Tweeting from conferences: what and who is it for?

Since I joined Twitter in 2010, I’ve attended and tweeted from quite a few conferences and events, from half-day single-session events to multi-track conferences over a few days. But, if I’m honest, I don’t think I ever gave how and why much thought until attending Learning 2012 last week.

The different environment, a number of conversations from the conference itself, and feedback from Twitter followers in the UK all combined to make me really examine why I tweet from conferences, whose benefit it’s for and what impact it makes.

Thinking back to past events, I suppose my use of Twitter has been a little erratic. I would sometimes tweet quotes or points that might be of interest to others. I’m not sure I gave much thought to whether those ‘others’ were people at the conference attending different sessions, or people following the conference backchannel from further afield. I would sometimes use it to follow tweets from other sessions, if I was either torn between two options or disappointed by the one I’d chosen! Very often, I would retweet other people’s thoughts, if I particularly agred. And, probably more than any of these, I would tweet general feedback on the overall structure, atmosphere and success of the conference.

So what changed at Learning 2012?

First of all, the people. At UK conferences, I’m generally surrounded by people I know and am already connected with on Twitter. Learning 2012 took place in the USA, with a fairly small UK contingent, so it was a whole different group of people contributing to the backchannel. Without really thinking about it, I suppose this just made me hesitate before jumping back into old habits and simply doing what I’d always done before.

Second, I had a few conversations with people during the conference about Twitter, how I use it and how I derive value from it. I was surprised by the number of people who use Twitter as their note-making tool. I’m still very much a pen-and-paper girl – although I increasingly find myself looking back at my own tweets and those of others to supplement my written notes – so I’m clear that, when tweeting from a conference session, it’s not for my own benefit. It follows that I’m tweeting for the benefit of other people, and when I gave it some thought I realised that the people I’m picturing are those who aren’t at the conference in person. I want to give them a taste of the atmosphere and the benefit of the learning. Just going through this thought process made me pay more attention to whether my approach actually delivers on that goal.

Finally, I noticed some feedback on the backchannel from L&D folk back in the UK. There were comments that the tweets coming out of Learning 2012 lacked context and clarity, more stream of consciousness than useful sharing for non-attendees. This may well be, in part, a result of the fact that many attendees were, as mentioned above, tweeting as a way to take notes for themselves and therefore thinking less about what others could take from their tweets. Or it may be partly cultural: perhaps the concept of the backchannel varies in different parts of the world, with contributers and followers having differing expectations. I’m not sure – people like Dave Kelly, Kate Graham and Don Taylor may be able to shed more light. Whatever the reason, this feedback made me sit up and examine my own tweets as well as the backchannel in its entirety.

So, on the Tuesday and Wednesday of the conference, I resolved to really focus hard on my contributions to the Learning 2012 backchannel. These are some of the things I did differently:

  • Started each session with a tweet confirming the name of the session and the speaker, so that anyone following my stream or the hashtag could identify if this was something they might want to keep watching.
  • Tried to send a tweet for each key point of the session, so that both live followers and people reviewing the stream later could see the broad structure and skeleton of the presentation.
  • Took photos of key diagrams or slides provided by the speaker, rather than trying to copy down lots of text or describe graphics in a 140-character tweet!
  • Where relevant, distinguished between points that I was quoting from the speaker and points that were my own additions, opinions or reflections, to avoid misrepresenting any speakers and confusing any followers.
  • Posed questions from the session on Twitter, to invite non-attendees into the discussion sessions; I also made sure to collate and share as many responses as possible from the room on Twitter, and vice versa.
  • Tried to send more tweets about content and learning than about atmosphere, location and new connections; I think both are important but there’s a balance to achieve.

I can’t claim to have affected the conference backchannel to any great degree, but I think that my own tweets out of Learning 2012 became more meaningful and more useful to my intended audience as a result of these changes. And I’ve definitely not mastered it overnight – there are other things I’m planning to do differently or in addition at the next event I attend:

  • Decide on my session choices further in advance, allowing non-attendees to send me questions beforehand that I could bring into the face-to-face discussion.
  • Prepare myself with links to session descriptions or speaker bios and add them to those start-of-session introductory tweets, to provide more context to followers.
  • Consider setting aside some time to blog summaries of or reflections on sessions at the end of each conference day, offering something more substantial to non-attendees more immediately than I’m doing now, for example.

The organisers of conferences can also do their part to really maximise the value of the backchannel, for both attendees and non-attendees. I mentioned in my previous post that this was something of a missed opportunity for Learning 2012 and look forward to seeing if they take a more organised approach to the backchannel next year. I’m also really excited to find out what Don and Kate have planned for Learning Technologies 2013, as I know they’ve been talking extensively about the backchannel and how to build on previous years’ successes in January. And, for anyone else who – like me – wants to start thinking more deeply about the value of what they tweet from a conference, Dave’s blog has some great posts and tips (including this one about what a backchannel actually is and this one curating the Learning 2012 backchannel resources).

Let me know whether you contributed to or followed the Learning 2012 backchannel and what your reactions were, as well as any other suggestions you have that I can take on board at the next event I attend.

Image: photostock /

8 thoughts on “Tweeting from conferences: what and who is it for?

  1. Sharon Leah

    Thanks, Stephanie! I followed the LRN2012 conference off and on from Minnesota (US), and when I saw attendees blogging about the conference, I would read their blogs, too. I’ve had a Twitter account since 2010 and have used it sporadically, because Tweeting takes time. I need a reason to use any social media site, so I really appreciate your suggestions and plan to put some of them to use.

    1. Stephanie Dedhar Post author

      Hi Sharon. I think there’s definitely an art to tweeting! Getting the balance of personal vs professional, learning to filter out the content that’s useful or interesting to you, being able to keep attention on a presentation or event at the same time as tweeting about it….it’s a bit of a minefield! I use twitter in different ways at different times, but I definitely see real value in it at conferences and hope some of my suggestions give you a starting point at your next event. Thanks for reading and for your comment! Stephanie

  2. Lawal Muhammad

    Hi Stephanie, this blog post reminds me of one of my own conference experiences. Similarly to your experience, I had struggled to gain alot from my initial use of Twitter. This changed once its use revolved around an event. In particular, the most useful “headline statement” style tweets formed part of a blog post that I wrote after the event ( Have you ever thought about collating interesting tweets after an event in this way?

    1. Stephanie Dedhar Post author

      Hi Lawal, thanks for sharing your experience. I have actually been considering collating tweets from the backchannel, but I haven’t had time this week to devote to it! I’ve thought about using Storify (which Niall Gavin – @niallgavinuk – has done successfully in the past, for example) and/or adding tweets into a blog post like you did. Maybe I will do this when I’m collating/sharing my thoughts from specific sessions, as opposed to the general reflections about Learning 2012 which have been in my last two blog posts. Thanks for the suggestion and the link to your example, and thanks for reading and commenting! Stephanie

  3. Kate

    Great post Stephanie. I was one of the followers of the Learning 2012 back channel who commented on the lack of context and I have to say your tweets made a massive difference to the value I got out of the Twitter stream during that event – so I owe you a big thank you! It really makes a difference to those following from afar.

    I guess for me, following the back channel is a bit of a different experience. I’m lucky enough to get to a lot of UK based events and often involved in providing the back channel itself, so being a follower rather than a tweeter is the flip side of the coin for me. Whenever I tweet, I picture people reading it who aren’t at the event themselves. I don’t profess to get it right all the time and some sessions lend themselves to a back channel better than others. But my aim is to try and do a bit of live curation – key points, take aways, a flavour of the atmosphere and try to provide useful links, authors, books, videos and any other resources that people mention in the course of a presentation or workshop which others might also find useful.

    It was interesting to read that people you spoke to use Twitter as a note taking tool. I am naturally like you, a pen and paper girl. But my involvement in events like Learning Technologies often means I don’t have time to write notes and tweet meaningfully. So I do use my tweets as my notes by default rather than by design, but it’s now become part of the process I use when attending events and one I get good value from. I also really believe that pictures, as you mentioned, also a) help bring a flavour of the event to the followers and b) provide additional notes for your own reference as it’s often hard to copy down diagrams with a pen and paper anyway!

    Your experience has given me real food for thought as Don and I prepare for Learning Technologies 2013, so thank you for triggering off some new ideas an most importantly, considering who we’re providing a back channel for and why we’re doing it in the first place 🙂

    1. Stephanie Dedhar Post author

      Hi Kate, thanks for your thoughts. I really appreciated your feedback during and after the conference, as you are far more expert at this than I am. I think a lot of it probably seems like common sense – like picturing the person you’re tweeting for – but it’s easy to overlook those things when you’re there enjoying an event!

      I definitely want to try and add more in future, like the links, authors, books and videos you mention. I really struggle with this on my phone, and wonder if this is where tablets come into their own – making it easier to flick between pages and bring links into your tweets. Is that something you’ve found easier since buying your tablet?

      You’re also right about the note-taking. I realised that, once I was paying more attention to my tweets, my notes became more scarce. So perhaps, like you say, I need to stop resisting the move away from paper note-taking and just make notes-by-tweeting part of my conference process!

      I’m really looking forward to finding out what you guys have planned for LT 2013, and I’m sure it’ll be a backchannel worth following and emulating.

      As always, thanks for reading, commenting and sharing!

  4. Pingback: Brilliant backchannel tweeting to benefit the L&D community, by Stephanie Dedhar |

  5. Pingback: Brilliant backchannel tweeting: a before-during-after guide | Good To Great

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