Sunday, December 5, 2010

Organizing a speech with new tech tools? A no-suprises manifesto

Turns out I have something in common with Steve Martin: We've both been put on the spot and surprised by organizers using new technology tools without bothering to clue the speaker in. 

In my case, I gave a keynote talk about social media a couple of years ago. At the end, an audience member who'd been glaring at me throughout the talk said, "I sent in a couple of questions ahead of time--I wish you'd addressed those." I turned to the organizer, who said, "Yes, our new event registration allows us to take questions for the speaker in advance. I guess we should have shared them with you." Yes, indeed. That fellow had been a distraction for me--and I for him, a pairing that could easily have been avoided while improving the experience for all.

Martin's comeuppance was more public and awkward. He was mid-event at the 92nd Street Y in New York, being interviewed onstage by journalist Deborah Solomon about his art collection and his new (and related) book, when a staffer walked onstage and handed Solomon a note asking her to get him to talk about his career.  About 900 people were watching, both live and remotely via closed-circuit TV all over the U.S.; the distant audience had been emailing the Y, which was monitoring those comments, asking for a change in topic. While they switched gears and changed topics, both speaker and interviewer later said they were taken aback. No advance discussion had mentioned specific topics. The fact that the request had come from a distant audience wasn't shared with the two speakers. The Y made a public announcement that all attendees would get a refund and that the session "did not meet the standard of excellence you have come to expect." In an opinion article in the New York Times, aptly titled "The Art of Interruption," Martin notes:
This was as jarring and disheartening as a cellphone jangle during an Act V soliloquy. I did not know who had sent this note nor that it was in response to those e-mails. Regardless, it was hard to get on track, any track, after the note’s arrival, and finally, when I answered submitted questions that had been selected by the people in charge, I knew I would have rather died onstage with art talk than with the predictable questions that had been chosen for me. Since that night, the Y has graciously apologized for its hastiness....I can’t help wondering what we might have said if we hadn’t been stopped. Maybe we were just around the corner from something thrilling.
We're not alone in this dilemma. Readers of this blog know how a tech conference failed to alert keynoter Danah Boyd about a live Twitterstream being projected behind her...so when audience members started laughing and whispering about lewd posts about her, she had no idea what was going on, until she got offstage.

Here's the thing: It's not the technology. It's the surprises that throw the speaker off-track in these situations, and sometimes, set them up to fail.

Speakers get surprised by organizers every single day. They hear things like we have a fourth panelist, rather than three, so you'll have less time now...we'd like you to address [a complex topic not previously discussed and for which you are not prepared]...we've decided you won't have time to eat lunch because you should start speaking sooner, and much more.  While I'm a big fan of both organizers and audience members using social-media tools during presentations, those new tools require even more, not less, coordination on the part of organizers. In my experience, speakers get that: Who wants to speak and be surprised, mid-presentation?   Until now, I've urged speakers to take responsibility for how new technology is handled. But if organizers are going to keep surprising them, it's time for organizers to share the responsibility.

So here's my brief no-suprises manifesto for organizers using new technology options:
  1. Organizers should not use new technology options if you have not thought through the consequences, and have not discussed them with the speaker directly.  That might mean anything from the need for wireless access so audiences can tweet, to talking about whether and where a Twitterstream will be projected. Make no assumptions here. Are you going to record video with a cute little Flip camera?  Be sure the speaker is in agreement. Putting it on YouTube? Ditto. Just because they're easy to use doesn't mean the speaker won't have a preference.
  2. Speakers should be given the chance to share input and ultimately to agree (or not) with your plans and how you intend to utilize new technical tools well before the event. Remember that it's the speaker, not the organizer, who will be facing the audience and handling its discontents on the fly. Ask for her input, comfort level and any concerns; then act on them until all parties are comfortable with the approach.
  3. The audience should not be invited to share input you do not intend to share with the speaker, or without the speaker's knowledge.All parties--audience members, speakers and organizers--have a right to know how topic areas, questions and follow-up will be handled. Making clear what will be covered and how helps avoid surprises and disappointment, and lets everyone make choices that will work for them. 
  4. Don't neglect the audience in the room for the audience outside the room, and vice versa.  If you're going to extend your audience through virtual means, make sure both audiences know how that will work, how you'll take questions and who's in charge of monitoring.
  5. Once the speaker starts speaking, organizers should let her be the judge of the room and make adjustments accordingly. Support her with a pre-planned method of sharing additional or distant feedback, such as employing a Twitter moderator or other on-site helper. Take the time to rehearse how this will work, rather than interrupting her.
  6. Organizers and speakers should understand that audiences will continue to post during your talk, no matter what. Don't try to stop that while the speaker is speaking, but do have a plan in advance for handling feedback.
  7. Organizers must ask themselves and the speaker whether any aspect of the new tools you're using will be a distraction, and come up with a work-around that will help the speaker avoid getting off track.
If my manifesto seems basic, or something that should already be in place, with or without new technology, I couldn't agree with you more. Don't let new tools throw the basics out of your organizing plans, please--and don't leave these issues until everyone's on stage.  I welcome any additions that speakers and organizers wish to make in the comments.

Related posts: Integrating Twitter into your public speaking: 14 ways
When you're the Twitter moderator (from the don't get caught blog)

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