Presentation Etiquette: It's about the participants, not the speaker

NewComm ForumI frequently speak about social media at conferences and workshops. As a presenter, I always want to give participants at my sessions full value for their time and attention. An incident at a workshop I presented a couple weeks ago has been gnawing at me.

In a nutshell: I was presenting a half day workshop on social media measurement. During the early part of the morning, I made a reference to Facebook as “a vast wasteland of empty content,” suggesting that Facebook is a great platform for connecting with people and signalling affinity for causes, but that I don’t see much serious content there. When we took our mid session break, one of the workshop participants approached me to tell me that she thought I’d sold Facebook short. She was quite annoyed. Clearly, my quick dismissal of Facebook as a platform for organizations to publish information ran counter to her view of Facebook.

I thought about the participant’s complaints during the break and decided to address them after the break. So, when we reconvened, without identifiying the person, I indicated that it had been suggested to me that I’d given short shrift to Facebook. And then I explained my position more fully.

Situation well addressed? Not quite. Not at all.

A few days after the workshop, the conference organizer sent me the participant evaluations of my session. All glowing. All rating me at 4.5 or higher out of a possible maximum rating of 5. All except for one evaluation. And that one person gave me the lowest possible score. A 1 out of 5. With comments like “talked too much about himself.”

Ouch. Time for some soul searching.

I realized that my handling of the situation only made matters worse for the person I’d upset. Instead of giving voice to her concerns and addressing them in a balanced way, I’d only succeeded in restating my point of view.

What should I have done?

I should have called on the person to present her own point of view to the group – and then encouraged the group to discuss it. My views were no more important than what other people perceived. I’d already stated my opinion. If people wanted me to explain or restate, they could have asked me to do so during such a conversation. But in allowing that conversation to occur, I too could have learned.

Instead, by my action, I imposed my view on the group and alienated someone who had a right to expect better.

Lesson learned. Next time I encounter this, I’ll ensure that I provide opportunity to those who disagree with me to fully and completely state their views. I may not agree with them, but I can definitely learn from them.

  • collin

    That is a pickle. Although I don’t agree with your position on Facebook either, I think I understand your position on it.

    Perhaps this person was attending your session primarily to learn how to measure Facebook conversation? I don’t know.

    I think you answered your own question, by restating your position, you dug her trench deeper. I agree that a open discussion on the topic with the permission of the person who brought it up might have solved some of her questions, but you would have likely scored very low on the feedback form for not preparing for her need. (I bet she just sold in a Facebook plan where she works, and is now embarrassed to hear an expert call phooey on it… who knows?)

    anyway. Sometimes you just can’t do everything for everybody in these conferences.

    I have found that making blanket statements about anything during talks often results in negative feedback forms. I spoke at a conference last year (that you MC’d) where I pulled a similar Gaff. I suggested that large agencies are not ready to truly engage in social media (I still believe at the time, they weren’t, now… some of them are.)

    I got the same feedback… 4.5s and 5s across the room. And one 1/5 score from somebody claiming I was self serving with my views on agencies.

    Interesting parallel in results. People sometimes focus on 1 thing… I stopped letting it bother me.

    Personally, I look at the top and bottom scores for the written feedback. This will teach me how I can improve in the future. I remove those two, and average the scores on the rest to see how I did at that particular session.


  • I like to think any social media platform is what the individual makes it … and thus, I find it difficult to be dismissive of any one form of the genre, whether it be blogs, Twitter, or Facebook.

    By the way, my #thornley T-shirt should be here any day now. 😉

  • Irme

    Hey Joe,

    I have to disagree with you. I think your views are more important, at least in a presentation setting. Opening it up to discussion may be great to connect and learn, but at the end of the day, people are there to listen to you–your experience, your sage social media wisdom.

    I remember when you shared with our class your feelings on Facebook, and we understood that you were speaking from your own viewpoint and experience and you were not suggesting that we stop using it. Rather, we understood that you were encouraging us to evaluate meaningfully our social media activities.


  • Joe,

    You’re being way too hard on yourself, as your speaker scores reflect. The reason that you were standing at the front of the room is because the organizers wanted to hear YOUR perspective.

    Of course people are going to disagree, but I don’t think the goal of the speaker should be to appease the audience as much as it should be to educate them based on your own experience.

    It’s true that you could have ceded the floor to let her speak, but that would have sidetracked the conversation and eaten into your presentation time. The best thing that can come out of this is that brands stop making Facebook fan pages and start making real connections, right?

    Nice work, IMHO.

  • Kalene


    While it’s always a good idea to involve your audience in a discussion, at the end of the day it’s also about what your audience wants to learn.

    You were there as the thought leader or expert. That was your role and judging by the scores of almost all your audience it appears you did well.

    I think you should consider the high feedback scores and remember what mom taught us: You can’t please all of the people all of the time.

  • Mike Spear

    Social media is all about engagement and we clearly have no qualms about Twittering our fingers off during a presentation because we claim to be engaging and building relationships. 2 of the biggest scoring punches for Social Media.

    But a face-to-face , lets talk this through type discussion in a real room full of real people and suddenly we’re there to hear only the speaker ?
    I used to dance at the thought Social Media was putting power into the Public part of PR but I’m losing a spring to my step thinking that it may come at the expense of Relations.

  • I was at your presentation at Edmonton. I thought it was great, and I completely agree with the facebook statement. I go on facebook to talk with my friends not discuss the next best thing in leadership or great restaurants. It’s funny that I didn’t realize it until you mentioned it was a bad information medium.

    You make a really good point on how to engage the person with the negative opinion. It’s like the sales slogan, I think Tom Hopkins, “If you say it they doubt you, if they say, it it’s true.” By engaging a group in the discussion it definitely would work itself out. I’m assuming the group was small with lots of interaction otherwise I’d think you were worried about a problem without much of a solution.


  • Thank you for sharing your experience. Just yesterday, I saw a blog post on which the blogger began by dismissing LinkedIn, only to modify his position as a result of the comments he received, and his reaction to / learning from them.

    Not to say that’s what you should have done — just that your own experience, and the comments already here, highlight what strikes me as changing or conflicting expectations at real-life presentations as the result of social media.

    If one word encapsulates social media, I’d say it’s “creation.” Not that everyone creates, but everyone can. “Participation” at a conference used to mean paying to attend, and showing up. Now, for many, it’s coming to mean responding (rather than just “reacting”) and even initiating — questions outside the fixed question period, or even backchannels (e.g., live Twitter streams, displayed during the session).

    The particular question of how much of that to invite, and what to do when you do invite is, is still being answered, 24 hours a day.

  • Todd J. List

    Hi Joe,

    Thanks for giving me something to think about. For the moment, I think I have to come down firmly in the middle of the gray area. I think the correct way to handle this generic situation is, “It depends…”

    You concluded: “I should have called on the person to present her own point of view to the group – and then encouraged the group to discuss it.”

    Perhaps. I think the format of the presentation plays a big part in what you “should” have done. In some places, it may not be appropriate to start a big audience discussion. In others, it would be a great way to handle the situation.

    When opinions are involved you are on thin ice. Skate carefully, or risk falling into frigid waters, or worse, a heated town-hall debate.

    Thanks for sharing your experience. I’ll keep this story in mind as I prepare for future presentations.


  • Joe, I think you’re being too hard on yourself. The people were there to hear YOU. Yes, let others disagree and state their views, but if you gave the floor to everyone with a differing opinion, you wouldn’t have time to complete your own presentation. IMHO.