To Tweet, Or Not To Tweet

In July 2017, I was in Philadelphia for the annual meeting of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic (SHEAR). Washingtonians are open to pretty much any excuse to get out of town during the summer. We'll go practically anywhere to escape the scorching heat and unbearable humidity. Unfortunately, Philadelphia was brick-oven hot. I’ve never been more content to sit in hotel conference rooms soaking in all the history. This year, a traveling conflict kept me from attending SHEAR in Cleveland, but that didn’t keep me completely out of the loop. A quick scroll through Twitter and … yeah, I see you #Twitterstorians. Pictures of badges, laughs over cocktails, and practically verbatim coverage of some of the sessions. Were you at SHEAR? Were you tweeting? Should you have been tweeting?


Or no. 

Let’s talk it out.

To Tweet

There are historians who are incredibly good at live tweeting events. They stream together presenter remarks, share photos and videos, and they interact in ways that raise the discussion to a higher level. It’s a conversation in (sometimes) real time. It allows people unable to attend a particular conference to follow along at home, and it gives attendees a chance to contribute to related discussions happening outside the meeting room. Live tweeting builds community and expands the reach of historical work. This is exactly the good that Twitter can be used for and I appreciate those historians who maximize its potential.

Not to Tweet

But it’s no small thing to be able to record a conversation in real time in a way that will make sense to an outside audience. Mistakes are possible, in fact, likely. Misrepresentations of what was said during a presentation can challenge both the tweeting historian and the presenter. Juggling the need for accuracy with the desire to add value and process information is a tall order. For many, putting the phone away is the answer. There’s tremendous value in being singularly focused on a presentation, soaking in all the information, and using other mechanisms and techniques for communication after-the-fact.

So, What’s the Answer?

The answer is surprisingly simple: do what works for you. I’ve found I’m most effective when I use Twitter to let people know what sessions I’m attending, share some highlights, and provide a peek at some of the behind-the-scenes shenanigans. But during a session, I’ll be scribbling notes with a real pen on real paper for deeper consideration later. That’s just how I roll.

Whatever you choose, do it with professionalism, integrity, and authenticity. Everybody wins.

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Civil War Lives Questioned and Answered

Best Practice: The Question and Answer Session

  • Have note cards and pencils available for audience members to write down questions during the presentation or panel discussion.
  • Assign a team member to collect the cards at the end of the formal presentation.
  • Conduct Q&A session by having a team member read aloud questions written on the cards and allow presenters to respond.


Tell me if this has ever happened to you…

You’ve just enjoyed a thoughtful, engaging panel discussion. The speakers had fantastic content, you’re taking away materials and information you can begin using right away. You’re inspired and energized. Then the session moderator says…

“We’ll now take questions from the audience.”

Sometimes this goes very well. There will be meaningful discussion, you’ll discover someone remarkable in the audience, speakers will have a chance to share even more great information. But let’s face it, sometimes the Q&A session sucks the oxygen right out of the room.


There are two types of “questions” I find particularly frustrating:

  • The Got ‘Cha - These questions typically are an attempt by an audience member to stump a presenter with either conflicting information or a provocative opinion. It’s poor sportsmanship.

  • The Speechmaker - Oh, there might be a question in there somewhere, but it will be buried in a long speech where the audience member aims to demonstrate their own expertise on the subject matter. It’s often cringeworthy.


The good folks at the John L. Nau III Center for Civil War History had a better way.

There are plenty of formats event planners can use for the Q&A. My least favorite is when a moderator randomly chooses people from the audience who then stand up and shout out their questions. This is the environment in which the Got ‘Cha and the Speechmaker thrive (and often multiply.) Having people approach standing microphones is a moderately better choice. Even better than that is having a real live person holding a microphone and cruising the aisles for audience members with questions. The staff member essentially becomes a referee, able to rephrase got ‘cha questions into something more constructive or to help move along the speechmaker.

Recently, I attended the Nau Center Signature Conference “Civil War Lives” at the University of Virginia. These folks had a great answer to the Q&A question.

“Civil War Lives” was a full day of 19th century history. Each session lasted 45 minutes, but did not offer an opportunity for questions. Instead, at the end of each presentation, we had a 10 minute break during which we could write down questions on note cards provided by conference organizers. After three morning presentations, all the presenters came back for a 30 minute Q&A session. Questions were read off cards and presenters were able to respond. (The same approach was used in the afternoon.) No got ‘chas. No speeches. Just productive discussion.

I like it and I would like to see it replicated in other meetings and conferences. It’s definitely an option I’ll be putting forth when I’m doing event planning.


What do you think? Have you experienced this approach or something similar?

What’s your preferred Q&A format?