them are for work (dirty little secret: I take vacation time and don’t tell my boss where I’m going). So, when I’m not presenting, it’s a great way to meet the folks around the world who are doing amazing things.

  9. Hi Jim

    Great post. I think over time Twitter is getting conference organisers and speakers to think more about engaging participants in their topic/discussion/debate instead of just the two or three people who manage to ask a question from the floor. My blog post today – is on the related theme of whether to use a Twitter Wall at events. There seems to be an emerging consensus in the UK that this is a good thing unless it’s a TED style event where more direct engagement is going on with the audience. What do you think?

    1. That’s really interesting, Russell. I’ve only been at a couple of conferences with a Twitter Wall. And I remember being the only person using it, so it was my face over and over and over again. Starting giving shout-outs on the big screen.

      Thanks so much for your post, what a great resource!

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