Audiences have always used an informal backchannel to discuss events, but Twitter puts those conversations on steroids and broadcasts them for all the world to see. “It’s amazing how rapidly the Twitter backchannel has been adopted among audiences,” says Cliff Atkinson author of “The Backchannel – How Audiences Are Using Twitter and Social Media … And Changing Presentations Forever.” Jeff Hurt, a meeting professional and director of education & engagement at Velvet Chainsaw Consulting, agrees.

“There wasn’t a demographic that didn’t embrace it when they were taught to use it,” Hurt says. Case in point, his first Twitter-using audience, which was a group of 500 dental insurance company executives. Ninety-eight percent of them were able to text from their mobile devices and did.

But tweets can turn ugly when meeting planners and speakers aren’t ready for them. And while you can’t control how your attendees tweet, you can increase the chances that they’ll tweet you right.

Transparent and Honest Engagement

Says Atkinson, “The biggest mistake is to not acknowledge that people in your audience are using Twitter. By simply verbally welcoming the backchannel in the room, you make sure they know you are paying attention to them, which goes a long way to reducing potentially negative comments.”

Hurt puts it like this, “We tell our audiences, ‘Good vibrations are welcome here.  Turn mobile devices to vibrate. If you are going to tweet, here are some suggestions – use the golden rule – tweet unto others the way you would like them to tweet unto you. Say something good before you say something bad. Use some respect.’

“I will also declare it a ‘safe space where differing viewpoints are welcome and respected,’” Hurt says. “‘And if I give out incorrect information or misinformation and you have a better source, tweet it, share it.’ When you do that, it automatically defuses a lot of the negativity that may happen. If it’s your first time, be honest with your audience. Tell them ‘I’m a little nervous. Not sure what you’ll say.  Take it a little easy on me.’ The audience will buy right into it.”

Moderate the Twitter backchannel

Pay attention to what is being said about your conference and your speakers by  having staff or volunteers monitor the backchannel. Work with each session’s speaker to determine how to best monitor what’s being said and feed questions and information back and forth in both directions.

If you run a big multi-track conference, you can’t be in all the rooms at once. So being able to track on Twitter gives you a sense of what’s happening everywhere, according to Sarah Milstein, UBM TechWeb’s GM, co-chair of the Web 2.0 Expo and co-author of “The Twitter Book.”

Even if you’re running a smaller or single-track conference, people tend to tweet what they’re thinking, she says. This lets you address problems like cold rooms and tweet immediately to let attendees know that you’re fixing a problem.

For speakers, moderating the backchannel is a way to funnel questions, ask for audience responses and make sure you’re on the right track for your audience. “Speakers have a choice when a presentation isn’t meeting audience’s expectations,” says Hurt. “Good speakers already respond to the body language of the audience and adjust. Now they have another tool that can help them.”

Olivia Mitchell, presentation blogger at SpeakingaboutPresenting.com and presentation trainer at Effective Speaking, encourages speakers to have someone else moderate the Twitter channel, then take Twitter breaks to see if there are questions or feedback.  “I’ve found Twitter really useful in terms of getting questions and observations from people who might not normally speak up.” When she’s had trouble keeping up with the Twitter stream, she’s encouraged audiences to retweet somebody else’s question if they also want to have the same question answered. That way she can focus on the most important questions during the session and respond to the unanswered questions after the session.

Provide separate session hashtags – or not

When there are a large number of attendees tweeting, consider designating separate hashtags for each session. “We didn’t provide hashtags for sessions and moderators found it hard to pick out tweets about individual session,” shares Milstein.

She doesn’t necessarily recommend assigning separate hashtags for sessions, however. “To save characters, people will often drop the event hashtag and keep the session hashtag, which then makes it hard for people to find those tweets and makes it less likely your event will trend.  That’s not to say conference organizers shouldn’t go that route, but if they do, they should be aware that there can be trade-offs.”

Don’t post the Twitter stream behind presenters

“People are there to hear the speaker and posting tweets is at best a distraction,” Milstein says. “People can obviously watch from other places, on their own laptops, on their own phones, and that’s fine and if makes sense if that’s part of the experience a person wants to have individually.  But if it’s up on the screen they don’t have a choice.”

Posting the Twitter backchannel in the hallway can be a great conversation piece. But don’t post the Twitter stream behind the speakers as they speak.

Benefit from the backchannel

“The Twitter backchannel is insight into people’s minds. We wish we could see inside people and see what people are thinking while we are speaking?.  Now we can,” says Mitchell. Milstein agrees, “It’s like mind reading. You get insight into what people are thinking about your show, and we didn’t have that before.”

Benefit from this mind-reading tool and make your event even stronger.  As Hurt reminds us, “Don’t be afraid of change. If it’s actually better for the attendee, you should embrace it.”