New circles of intimacy: Presenting in the social sphere

The recent Search Insider Summit provided me with a real world example of how our world is connecting in new ways.

First, let me set the stage. In the conference room on Captiva Island, we had the actual attendees, usually averaging between 85 and 120 people. But the typical one-way exchange of information in most presentations was made a little less asymmetrical thanks to Twitter. The folks at MediaPost put a screen next to the stage where there was a live stream of Tweets with the #mpsis hashtag, giving us a real-time social commentary on what was happening at the front of the room. The vast majority of tweets came from people in the room (and the vast majority of these came from Rob Griffin – @telerob – who gained notoriety as the Joan Rivers of the summit for his acerbic commentary).

The addition of real time tweet monitoring is fairly common at conferences now, but feedback seems to be mixed. I think speakers are fairly unanimous in detesting it (it can be incredibly distracting). That said, Craig Danuloff threw caution to the wind and pulled off the somewhat magical feat of presenting in person at the same time as he was tweeting tidbits from his presentation, with the help of an accomplice. But what about the audience? Does a social critique help or hinder a listener’s ability to get the most from the message being presented?

To answer that question, I did a little digging into the psychology of cheering and heckling and it’s impact on the dynamics of an audience. It’s the closest analogy I could think of.

Both ends of the audience participation spectrum, cheering and jeering, come from the same psychological need – to be part of something bigger than our selves. We cheer in recognition of talent, certainly, but just as often, we cheer because we want to be identified with what’s happening up on stage. It’s a “me too” type of emotional response. And these types of participatory experiences tend to go in waves. Cheering is contagious. So, it would seem, are laudatory tweets, based on the degree of retweeting I saw at the conference. It’s a digital way of saying, “I wish I had said that!”

Positive tweets raise the stature of the speaker in the eyes of the audience. The crowd is swayed to align with and respect the speaker’s opinion. The burden of social proof weighs heavily on us, as we’re not really built to go against the flow.

Heckling has a little different foundation, but it also comes from a need for control over the crowd. And it typically comes from a type A personality who is used to being the center of attention and is not comfortable relinquishing that control to another, even when that person has the stage. Heckling is intended to discredit the message of the presenter. It’s the human equivalent to two rams butting heads (and yes, hecklers are more often male) and the audience is asked to make a choice: do they side with the presenter or the challenger? If the challenger wins, the presenter goes down in flames.

This real time exercise in social dynamics introduced an additional dimension of interest to the Search Insider conference stage. You could see some presenters being lifted in the audience’s opinion on a wave of positive tweets. But the occasional negative tweet introduced uncertainty.

The other dimension that was of interest was how the real time social interaction took the conference beyond the walls of the South Seas Resort conference center. There were a handful of virtual attendees that appeared to follow the entire conference through the live video feed (including David Szetela, who did have to get off his porch to present on day one) and contributed their thoughts via Twitter. Then there were the inevitable nuggets that went viral. The winner in this category seems to go to Gian Fulgoni from comScore (@gfulgoni) who dropped this retweeted tidbit:

LOL. Overheard at SIS: “A Starbuck’s barista gets more training than the average entry level ad agency employee”

Originally published in Mediapost’s Search Insider May 12. 2011