Texting A reader asked me this question about audience attention:

Some of us who are 45+ are finding that younger people text and use computers during presentations to the point of rudeness. This happens even when others in the presentation give great evaluations.  We think we’ll be seen as “old farts” if we ask them to disengage.  How do we bridge this generation gap?

What’s the assumption about audience attention?

The assumption is that people paying attention will be looking at you, the speaker. If they’re not looking at you, or they appear to be doing something else, then they’re not paying attention. But this assumption is not supported by evidence.

How do people pay attention?

Sitting passively listening to someone talking is unnatural. It requires concentration. Many people use secondary tasks to help them stay engaged and focused. At university the only way I could stop my brain going off on a journey of its own during boring lectures, was to discipline myself to take notes.

In a recent experiment, doodlers were able to recall 29% more details from a phone conversation than non-doodlers:

[The] theory is that by using up slightly more mental resources, doodling helps prevent the mind from wandering off the boring primary task into daydream land. This study is part of an emerging recognition in psychology that secondary tasks aren’t always a distraction from primary tasks, but can sometimes actually be beneficial.

The secondary tasks we use to stay focused are becoming more high-tech. People can now take notes on their phones and laptops, or they may have a game on their cellphone which is equivalent to doodling.

So the first point is that people who appear to be fully-engaged with their cellphones and laptops may still be paying attention to you.

But are people who are texting paying attention?

Er no, they’re probably not. But when you’re the speaker you don’t know whether the person is texting, surfing, playing solitaire or taking high-quality notes of your presentation. Therefore don’t make an assumption that they’re not paying attention.

Is it rude?

Rude is in the mind of the beholder. Rude to you, not rude to them. To label a behavior as rude is to make a negative judgement about it, and that judgement will seep through in the way that you come across.

Your audience are adults. If their behavior is not distracting or annoying other people in the audience it’s up to them whether they pay attention or not, and how they pay attention.

So what can you do?

There’s no need to do anything. But, if you think you’ll do a better job if people are looking at you, here are two approaches you could take:

1. Open your presentation and start to establish rapport with your audience, and then say:

“I notice many of you are using your phones and laptops. I’m absolutely fine with that. But I also know that I can do a better job if you are engaging with me and looking at me. So when you’re not using your phones and laptops I’d love it if you can look at me.”

2. Scott Berkun in his book Confessions of a Public Speaker describes an approach he’s taken. He says to his audience:

“Here’s a deal. I’d like you to give me your undivided attention for five minutes. If after five minutes you’re bored, you think I’m an idiot, or you’d rather browse the web than listen, you’re free to do so. In fact, I won’t mind if you get up and leave after five minutes. But for the first 300 seconds, please give me your undivided attention.” Most people close their laptops.

The bottom-line

If you want their attention, be more interesting than their cellphones.

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