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Cliff Atkinson is author of The Backchannel: How Audiences are Using Twitter and Social Media and Changing Presentations Forever (New Riders, 2009).

What do you do when you’re giving a presentation, and notice that your audience is looking down, busily typing on their laptops and smartphones? And what about when you get the sense that they are turning against you?

When audiences use Twitter and other tools to communicate with one another during live presentations, they create a new “backchannel” where they share comments, questions and sometimes criticisms about the person speaking.

This new dynamic has led to high-profile blowups between presenters and audiences, which makes it more important than ever for presenters to do the right things to avoid similar disasters.

To short-circuit a possible disaster, keep in mind these five things you can do to prepare and engage the backchannel.

1. Calibrate Your Content so You Don’t Misfire

One of the major causes of backchannel disasters is a mismatch between what audiences expect, and what you deliver. Make sure you match your audience expectations when you are planning your material by using Twitter to reach out to the followers who will be in attendance. Ask for their feedback. Query them about challenges they are facing that you can help resolve, case studies of how they tackled situations related to your topic, or suggestions of what you should be sure to cover.

2. Defuse the Snark Bomb Before it Blows Up on You

Audience members who use Twitter during a live presentation will often assume the speaker is not paying attention to their comments, so they may be more prone to be snarky or say things they wouldn’t say to you face-to-face. Prevent this dynamic at the outset by publicly welcoming audience members using Twitter and let them know you’ll be monitoring what they write, and possibly reading aloud to the whole audience what they tweet.

3. Spark the Conversation Early and Often

The whole point of social media is that people want to get more involved in experiences, rather than be passive recipients of opinions pronounced from on high. To get people more involved, plan your material in a way that allows you to take Twitter breaks.

When you break, switch over to a browser, review the audience tweets and respond to questions both from the backchannel and from the live audience. These breaks give you the chance to take the temperature of the audience, make sure you’re on track, and to make any adjustments to your presentation based on the feedback you get.

4. Grab the Twecklers Off of the Web and Into the Room

When you take a Twitter break and review comments, you may find that audience members made negative remarks or even heckled you. What should you do? You’ll need to make a judgment call here –- if you can’t do anything about the issue, or if it reflects the personal view of that one person, you might just ignore it.

But if the comment is disruptive and you see it’s affecting the comments of others, you may need to address it directly. In that case, read the comment out loud to the audience, and take a poll of how many people agree with the comment. If many people agree, ask the individual to explain it further, and then address it. If only a few people concur, let the commenter know you’ll be glad to talk further after the presentation and move on.

5. Don’t Stick Your Fingers in the Social Media Socket

The last thing you want to do is lose control of your presentation because you’re overwhelmed. Trying to deliver your presentation while monitoring the information flowing from the Twitterstream can be difficult. If it’s too much to do both, which is the case for most people, focus on your delivery first, then engage the backchannel when you turn your attention to it during Twitter breaks. That way you accomplish what you came to do –- delivering an effective, memorable presentation as you promised in your session description, as well engaging and involving your audience during breaks.

More social media resources from Mashable:

How Companies Are Using Your Social Media Data

The Science of Building Trust With Social Media

How Twitter in the Classroom is Boosting Student Engagement

3 Ways Educators Are Embracing Social Technology

How Social Media is Taking the News Local

Images courtesy of iStockphoto, Splitcast, Alina555

Tags: backchannel, business, feedback, presentation, presentations, social media, twitter