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.