The Benefit of Being Present

Sometimes my boss asks me to attend events on her behalf when she is already booked or otherwise unavailable. I am always wiling to network with new groups and I enjoy learning, so when she asked me to go to a recent annual conference for a statewide association, I agreed. The particular session she highlighted sounded interesting and was pertinent to my job.

Early last Friday, I settled at a table in the hotel conference room with coffee and yogurt about ten minutes before the session. Others soon joined me and we exchanged the usual introductory chit chat. By the time the session started, the room was about three-quarters full of people doing exactly the same.

The speaker was excellent. His talk featured many “real-world” examples and included simple tips we could bring back to our jobs and start immediately. I am always grateful when speakers provide useful ideas which don’t require a huge budget or time to implement.

My seat at the edge of the room afforded me a clear view of most of the audience as well as the presenter. From my location, I could almost see the audience from the point of view of the speaker. What I saw disheartened me.

I expected to see alert faces, but instead I saw the tops of heads bowed down as the majority of people used their cell phones in their laps. One woman at the table next to me spent the entire session (45 minutes) emailing, texting or writing on her phone. A man at a table on the other side of the room was on Facebook for long stretches of time. I could tell because he was seated in front of a mirror and his phone was reflected over his shoulder in the image behind him.

Now, let me be clear. This was NOT a boring speaker. He was engaging, clearly an expert in his subject matter, and easy to understand. He was doing everything right.

The audience was not.

About half-way through the session, I realized he knew he had lost most of the audience. He began to single out those of us who were paying attention, maintaining eye contact with the faces he could see. I began to nod and smile frequently in an attempt to give him encouraging feedback. As a public speaker, I know how difficult it is to be in front of a group and sense none of the audience is “with you.” He continued on, but frustration was evident in his voice when someone’s cell phone rang at high volume towards the end of his talk. The culprit? Mr. Facebooker, who guiltily raced from the room as he answered the call.

These devices we rely on are wonderful. They connect us to friends and family around the world. In an instant, we are able to reach others during a time of need. We take photos and share them with elderly relatives who cannot visit in person. We can check our work email and our personal email, update social media, and order lunch all in the span of five minutes if we want.

But when we spend all our time looking down at our screens, we miss what is happening around us in the present. The woman who spent the entire conference session on her phone didn’t see the examples on the projector and didn’t hear the joke about the nurse. I know she didn’t hear it because she was the only person at her table who didn’t laugh and clap after the joke.

I’m not saying I have not been guilty of using my phone in what some might consider inappropriate settings such as a conference presentation or dinner with friends. Because I use my phone to help me manage the Personal Assistants I employ, there are times I need to respond to one of my employees instantly about their work shift. However, I make every effort to limit those interruptions and put my phone away so I can be present and attentive to whatever is happening around me. I can always check social media later when I have time to actually be social.

Yes, I know – it’s a novel concept, being social on social media. You should try it. Stop using “like” and start acting with intention. I did it. You can too.

There are many distractions in the world which make social connections difficult. Discretionary technology shouldn’t be one of them. Take the time to disengage from your device. You might be surprised to discover what you can connect with when you disconnect.

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Is Anybody Out There?

Photo of a woman in a wheelchair speaking into a microphone. She is seated behind a podium with a red banner which reads "Light Up Rotary."
I am no stranger to speaking to Rotary Clubs or Conferences about my year as an exchange student.

I would like to thank everyone who sent me a message of encouragement prior to my presentation at the Rotary International North American Youth Exchange Network (NAYEN) conference last weekend. Some of you have sent email asking how it went so I thought I would write a follow-up about the experience.

First, I must express appreciation to Dennis White for putting my name forward as a possible speaker for NAYEN. Dennis is a psychologist and Rotarian who has been conducting research on the long-term positive effects of youth exchange. I met Dennis at the Rotary District 7170 District Conference in 2014, a conference which celebrated the District’s commitment and participation in youth exchange for more than fifty years. Dennis shared his research findings and I shared my unique story as one of the first disabled students to successfully complete an exchange year with Rotary International. At the end of the conference, Dennis told me about NAYEN and suggested I think about attending. Little did I know this would take the shape of an invitation to speak at NAYEN. Thank you Dennis for thinking of me and for allowing me to share my story with a wider audience.

With my broken leg making air travel impossible, I knew I would need to utilize technology like Skype or a webinar platform to be “present” at the conference. I have used Skype before, but mainly for one-on-one conversations or meetings with small groups. When presenting to conferences or large groups, I have always been on site, directly in front of my audience.

Last Saturday, I dressed in “work clothes” above the waist (nobody would see my fleece penguin pajama pants and slippers!), styled my hair, and put on lipstick for the first time in almost two months. I was reminded of the times my mom came to pick me up late at night after a high school marching band or orchestra trip, arriving at the school in her bathrobe and lipstick. At least I know where it comes from.

The Skype connection was clear and at 8:50 PM, Kevin (the NAYEN technology wizard) called me to tell me I was on. I had a quick glance at the audience of 475 people, seated at round tables in a hotel ballroom, as the emcee gave a brief introduction. After establishing they could in fact hear as well as see me, I shared my screen and began to talk.

Like most speakers, I rely on audience feedback to let me know how I am doing. Are they yawning? Are they laughing at things I meant to be funny? Are they checking their phones because they are bored? Are they making eyes at the person sitting across from them? When you are on stage in front of an audience, those visual cues are helpful. Last Saturday, I did not have visual cues from my audience.

Even more important, I did not have audio cues either. Feedback from my voice being projected into the ballroom was distracting to the audience and me, and Kevin muted the microphone on his end. I knew this might be a possibility as we had discussed it during our test run the day before. While I knew it might happen, I had not really considered what it would mean to be completely cut off from my audience. I have experienced similar situations, when all lines have been muted while I have been recording phone training sessions or webinars for work. But formal work recordings are different, because in those instances I am usually conveying required information instead of telling a personal story.

In the silence of my apartment, I began feeling a bit like I was speaking to an empty void. I did all the things I often encourage other speakers to do. I smiled and repeatedly told myself to slow down (my natural rate of speech is fast). I paused frequently at appropriate times, and kept an eye on the clock. Yet without the audible and visual cues from my audience, I had to assume my message was making it through and just keep going. I must have done a decent job though, because the audience responded enthusiastically at the end of my speech. It was a relief to see and hear them, to reconnect with them briefly before signing off and going to bed.

Ah, the exciting life I lead. The audience was going dancing while I was collapsing on my pillow. This was an unexpected perk of not being at the conference. I’m not kidding either. I shut off my computer at 9:29 PM and was in bed by 10:00. That doesn’t happen when you are on site!

Looking back on the experience made me think this week about how often we communicate without taking time to wait for feedback from our communication partners. How many times do we turn away from someone, missing an important facial expression which would provide a valuable clue about how that person is feeling? Do we listen, really listen, when we interact with others? Or do we just project our message hoping it will be received by those able to hear it? How do we know our meaning has been understood and received by those we want to reach?

I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in the conference, even though I missed out on being present in person. I learned many valuable lessons from the process which will help me become a stronger public speaker. Each time I speak, my audience helps me grow and (hopefully) improve.

Current status: Enjoying one more day of rest before returning to work part-time from home on Monday! I plan to spend the day learning to knit and purl while watching re-runs of Downton Abbey episodes, in preparation for tonight’s series finale. Will Edith find love at last? What will become of Mr. Barrow? Did you ever imagine I might feel bad for poor Mr. Barrow? And who will I quote once the Dowager Countess is gone?