Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

30 October 2009

Presenting in a networked age

Clark @ 7:01 AM

The Learning Circuit’s Big Question this month has to do with the increasing prevalence of internet access during presentations.  The context is that during presentations it’s certainly possible that your audience is multi-tasking, and the question is; what are the implications?  In live presentations, the increasing prevalence of wi-fi or phone data means laptops and/or smartphones can be online, and in virtual ones there’s typically a number of other applications available at the same time.

The audience can be doing things related to the presentation, like live-blogging it, tweeting it, or taking notes (I’ve been known to mindmap a keynote a time or two).  They could even be looking up words or phrases mentioned by the speaker, or the speaker’s bio, or related material.  Alternatively, they can be doing other things, like checking email, surfing the web, or other, unrelated, activities.  Particularly in online presentations, there could  actually be live chatting going on in a side-channel.

Are these activities valuable to the listener? Are they valuable to the presenter?  Certainly, note taking is (though it doesn’t take connectivity).  There’re results on this, particularly if you’re re-representing the material in different ways (mind maps, or paraphrasing).  Blogging is, effectively, note-taking so should be valuable too, and tweeting may also be valuable (any studies?  Research topic!).  Certainly looking up things you don’t know so you process the rest of the material could also be valuable if it doesn’t take too long.  And the reprocessing and seeing others’ thoughts from chat could be valuable.  Even playing solitaire can be an advantage to listening, if you’re taking up some extra cognitive cycles that might otherwise lead you off into related thoughts but away from the presentation (likely only true if it’s just audio).

On the other hand, it might also add an intrusive overhead. Multi-tasking has been shown to provide a performance decrement.  Related activities help, but unrelated activities will hinder the ability to process. It may be that you can get so caught up in the chat, or the search to comprehend a term, that you lose the thread of the discussion.  And if it’s complex, the cognitive overhead might prevent you from actually being unable to make the necessary links.  Certainly the tasks that aren’t content related are an intrusion.

So what’s to do?  There are possible actions on both the part of the presenter/organizer, and on the part of the audience. For the audience, it’s got to be a personal responsibility to know how you learn best, and take appropriate steps. If note-taking helps you focus and elaborate, do so.  If tweeting, blogging, or mind-mapping does so, rock on.  If you really need to focus: put away the laptop and phone and focus!  It’s for your benefit!  Really, the same is for students.  Now, individuals may not be as self-aware as we may desire, but that’s a separate topic that needs to be taken care of in the appropriate context.

For the presenters or organizers, as the most onerous step they could prevent wi-fi access.  However, increasingly others are benefitting from the tweets from conferences and the blogging as well.  I think that’s overly draconian, an implicit sign of distrust.  If the presentation doesn’t match the audience interests, they should be able to vote with their feet or their minds.  As I told a medical school faculty years ago, you can’t force them to attend, taking away the internet might make them resort to doodling or daydreaming but while you can lead a learner to learning you can’t make them think.  It’s up to the presenter to present relevant material in an engaging manner.

As a presenter, you can actually use these channels to your advantage.  As a webinar presenter, I like having a live chat tool.  I monitor it, and use it to ask questions. In the last presentation I gave, it was awkward when a moderator had to read me the questions from the audience, and I couldn’t ask a general question an just survey the stream.   I realize it’s difficult to both present and monitor a chat stream, and not all presenters can do it, so having a moderator can be a benefit. But stifling that flow of discussion could be a bane to those who learn better that way.

I haven’t had a tweet stream monitor in a live presentation yet, and it could be harder to pay attention to it, so again a moderator could help.  In smaller sessions you can have interaction with the audience, but in larger presentations, it might take someone to follow it and summarize, though having a monitor that the presenter could see easily could also work.

However, it seems to me that you can’t force people to pay attention with or without technology, providing a rich suite of ways for people to process the information is valuable, and it can be a valuable source of feedback during the presentation.

Which leads to the new skills: for audiences, to know how you best process presentations and take responsibility for getting the most out of it; for presenters to improve their presentation skills to ensure value to the audience and support richer forms of interaction with the audiences; for moderators to track and summarize audience feedback in various forms; and for organizers to support these new channels.

There’s no point in trying to stifle technology affordances, the real key is to take advantage of them. If we have to learn, adjust, and accommodate, it’d be awful boring otherwise!  :)


  1. Great article

    I don’t think the question should be, ‘Are these questions valuable to the listener?’ but rather, ‘Why does the listener think that these activities are more valuable than listening?’

    Perhaps it is a reflection on the speaker, particularly ifd they are looking up stuff that is not directly related to the presentaion at hand!

    just some thoughts.


    Darren Fleming
    Australia’s Corporate Speech Coach

    Comment by Public Speakign Course — 3 November 2009 @ 9:43 PM

  2. As curator of AMPLIFY Innovation & Thought Leadership Festival and occasional speaker myself, I enjoyed the thinking journey that your post has taken me on so much so that I have posed some questions on Twitter and even blogged about it at http://catalystformagic.posterous.com/we-have-met-the-enemy-and-he-is-powerpoint-or. I suspect the genie is out of the bottle as far as the continual partial attention syndrome (a term coined by Linda Stone) is concerned, and it ain’t ever going back, though I have heard and seen awesome speakers ask folks to “be present in the moment” and guess what…they were! (eg a lecture by Dr BJ Fogg, Founder of Persuasive Technologies Lab at Stanford University and a Doctor in Cognitive Psychology. )
    I wonder if this does not introduce a new opportunity for speakers to create an even better experience for learning or co-creation of knowledge with an audience?

    Comment by Annalie Killian — 27 April 2010 @ 6:01 AM

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