Over the past few weeks, I’ve been marveling over the experience I had during and after the Legal Marketing Association’s annual national conference. It was obviously an honor to be invited to speak about how law firms are using social media from an in-house marketing/communications perspective. The presentation itself went very well — it was even SRO (thanks in part to a too-small room!). Clearly there was a LOT of interest in the subject matter.
So, too, I discovered, there was a LOT of discussion during the the session itself on Twitter from people both in the room and even a couple who were miles away. For a very thorough (and terrific) summary of the session and the tweets during (and after) it, please check out Lindsay Griffiths’ blog post here. As you can see, there are a couple of spots where I was pretty outspoken and even a bit provacative in my comments. For those that know me, that’s probably not a surprise. However, for those that don’t know me, there was a bit of purposeful hyperbole to some of my comments since this was a live presentation, in a hot, crowded and increasingly stuffy room, after lunch — a combination that has proven deadly to many panels I’ve sat through at innumerable conferences.
I’ve participated in these types of panels in the past and have always tried to be thought-provoking. Sometimes there have been questions or comments during or after the presentation. In these face-to-face encounters, people are usually polite, even somewhat restrained in their candor given the immediacy and personal nature of this type of interaction with me and other panelists.
But this panel was completely different, thanks to Twitter and the tweets coming from the audience. The comments were coming fast and furious — nearly simultaneous with the panel’s own statements, and many contained some valuable candor and interesting commentary. But thanks to the magic of Twitter, the comments were all silent! Not a sound, other than the soft tapping of a laptop keyboard or mobile device. In retrospect, it was really amazing, and astonishing, that the majority of interaction in the room during the presentation was occuring digitally. Absent a couple of quick questions at the end (limited by our running out of time), the only people talking were the panelists. I joked to someone afterwards that it was like we were in an electronic echo chamber, with a couple of mute hecklers thrown in for spice and variety.
I’m still conflicted about the whole experience, mostly due to what a sea change it represents in the power of the audience. In the past, as an audience member, you had a couple of choices to make if provoked by a speaker. You could mumble to yourself or even walk out, or if you were really PO’d, you could yell out (something members of Congress seem to be particularly adept at recently). Now, though, if you’re motivated enough, you can just whip out your iPhone or Blackberry, type no more than 140 characters, and presto! Instant feedback or rebuttal. (Certainly a long ways from the olden days of “Jane, you ignorant …” For those too young for this SNL pop culture reference, check out this.)
My progressive side says, “Get over it. This is the way things are now. It’s great that we can now comment immediately — it will change the way many speakers present. We will adapt to the change.” And we will. Before the presentation, we attempted to get wi-fi access to the room so that we could have the tweets onscreen to respond to in real time. Right before I started speaking, I actually was able to check a few tweets about the beginning of the presentation on my Blackberry (actually joked about it to the audience). As the presentation continued, though, it was nearly impossible to check for new tweets and still pay attention to the presentation and make the points I was trying to make.
And that’s where the old fogey in me starts to pipe up and make me sound like a parent or teacher. “If you’re tweeting, you’re not listening. And if you’re not listening, you’re not participating.” Yes, listening is participating. If you’re more concerned about tweeting things, there is a great chance that you’ll miss something that’s said (maybe even something important). It could even be that you are disturbing others in the room. I heard a tweeter (tweep?) in my presentation say afterwards that a fellow attendee told her it was rude to tweet during a session. More and more colleges are agreeing with this sentiment by banning laptops in cell phones in class (see this interesting blog post).
For me, the jury is still out on whether tweeting during a speech or presentation is a great new thing or just rude. Maybe it’s both. I see tremendous benefit for non-attendees. I even see benefits to presenters in some circumstances. I also see how it can be rude — or at least impolite — and it certainly is a bit disconcerting for a speaker. But I’m grateful to have had the experience with it as both an attendee and a presenter. It won’t end anytime soon, but I wonder if there will be an evolving etiquette to it. Or that some will tire of it simply because it takes a lot of energy to do it well. Or that speakers or conferences will take steps to stop it.
So, what do you think? Definitely more to come on this. No matter my conflicted feelings on this topic, I do love the fact that I live in a time where we can even be thinking and debating about this stuff. Fascinating, incredible, frightening, overwhelming… And that certainly goes without saying.