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The Backchannel

January 3rd, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

It’s a new year and one of my resolutions is to post more – and to write up my thoughts on the books I read throughout the year. Looking at my Recent Reads page, it’s obvious I’ve let that lag a bit… With that in mind here is the first of what I hope is a relatively steady stream of reviews.

Based on effusive praise from Kathy Sierra, I picked up Cliff “Beyond Bullet Points” Atkinson’s latest book, The Backchannel: How Audiences are Using Twitter and Social Media and Changing Presentations Forever. Atkinson‘s book is an exploration of how social media sites like Twitter are changing the landscape of public speaking and while I wasn’t quite as blown away as Kathy was, there certainly are some good points to be found in this quick read. I’ll start with the positive and then finish up with my criticisms.

I can understand why Kathy is so fond of this book – throughout, Atkinson reminds speakers of a vitally important lesson: it’s about your audience stupid. Too many speakers epitomize the “me me me” approach of presenting and that’s a recipe for failure. Though I find the “four tweet” model bit minimal (especially for longer talks), it is a useful exercise that I’ll be incorporating into my talk prep. Again, the notion here is to focus on your audience and really think about the key ideas you’re trying to communicate. I also like thinking about Twitter sized bites – making your talk “Twitter friendly” is valuable advice.

The concept of a presentation home page is rock solid and I think I’ll play with that as well; starting (and fostering) conversation should be the goal of a modern talk. Considering the wealth of ways people can consume information today, live presentations need to offer something compelling to capture an audience. Turning a talk into one leg of a more immersive experience is a worth exploring.

While there certainly were some strong points in The Backchannel, I felt it took too long to get to the key points which is ironic considering Atkinson’s repeated advice to do so in a presentation. I suspect there was an effort to inflate the page count a bit – the first half of the book could be condensed quite a bit. Case in point, I was surprised to see a chapter that was devoted almost entirely to setting up a Twitter account. A number of the graphics did little to add to the material, in many cases, they stated exactly what was already on the page. It also felt like the book was written on Twitter – so many of the sentences and paragraphs seemed to adhere to a 140 character limit.

Atkinson has a great list of ways the backchannel can blow up but not nearly enough advice on just how to recover when faced with those situations in real life. I understand he wants us speakers to *think* about how we’d handle that situation (and that’s great advice) but I was hoping for more of his thoughts here; I wanted more hard won experience from people who’ve lived to tell the tale. The backchannel blowup case studies were useful but again, I wanted more “here’s what they should have done…”

Though a bit light on content, the last couple of chapters make this book worth reading. Atkinson reminds us to focus on our audience and our message and he has some practical advice for dealing with the realities of modern presentations. Just as we can’t turn back the clock to when bullet point laden talks were the norm, we can’t put the Twitter genie back in the bottle. But we can do a better job of engaging and leveraging these tools to make more compelling presentations.

The Backchannel: How Audiences are Using Twitter and Social Media and Changing Presentations Forever

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