Christina Gleason has written an excellent rebuttal to my recent Smart Meetings article, 5 Reasons You Shouldn’t Tweet During Presentations. Really. She put the word ‘poppycock’ into her title, which is enough all by itself to convince me that she would be a ton of fun to hang out with. (‘Poppycock” did not make my list of happy sounding words but it probably should have). She also makes a lot of intelligent points. But since I still disagree with her on a few things, I wanted to write a little more and see if we could come to a common understanding.
First off, I think Christina and others like her are in a unique position. She is in the social media and online content creation industry, which means that tweeting during a presentation is an essential part of her job. If you are sitting in as a proxy for others and are responsible for making sure they know what they’re missing, then you absolutely should be active during presentations. It’s not just OK, it’s expected.
The truth is, though, most audience members in most presentations aren’t in the social media or online content creation industries. I speak on leadership, change management, generational issues, communication, and other professional development topics. The vast majority of my audiences do not have an online following they’re answering to. To be fair, the vast majority of my audiences don’t tweet or do anything else with their phones or computers during my presentations, but the ones that do are very rarely “generating constructive questions for the Q&A period” or “creating discussion about both the topic and the speaker’s handling of it.” They’re either tweeting a sentence or two to a small collection of family and friends (which could wait)…
Or they’re checking email or playing games, which Christina suggests they’d be doing anyway. That is not necessarily true. There isn’t a single public speaker who always and continuously engages every audience member for the 30 or 60 or 90 minutes that he or she is talking, although it should be our goal to do so. When audience members get distracted by their technologies, some of the responsibility falls on us to figure out how to do a better job and prevent it from happening. But there really can be no argument that our phones and computers have a tendency to distract us whether we want them to or not. I’m certain everyone reading this has spent more time surfing online than you intended to, because one click led to another and we all know what happens. It’s also true that all of us, in a moment of boredom, are occasionally incapable of not reaching for our phones as a distraction, even when we have nothing in particular we plan on looking for. If the Internet is available, it will occasionally distract us from whatever we would otherwise be doing – like, for example, powering through a boring moment of a presentation until something more interesting comes along.
And lastly, I want to revise my fourth point to the following: It’s impossible to have a coherent discussion on a Twitter feed during someone’s presentation and give your full attention to the person speaking. That presumes the person speaking is actually giving you enough content, because it might be that the reason you can have such a long and healthy Twitter discussion is because the person on stage is filling a 60-minute time slot with 15 minutes of good content. But if your brain is trying to synthesize the various ideas on a Twitter feed in order to properly formulate your contribution to it, you are not also synthesizing everything the speaker is saying in order to formulate your thoughts about his or her speech – anymore than you can have two separate conversations with two different people at the same time without occasionally having to say, “What did you just say?” The nice thing about Twitter is that you can always look back and see what they just said, but that’s not usually true of the person speaking.
I agree with Christina that tweeting during presentations can “increase engagement with the topic and encourage more lively discussion at the end.” But it’s also true that tweeting during presentations can be an unhealthy distraction and ultimately prevent you from picking up some of the finer points of the person you’ve come to listen to. If you’ll remember, I introduced my main arguments in the original article by saying, “I know there are excellent reasons to tweet during presentations, but I also believe it that doing so can be far more harmful than beneficial.” To dismiss the mere possibility that tweeting during a presentation can be harmful as complete BS (as Christina and her friend Kelby Carr have done) is careless at best and, at worst, surprisingly narrow-minded from a person cool enough to put ‘poppycock’ in her headline.