Thursday, December 1, 2011

Reflections on Numerous Events I Attended Over the Years and (Easy) Distractions

Over the years and in every job I have held, a part of my job responsibility included attending meetings, conferences, and events.  These venues offer excellent networking opportunities.  In addition, it is an activity I generally enjoy because I usually discover a few helpful and useful tidbits.  And table discussions can also be interesting.  Almost without fail I meet a couple of intriguing people.  It can be an excellent learning opportunity.

Lately as I reflect on the numerous and varied events I have attended over the years, it occurred to me as I look around many participants are on a Blackberry, iPad, or Smartphone.  Some attendees are so addicted they are on an electronic device during presentations, networking opportunities, and lunch. So why leave the office?  Oh, I forgot, with their electronic device they have their office with them.

In fact it can be so bad with alot people on an electronic device it appears that very few are actually listening.  The impression I get is that a speaker is talking to an empty room or to his children.  Both are listening with the same lack of attentiveness. A general rule, I have found that during a question and answer session if no one asks a question, then the audience just wants the speaker away from the microphone.

From the reflections of the electronic devices that I can see it often appears that people are reading news or something else not necessarily work related.  On a positive note, I have not seen anyone play a game like Angrybirds, at least not yet. Even if it is work related, how many emails and/or texts must be answered immediately? If you do this (and I do) be honest as you think about it. Yes, over 95 percent of the texts and emails received can be answered a couple of hours later.

I bring this up for a reason.  These electronic devices allow us not to pay attention and tune out a somewhat boring speaker who may actually be offering unique thoughts or data.  We welcome the interruption from an email or text.  It is just so easy and for some addictive (Crackberry addicts).  Before you even ask, yes, I am guilty too. When a speaker is boring or way off the topic as presented in the program, I check my Blackberry once, twice or several times seeking a retreat from an ill prepared speaker or a presentation that is not much use to me.  And yes, you are right, that is somewhat unfair.

I know, I am disrespectful.  Generally, a speaker deserves my attention.  The exception is when the speaker veers completely off the topic.  In thinking about it, I remember hearing outstanding speakers that kept the attention of the entire audience. One was former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.  She spoke for over one hour, without any notes, and kept the audience engaged.  I suspect it is because she knew her audience and she did not talk down to us. Other speakers similar to her were Ronald Reagan, William F. Buckley, Paul Volcker, Ray Hutchison (old Texans may remember him), and Gary Hart.  Of course now that I think about it, no smartphones existed then. But I bet the outcome would be the same. You may have a couple of people tweeting, but that is another blog.

However, this brings up another point.  On a personal note, when I am asked to speak I do my own presentation and I try to stick to the agreed upon topic or work with the organization to change the topic.  If my Powerpoint was unavailable, I still could give the presentation because I wrote it and practiced it. As a former high school debater, I learned voice inflection.

This is where I think part of the fault lays with the speaker.  First, he may not have actually prepared his remarks or Powerpoint. Second, he may be a very bland speaker.  Again be honest, how many times have you had a speaker simply read the Powerpoint slides.  NOTHING is more boring. Frankly, I think the speaker does a disservice to himself and insults his audience.  I am not asking for a Lord Laurence Olivier performance, but some voice inflection and gestures are welcome.  Far too many speakers use Powerpoint as a crutch, it allows them to do a minimal amount of work.  Most of the time it certainly shows.  However, I think it comes down to this, it takes much more work on the part of the audience to listen to a bland speaker, even if he is on topic and providing valuable data and insights. 

In fairness to various speakers, I once read a poll that said the biggest fear of most people is the death of a loved one. The second biggest fear? Speaking in front of an audience. 

Now that I think about it, perhaps I should not be surprised that so many members of an audience look at their Blackberry, iPad or Smartphone. I did it. And I will probably continue to do so.  Even though I know it is rude and shows some degree of laziness.  As an audience member perhaps I should be more understanding of a speaker. I must remember that for some speakers it is more work to get the value from their presentation.  And, perhaps the speaker should give greater thought and effort to his audience.  We both deserve better.

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