5 ideas for improving Twitter use in workshops and conference settings

Here at Positive Matrix we have been giving a lot of thought to how to get better value out using Twitter in a workshop or conference setting, and we’d like to share some ideas how to optimize not only the technology, but the process and protocol surrounding the use of Twitter in such as setting.

Using a Twitter backchannel is nothing new, but seems to be increasing in use. This week alone there were several examples, the “Demo09” conference used a Facebook live video stream with integrated Twitter chat, and this feature became a reference tool for Chris Shipley, who was running the conference and referred to the Twitter streamed comments repeatedly in the conference hall.

In New York City, Union Square Ventures held the “Hacking Education” workshop, a 6hr round table discussion with no panels or presenters, just face to face discussion. This year, however, they added Twitter to the mix, and Fred Wilson, VC and Principal behind Union Square Ventures, writes on his blog:

At the start of the event, most of the messages on the Twitter screen were coming from the room. David Wiley, John Bischke, and Jeff Jarvis where effectively liveblogging the event. It was interesting to see what nuggets they “pulled” from the discussion and shared with the outside world.

It is hard to moderate a conversation of 40 people and there are times when several people want to make a point but one gets the opportunity. I started to notice that the others would simply post their thought to twitter instead which allowed the rest of the room to see what they wanted to say in parallel with the point that was being made live.

So within an hour of the start of the event, we had a very lively discussion flowing on Twitter. Then I saw people outside of the event start to take notice and send out notes to their followers that the discussion on the #hackedu tag was getting interesting. That brought quite a few new people to the Twitter stream that were not in the room.

We have some experience with this, since Positive Matrix is itself a workshop facilitation tool we’ve been using to conduct workshops and conferences for the last 5 years. Positive Matrix allows attendees to participate either directly with wireless keyboards in the room, or remotely via PCs or via linked conference hubs with their own keyboard setup. Although Positive Matrix can be a closed system for registered participants only, like Twitter, everyone is able to see what everyone else is typing on a large projected screen.

So here are some things we have learned, and will apply to our own Twitter enabled workshops and conferences:

1.) The Technology alone is not enough

The speed and gamut of incoming brainstorming ideas and rapid flow of micro-blog thoughts popping up on the screen is made possible through technology, but allowing the group to process these thoughts requires a protocol that introduces opportunity and the space for consideration, clarification, appreciation, understanding, synergy, consensus. Only this allows a group to ultimately convert these ideas into shared knowledge or action points.

2.) Enhance the Experience with a  Social Protocol

One way we do this is to adhere to a “talk, type, read, review” protocol for each agenda item. Agenda items are first discussed in round table fashion, and micro-blogging thougts during this time is optional. However, we then create extra time to “write”, and people have the opportunity to contribute their ideas without parallel central conversation going on.

Subsequently the “Read” protocol is a step to read (out loud) and review the content and ideas that are on the screen. This step is an essential democratization aspect for those who did not get to make their point during the conversation. It acknowledges everyones feedback and gives the group time for further consideration. We find this process is often the catalyst for more, and better quality ideas.

3.) Sensemaking by Identifying Themes

Fred Wilson observed in his “Hack Education” event:

…I think we should have tried to loop the conversation happening outside of the room back into the room. Maybe have one person whose job it is to pull the most interesting tweets coming from outside the room and feed them into the conversation.

We address this with what we feel has been a useful activity: For each agenda item, we go through the content on the screen and ask particpants to identify and micro-blog their thoughts on common themes that have emerged. While the input during the brainstorming phase is often raw and somewhat unfocused, we find the quality of input increases dramatically during this step. In this sense-making step the participants review the knowledge gathered so far.  The facilitator asks for themes or poses questions to guide the thought process or aid in the decision-making.  Examples of questions the facilitator can pose at this point:

  • What does this mean for the issue?
  • What does this say about our culture, our leadership our values etc?.
  • What are the emerging themes?
  • What patterns do you see?
  • What are our collective strengths?
  • Where do we need to focus our attention?
  • What are the next steps, timeframes, resource needs etc?

4.) Use of Tweetdeck for Breakout Sessions

To enable breakout sessions, I would propose to create Twitter hashtags for each group or table, and then use Tweetdeck as the twitter application to project on the screen. Dedicated Tweetdeck columns can be set up to filter by hashtag, and this will allow each breakout group to work within their own dedicated column.

5.) Attention to the Physical Room Setup

For workshops a venue with a circular seating arrangement is preferrable, as it fosters conversation. However this can make it difficult for participants to see the screen if there is only one. So having at least 2 large screens, and a series of laptops all running a Twitter client like Tweetdeck is essentail. Again to quote Fred Wilson:

I think there should be at least two large screens so that nobody has their back to the Twitter stream.

We will be writing more, especially as we are looking to use our Positive Matrix experience to brainstorm and design dedicated “Twitter Powered” conferencing and workshop software, filling the gap that Twitter currently has when compared to tools that can not only conduct workshops, but also introduce structured agendas and provide post workshop reporting capabilities.

Interested? What else is going on in this space?  We would love to talk: @JuergenB and @RobbieCat

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