Something interesting happened at 140 Conference LA this morning. Until now, the range of content has been from excellent to very good.
This morning, however, Mark Victor Hansen and Robert G. Allen took the stage. Hansen you may recognize as the author of the popular Chicken Soup for the Soul series. The 10-minute session began modestly with the two men announcing they were Twittering their entire new book, Cash in a Flash, 140 characters at a time. Mild interest from the crowd.
And then it began. A barrage of the word "monetizing," vague overpromises of making us all rich and sound-bite tidbits worthy of Fox News.
The #140conf Twitter backchannel exploded with criticism, calling the presenters everything from spammers to snake oil salesmen to infomercial hosts. Snark abounded about their transparent sell and one-way tone:
Afterwards, I ran into Cliff Atkinson, author of Beyond Bullet Points and of a soon-to-be-released book called The Backchannel. That book is about precisely this phenomenon: how a lively backchannel at a conference can (or should) influence and change the live event.
If the presenters had been privy to the waves of snark accosting them via Twitter, what would they have done? Presenters in this instance have three basic options:
- Ignore it and continue with the planned talk. If the criticism is petty or minimal, this would be a valid option. There is a difference between one person remarking "I really don't like the speaker's tie" and "this entire talk is a sales pitch that doesn't respect the audience." Know the difference.
- Acknowledge and continue as planned. Acknowledge the criticism with humor. Audiences tend to appreciate and warm to self-deprecating humor, especially in the social media space. (Note: it must be sincere, however.) A remark along the lines of, "well, I see from Twitter that the infomercial is a bust. So instead, I'd like to see if I could interest you in a Bass-o-Matic" might not go amiss. Oddly, having the humility to acknowledge a disconnect is a powerful way to reestablish a connection with an audience. You might not sell your product, but you could take a step to establishing a better relationship.
- Acknowledge and change. Acknowledge the criticism with humor and change the talk. If the talk is failing miserably and the backchannel is reflecting that sentiment, the cure is to start a dialogue. Throw out your script and ask the audience what they want. Establish a connection by listening first (let's face it; if you'd listened before, you probably wouldn't be in this mess). Ask them what they would like to know from you. Be willing to be just yourself, even with some stumbles and some missteps. Remember that people will forget what you said; they will forget what you did. But they will never forget how you made them feel.
In today's case, Hansen and Allen should have done #3. Or at least #2. The Twitter audience is far too skeptical and values transparency and dialogue far too highly to endure a direct sell, and they should have known that. Barring that advance knowledge, they should have been aware of the backchannel, acknowledged the criticism, thrown out their planned infomercial and just asked the audience what they wanted.
Most social media folks will avow that they hate "monetization," and yet, we all want to be paid for our work. Hansen and Allen do have a wealth of expertise that we as an audience could have engaged with. For example, they are published authors of a business book--perhaps the audience would have liked to hear about the publishing process and incorporating Twitter into it. Or anecdotes about the development process. Or how they combined charity with the book publication.
The backchannel does provide value, and it provides value to a live speaker as well. If you don't know your audience going in, monitor the backchannel and be prepared to change.