Conferencing Backchannels

What is the point of a lecture or presentation?  In most cases, it’s to educate or inform the audience and influence them in some way.  So when we’ve put a lot of time and thought into what we’re going to say, we want to do everything possible to pull off a successful presentation.  One of those things we can do isn’t something we actually do… it’s something our audience does.

Backchannel communications is any form of exchange of information “behind the scenes” during a conference or presentation.  At many conventions, a Twitter-stream provides an overall backchannel for the convention participants.  And it’s not only for them.  Participants who couldn’t make it, and anyone else interested in the convention can follow the events, happenings, and impressions of the tweeters in attendance.

For presentations in general and conferencing specifically, a backchannel of communication for the audience can greatly increase conferencing benefits.  For one thing, people can talk about what we’re saying, even as we’re saying it.  They can post their thoughts, feelings, ideas, have an interesting counterpoint to make, more information, or a better conclusion.  Without really realizing it, all of them are collaborating every time they post or even read a post; and all this going on in real time.

The backchannel isn’t just for the participants either.  If we add a web conference to our conference call and activate the chat feature, we can get instant feedback by glancing at chat activity while we speak.  This can help us know when to clarify, when to move on, when they’re with us, and when we’ve lost them.

People seem to feel much more comfortable posting their questions on chat than having to ask them aloud.  And because the questions are posted when they’re thought of, they’re not forgotten by Q&A time.  Also, since we can see a question pop up, we can choose to stop and answer right then, ignore it, or work the answer into our lecture.

For a truly dynamic, controlled group discussion, you really can’t beat a good chat backchannel.  What other ways can we create a communications backchannel in our conferences?  How else can it be used?