Sunday, March 3, 2013

Twitter: A valuable feedback mechanism for reviewing what you said, what was heard and how that compares with what you meant.

Over a week ago I gave a talk at a symposium, about the intersection of librarianship and new technology, particularly that used in the new library service platforms.  It's a talk I've given several times in various forms and as I often do, I try to be a bit provocative and cause people to engage, no matter what their point of view.  

After doing a talk, I always roam through the crowd and ask for feedback.  Of course when you do that, most people want to be polite, so I always find this feedback to be quite positive, even when I've told them I willingly accept any constructive criticism they have of what I've said.  I usually get a great deal of positive feedback and very, very little constructive criticism. 

However, as anyone who reads blog comments or Twitter streams knows, when people are speaking more anonymously, they say what they think without much inhibition at all.  So, I always find it interesting, after doing such a talk, to take the time to read the Tweet stream from the event.  Here I find the critical analysis I'm seeking, which I can then use to improve and refine the content.  Should I then have the opportunity to give a talk on a similar topic sometime in the future, I know it will benefit from this commentary. 

When you do this, what you also quickly find out is that despite what you thought you said and showed, there is what people heard and saw, and what they attributed to you as they Tweeted they're interpretations and sightings -- around the world.  These do not always line up. Now, this is human nature at work, but at the same time, those differences can be fascinating, insightful, humbling, embarrassing and rewarding.  Occasionally that all happens at the same time.  To illustrate my point, here are some examples from my last talk:

  1. "The path forward."  In one slide, I show a fork in the road where I talk about the various pathways open to librarianship in the future and where we might want to focus to create real value for our user communities.   When I read the Tweet stream, I found out that people noted something I hadn't -- in the photo I had selected, the pathways ended up in a cemetery!  Oh my.  Well, obviously that wasn't my intent and in fact when I'd selected the picture, I was using a laptop and a much smaller screen, so I thought those small objects were tree stumps and a small monument, all in a park setting.  However, after reading the Tweet stream, and upon closer examination I found the audience was quite right and they were, in fact, headstones. So, that was a bit embarrassing.  That picture, as you might expect, has been replaced in that slide deck.  Plus, I'll now be examining very closely and on a LARGE screen, any pictures selected for use in future slide decks.  
  2. "What is knowledge creation??"  I've mentioned in previous blog posts, and frequently in my talks, that I see helping people to create new knowledge as one of the central pillars upon which librarianship rests.   In reading the Tweet stream however, I learned some thought my saying that was improperly, or too narrowly, defining learning as research.  I wasn't trying to be that narrow, nor did I think I said that at all.  However, if someone interpreted that, then I want to rethink how I an more clearly say and convey what I mean. 
  3. Vendor/product comments. Providing critical analysis of anything is always tricky turf.  Librarians want to be educated, but they respond quite negatively to criticisms of any vendor/product.  So when asked to provide critical analysis, I try to avoid specific product discussions (I'm not always vague enough) and instead I try to educate people by pointing at areas where I think they should ask questions, suggest the questions to be asked and then encourage them to think very carefully about the answers.  Yet, even this approach can still be viewed as being critical.  I saw that in this Tweet stream. Depending on the cultural background, particularly if you cross international boundaries, this sensitivity can even be heightened.  Yet, upon reflection, I feel that being provocative sometimes carries a cost and this one I'm willing to bear because I think, sometimes as a profession, librarians are entirely too trusting.  Knowing the tough questions to ask is important and if that's viewed as not being polite, well so be it.
  4. "What is cloud computing???"  The Tweets reflecting this concern were a valuable reminder that despite the plethora of information that exists on the subject of cloud computing, it is still swathed in massive amounts of misunderstanding and/or a lack of understanding.  The vendors and organizations that are selling cloud-computing concepts sometimes bend the concepts to accommodate their products thus extending this misunderstanding.  It makes it very difficult for people to slice through the hype and get down to the facts.  What some of the Tweets showed me, is the need as the speaker, to be very clear about what constitutes cloud computing. By doing so, I will help to equip my audience to better apply points of differentiation in future analysis they perform. 

All in all, reading those Twitter streams provides very valuable feedback for speakers.  If you give a talk, I recommend you try it out.  It can be a bit painful, but it's a great learning experience and your next talk, like mine, will benefit as a result.