What’s a Speaker to Do When the Audience Is Tuned Out on Twitter?

I was at a luncheon recently and my client (who is a young GenXer, smart, and very modern in her business and personal lifestyle), told me that she was appalled at how most of the guests were looking at their small screens rather than at the speaker during a talk that must have taken many hours and care to prepare.
It’s an all-too-familiar sight at conferences and presentations. What’s going on? Have we lost our sense of decency and proclaimed rudeness as the rule for an audience? Are we suddenly in an era of exceedingly boring speakers, and resorting to multi-tasking — returning e-mails to be productive while tuned out? Is there a national epidemic of Attention Deficit Disorder? Or are we audience members actually listening, and commenting on the content of the presentations on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Google +, etc. Maybe it just looks rude?

I have heard suggestions that presenters ask the audience to turn off their phones during the presentation. Some companies make employees and guests check mobile devices, as they would a coat, before entering an auditorium. But we are living in a world where people expect access to their mobile devices at all times. That makes all of this sound like an attempt to change human behavior and ignore new communicating habits.

So what should be the proper norm for audience behavior? And what role can agencies our size play? My take:

Set the rules upfront. If you are running an event for a client, hiring a high-profile speaker and absolutely cannot bear having half the audience tuned out on their devices, mention in a good-natured way at the outset of the meeting what you want: turn ringers on silent, leave the room to use a phone, or best but least likely to succeed, turn the phone off altogether.

Embrace the reality. Mobile devices are too important to users today, and it’ll be hard to make requests (other than turning off your ringer) stick. If your audience is predominantly under 55 years old, and especially under 40, you’re just going to have to accept the use of mobile devices and find a way to engage your audience.

Offer Free WiFi. I recently returned home from a conference in Istanbul, where there was no WiFi. Despite the world-class resources at the conference, all the chatter was about how people could not access the internet. And if they wanted it, they’d have to pay for it. That was a good way to alienate an important audience. Provide free WiFi, and you send a powerful and empowering message: we know you need to stay connected, and we want you to stay satisfied and productive.

Get Plugged In. Take the WiFi idea one step farther and set up free charging stations. You will be perceived by grateful attendees as modern and helpful.

Broadcast on Social. Instead of chastising your guests for not paying attention, encourage them to extend your message on social media. Encourage audiences to tweet, post and link updates about the content of the presentation, and you will turn a speech to, say, 200 people into a speech to potentially millions. If your shop manages social media for the client who is presenting, you have infinite opportunities to accelerate a dynamic dialogue, that would otherwise be confined to the room it was delivered in.

Hold Yourself Accountable. You could take offense at the distraction of faces staring down into their small screens. Or you can create the best content on planet earth and keep your audience riveted to your every word. That’s the best defense against rudeness. Agencies can advise clients on what to expect from guests, and help generate the compelling content.

If more event organizers, and their resources, accept the new norm, conferences will become more valuable, and more people around the globe will be able to share in the content. I’m not sure what alternative there is. This mobile thing is not going away.

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