How Presenters Can Deal With A.D.D. Audiences

Two things happened to me at the end of last week that gave me pause.

On day one, I gave a corporate seminar for about 40 people. On the following day, I was an attendee in a 200-person conference. (It feels great to occasionally be in the stadium seats, instead of down there with the lions).

In the first case, there was a very mild form of the seminar-business occupational hazard known as multi-tasking: desktops open, blackberries, Twitter, Facebook, email. It’s been getting worse for several years. I made my usual clever plea for paying attention, and got reasonably good compliance; though it did deteriorate during the day.

I find that doing workshops lately is a little tougher in some respects; it’s harder to get the audience to interact. They’re not leaving, they’re just slightly checked-out. It’s not just ADD—it’s ADOSO, as in “Attention Deficit—Oh! Shiny Object!” (Thanks @scobleizer)

In an attempt to control that behavior, I’m acutely aware that I’m stumbling these days in the no-man’s land between requesting, ordering, and pleading. When I’m doing keynotes, it’s fine; it’s the workshop scene that feels different.

On day two, I came in deliciously a minute late and sat down where I felt like—not my gig, time to relax and enjoy. It was a social media conference; they had a very large screen for slides, and next to it, a smaller one displaying ongoing real-time twitter notes (check it out at #bdi). Each presenter had about 20-25 minutes, including Q&A.

Pretty much everyone in the audience had their heads down looking at their newest super-lightweight portables, iPhones and Droids. When they looked up, it was often as not to look at the public tweet-screen. (Yes,I tweezed out a few tweets myself).

At first I cringed instinctively out of sympathy for the speakers. Until I noticed that they did not seem noticeably bothered by it at all. In fact, lots of speakers today are using Twitter as part of the real-time interaction. The line for open mics for Q&A was not empty, the questions were great, and the real-time twitter dialogue was on point.

The conference subject matter itself—like a Greek chorus—gave the meta-text of what I was seeing. Social CRM goes beyond seller-to-buyer dialogue to include buyer-to-buyer. The old line about one satisfied customer tells four but one dissatisfied customer tells 12—that’s history. They now tell 500,000, and do so instantly. The web is your new website. Inbound not outbound marketing.

In other words—the heads-down twittering was definitely multi-tasking, but that doesn’t mean there was no dialogue going on. In fact, there was a ton of dialogue.

More content per minute flowed through that room than if everyone had hung on every word a speaker said. One speaker is limited by the human ability to enunciate sounds rapidly, and—it’s only one speaker. We can all read much faster than someone can talk. Asynchronous one-off communication is bound to be less rich than everyone talking at once; it’s just that it’s harder to focus in the latter case.

There are 2 things you can say about all this. First, it’s not wrong, just different. There are deep intensive interactions with other human beings, and there are shallow, broad interactions with other human beings. We’re seeing a shift from the former to the latter–in terms of gross numbers at least.

There’s no right or wrong about this. What is important is the ability to go in either direction as the situation demands. And, there is a huge benefit. The involvement of others is exactly how you get collaboration. We are, at a large level, sacrificing some intimacy for the sake of collaboration.

It’s also true that, in a world where intimacy holds a smaller “share of relationship,” the ability to gain that intimacy will command a premium. It’s not gone, just more rare, and more valuable for its rarity.

The second point is simply, this is the future. Disapproval of the downside of social-babble has very little impact on whether it’s going to keep on happening. Our failure to approve of the downside simply keeps us from gaining the benefits of the inevitable upside.

Presenters, get used to it. The only relevant question is: how will you respond?

For starters, don’t stand there in front of the tsunami. But don’t just get out of the way, either. Grab your surfboard.

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