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.

13 replies
  1. Doug Cornelius
    Doug Cornelius says:

    Charlie –

    It’s all about audience engagement. (You need to be really good if you think people will sit still and do nothing but listen to you for an hour.) It’s great if peopel are listening, it’s even better if they are engaged. I view these new audience communication tools as away for the audience to be engaged. They are captuting your thoughts and responding to them in a way that allows you to see that reaction. That is good for generating a discussion of your thoughts in the room, outdise the room and later.

    The dark side is that they are another tool to ignore the presentation. There are lots of bad presenters and bad presentations.

    It’s easier to lose the audience these days with all the new shiny things.  You are right. They are not going away. I gave a presentation to a college class. Every single student had a laptop and had it open during the presentation.

    The learning environment has changed. Laptops did not exist when I was in college and were too expensive for anyone during my law school days. Now they are an expected part of the note-taking and learning process. Along with that mobility comes the connectivity.

    If you are going to present, you need to addres it, be preapred for it and incorporate it.

  2. Stewart Hirsch
    Stewart Hirsch says:

    I agree with you Doug that it’s about audience engagement.  Tweeting and reading tweets during a presentation even when the speaker is not  commenting on the them in real time can be an engaging experience.   From the speaker perspective, I suspect it’s a bit like delivering an on-line workshop with comments and questions coming in the chat box, in addition to on the phone line during the presentation (which is probably akin to live questions at a conference).  Twitter seems like that chat box for in-person conferences, only much more, since it also let’s people who aren’t even there, in on the conversation.       

    I’ve done a few on-line workshops lately, and found that at times, the chat box can be distracting when there are many comments or questions and I’ve had to prioritize and address them in a way that’s relevant to the audience.  The benefits far outweigh the detriments though.  Those comments and questions provide instant feedback on how I am connecting with the participants, and help direct the flow of the discussion.  

    Being engaged through Twitter at a conference is different than multi-tasking in a small group seminar or class where the multi-tasking is with activities that aren’t related to the event itself – is that the dark side you were referring to?   Also, it’s interesting that Charlie raises ADD.  Some people can’t tweet and be engaged at the same time.  It’ s a bit like thinking about what you’re going to say next, rather than being in the moment and engaging in what’s going on right now. 

    Charlie – I’m grabbing my surfboard and looking forward to seeing where the wave takes us!


  3. Michael Holt
    Michael Holt says:

    Hmmm… "more content per minute…"  Isn’t that just a little… intimidating? But a/ more content doesn’t mean better content and b/ with more to sift through, more to weigh and more to organise … the best parts can slip by.

    You make it all sound very positive Charlie, but surely this is not the only future in front of us?  Surely you don’t believe that this is the only good way to engage? With multiple channels, multiple screens and feeds all going at once?

    Yes, people may be able to read faster than content can be read to them, however how about comprehension?  How about absorbsion?  How fast is that? And most definitely, even if these various technologies all work similarly, it sure doesn’t mean we all internalise the same.

    I don’t want to be swamped by "a ton of dialogue". I love the idea of a clear idea, like a long pure note on an oboe. Presented, reinforced, pondered,  discussed… implemented.  I think that is unreasonable to suggest that being swamped by a tsunami of dialogue can be likened to a shift from shallow communications to deep and intense.

    The downside of social babble is that, simply, so much of it is babble. There is so much good content out there that doesn’t require immersion in that stream of babble. The future of communication surely shouldn’t be that different from that of Bacon, Checkov, Whitman or Churchill…


  4. Sandy Styer
    Sandy Styer says:

    Charlie, I’ve often heard you say: "Make listening a gift."  Now, more than ever, listening fully, intently and with a  clear and open mind is a gift to the speaker and to oneself.

  5. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    Hi Charlie,

    My take is that a few/some/many/most of the types of folks you refer to are addicted to their social networking devices and to their need to be "engaged" in the social networking experience. Underneath, it’s not a conscious choice, but an unconscious reactivity driven by the need for their "drug" of choice.

    Like the body, mind and brains of the addicted, their drug of choice is progressive…needing more and more to feel satiated…so now moving from what used to be, perhaps, (inappropriate )cross-talk in the midst of a seminar, lecture or workshop, to the need to ping-pong between and among other types of engagement.

    I wonder what responses would have been like if you had asked some flavor of, "How would you feel if I asked you to not engage in social networking (or some such activity, e.g., Tweeting…) during this hour?" And listen to their responses. And inquire to see what’s really, really underneath their responses. I would bet that a few of these folks would respond like the 5-year old emotional, reactive child (albeit in an adult body wearing adult clothes), with something akin to when a "parent" says "No, you can’t watch TV while you do your homework."

    And why do you think your clever plea deteriorated during the day? The "ADD-type" reactivity, for me, is triggered when one suggests "doing nothing" but engaging with the experience in the immediate moment. The addict, simply can’t. Their brain and body almost convulse at the thought. "What, sit, listen, engage just with you and my colleagues?" I "need" more." Why? What does that get you? Really, really get you?

    You say, "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."

    And so I’m curious as to why? What’s underneath their need to "check out?" Their need to check in with someone, someplace else…and why? From a pedagogical standpoint, no one is ever not motivated. They are motivated to check in, to engage in some way, shape or form…social networking, looking out the window….but they are motivated. So, what’s at play here in the checking out-checking in dynamic…and why?

    You say, "…I’m stumbling these days in the no-man’s land between requesting, ordering, and pleading." So, I might return to the question, "What does it feel like to set your intention to be here, now, and disengage from your (device)? and see what that conversation is like? Take some time to look at root causes for checking out and see if their responses are "reasons" or "excuses."

    There’s a wide divide between teaching and learning. My years of classroom experience tell me many instructors (in academe or corporate) are focused on "teaching" and, as such, in many cases the focus is on the tools, the instructional experience, the techniques and then, BTW, if it happens, learning. Such then is the case for advocating for tools and techniques.

    I agree with Michael. More is not more or better, necessarily.

    For the "instruction-oriented" folks, it’s often about tools and techniques with the notion that if everyone’s "engaged", "doing," that becomes the goal and hopefully "learning" is happening. When the (addictive ) brain is firing, reactively , needing immediate stimuli every minute or two, there is lots activity, but often little learning. The experience may be fun, interactive, cool, and "so-called engaging", with lots of "dialogue," but often not a learning experience.

    You also say, "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."

    I guess it also rests on how one defines collaboration, community or communion. Talk? Heart-felt interaction? Intimacy? Giving rather than ego-involvement with "me?"

    When I was evaluating professors, and now facilitators and trainers, I always ask(ed) two questions. (1) What are you doing? And (2) What’s the point of doing it? Everyone can answer the first in a knee-jerk way. Many struggle(ed) with the second. Teaching vs. learning; action vs. activity. Many are not that discerning to sift between the two and see the difference.

    As for the surfboard, there are professional surfers, conscientious surfers, mindful surfers, contemplative surfers, amateur surfers and unconscious surfers. There are those who know every centimeter of their surfboard and those who haven’t a clue. There are those who come in from a day in the surf and can answer the question, "What have I learned today, about myself, about the ocean…etc.?" and those who can’t, and those who don’t care.

    And there are those who are addicted to surfing, when they should be at work, or in school, or attending to their family, or engaged in self-reflection and self-awareness – and the curiosity and inquiry here is – what’s going on with these folks and why?

  6. barbara garabedian
    barbara garabedian says:

    Boring is boring! Doug nailed it…its all about participant engagement.

    I’ve attended (and zoned out) in some boring presentations/workshops etc w/ both new and traditional delivery models and mechanisms. Presenters that don’t care about engagement are out of touch & frankly couldn’t find their back sides even w/ a map and a flashlight, never mind prioritizing Q&A like Stewart mentioned.

    To echo Michael, a barrage of thoughts doesn’t necessarily imply quality of thought. I spent many a year in consulting firms where blurting out one’s thoughts faster than one’s colleagues, was considered a blood sport. And, somewhere along the line, listening got lost. There are times for absorbsion & contemplation & times for torrents of thoughts. Each & every situation is not a "brain storming" session.

    I also have felt a tad "out of the loop" of late, as I appear to be the only one JUST paying attention & not multi-tasking via technology. I’m beginning to feel dis-engaged and "out of it" because everyone else seems so completely engaged in this type of dialogue.

    Recently, at the conclusion of a session that I attended (which was rather boring based upon the amount of doodles I had created), I decided to get the "skinny" on the protocol w/ technological dialogue via tweeting during a session. What a surprise to discover that many of my fellow participants weren’t tweeting/engaged in the session at all, they were playing games because they were so bored!! What a shock – we had something in common after all…go figure.

  7. Shaula
    Shaula says:

    Charlie, I know you’ve expressed some interest in and admiration for the work of dana boyd in the past.

    She just detailed on her blog her disastrous experience giving a talk at Web2.0 Expo, in which Tweets about her talk were being projected behind her.

    The Geek Feminism blog (where I found out about boyd’s post) summarized it this way: "There were, of course, some sexualised comments, although boyd focuses mainly on what it’s like to have the entire audience know what everyone else thinks of your talk, while you don’t. "

    So yes, to be very clear:  dana boyd doesn’t make a big deal about the sexualized comments in her account of the event, but other people documenting the event have pointed them out.

    Think about what it was like the last time you were trying to get an imporant point across while someone made rabbit ears behind you.  Now imagine you’re a professional woman making a presentation at a conference, while the Twitter stream you can’t see at the back of the stage is detailing audience member’s assessments of your body parts and what they’d like to do to you–and maginfy that bunny ears feeling by a thousand times or so.

    (The harrasment of women in IT circles, btw, is disappointingly common and pervasive. The Geek Feminism blog does a great job of tracking and hosting constructive conversations about the harrassment female geeks in general  and the issues around the paucity of women speakers in the technology world; they have more info for anyone who’s interested.)

    You wrotes: "The second point is simply, this is the future. (…) Presenters, get used to it."

    I know, I know: you weren’t aware of dana boyd’s article when you wrote this post, you weren’t thinking about women or harassment, and you were talking about the adoption of Twitter in general terms.

    But let’s think about it: if on-stage Twitter broadcasts are "inevitable" at conferences , and the only option is to "get used to it"…you can expect to see a lot fewer women presenting, and sadly too many fields present very few women speakers as it is.

    Low-attention audiences aren’t the greatest evil: wrong-attention audiences can be far worse.

  8. Shaula
    Shaula says:

    [Oops.  Hit send too soon.]

    dana boyd also discusses in great detail the limitations of on-stage Twitter and how it is better suited to some kinds of presentations than others:

    > "I think that the backchannel is perfectly reasonable as a frontchannel when the speaker is trying to entertain, but when the goal is to convey something with depth, it encourages people to be impatient and frustrated, to feed on the speaker. There’s a least common denominator element to it. I was not at Web2.0 Expo to entertain, but to inform. Yes, I can be an entertaining informant, but there’s a huge gap between the kind of information that Baratunde tries to convey in his comedic format and what I’m trying to convey in a more standard one. And there’s no doubt I packed too much information into a 20 minute talk, but my role is fundamentally to challenge audiences to think. That’s the whole point of bringing a scholar to the stage. But if the audience doesn’t want to be challenged, they tune out or walk out. Yet, with a Twitter stream, they have a third option: they can take over."

    Her article and the comments that follow it are very interesting and expand the conversation you’ve started here in new directions: I hope you’ll read it in full. (And I’d love to know what you think.)


  9. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    Shaula, thanks for raising danah boyd’s piece in this context; it had occurred to me too.

    Her piece, as her pieces often are, is electrifying, and great cause for thought.  I commented on her blog two days ago, in fact I was about the 20th comment out of nearly 200, and the quality of dialogue on her site is indeed high.

    It sounds like an example of mob behavior; there are a few things to be said about bad management of the session, and lessons for both tech people and presenters, but the main lesson to be learned is by the audience.

    In my original post, I said presenters should get used to it.  What danah’s post points out is that audiences shouldn’t be let off the hook.  Mob behavior, including excesses like crude sexism, should not be given a free pass by some new technology.

    I think audiences likewise have to get used to it.  They have to get used to the responsibility to collectively behave like adults, or suffer the consequences of getting censored and controlled by a designated third party. 

    I’m not clear where the technological answer is going to end up; to ban live twitter-feeds, or not.  But I think that’s a distraction; the larger issue is decent collaborative behavior.

    In a world that is increasingly defined by interepencies–whether it’s Wall Street, or international trade, or twitter-enabled speeches–we all face the choice: grow up and learn to work together, or act as self-aggrandizing and bullying.  Learning to act collaboratively is not easy, and it sounds like danah’s audience at Web2.0 Expo made the wrong choice.




  10. Shaula
    Shaula says:

    I’m not surprised at all to hear you found the article before I did, Charlie, and I’m really pleased to be able to read your thoughts on it here.

    Maybe one of the ways that we address the many problems stemming from restless audiences is to harness the Internet to develop highly motivated audiences.  (Not a universal solution, but a step in the right direction.)

  11. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    Actually Shaula it is quite surprising that I found the article before you did–the reverse is far more common.

    And thanks for the link to Paul Tompkins about how to get a highly motivated audience; that is really interesting! Like, really!

  12. Anders
    Anders says:

    Engaging your audience and gaining rapport is mission critical to delivering any message. 

    I would highly recommend the book "Presenting Magically" by Tad James.  It shows you various techniques for establishing rapport en masse. It also shows you how one can anchor audience responses to certain situations.

    In my work as a trade show infotainer and corporate trainer it has been invaluable.




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