Conference Me Out

Should we send our phones to summer camp?


At the beginning of every Broadway show (and everyOff-Broadway, Off-Off Broadway, Regional, movie screening and school play, for that matter) is an announcement to turn off our phones. Without this announcement, the show would be completely overtaken by jingling, pinging, ringing, kitten mews and unfortunate choices in music. As it is, some of the above still manage to squeak through because there are always the few folks who are mistakenly “totally sure” their phone’s volume is down, or it’s turned off, or my personal favorite, “No one is going to call me.”

Performing in front of today’s audience can be a bit like performing in front of shoppers waiting on the legendarily long lines at Whole Foods. Those onstage look out on a sea of people peppered with audience members in a trance, looking elsewhere, fixated on an object, waiting for a signal from a disembodied messenger (the voice prompt that tells you which register is open) and disengaged from the action in front of them. Occasional flashing lights and delayed reactions (based on those around them paying more attention) complete the effect. Even people who mute their phone often hold it so that the alert light, or worse the screen, flashes throughout the event. It's the visual equivalent of a dripping faucet.

But all that’s nothing compared with the experience of trying to connect with todays’ conference or business meeting audience.

In the theater (stage and screen), the audience is usually kept in the dark so that they might be able to better see where they are meant to focus. For those on the stage, it is also far less distracting if you can’t see the people out front, who are supposed to be watching you, shuffling around and hunting for lozenges instead.

Not so in a business setting, especially since the working world norm is “devices on and handy.”

If you’ve ever spoken in meeting rooms of any size, you know that every side conversation, live or virtual, is plain as day (since it IS daytime). It can be like doing West Side Story in a dinner theater (complete with clanking silverware and wine spills) in front of an audience who has a runaway case of the hiccups.

And regardless of whether you’ve led or even simply spoken at a meeting, you know the frustration of trying to have a conversation with someone who is barely looking at or hearing you.

So why, when hundreds or thousands of people and tens or hundreds of thousands (or millions) of dollars are spent to mount a conference (and attendees spend days away from family and work to attend), do we sit in the audience and check our email (or maybe worse, social media) repeatedly?

I’m not talking about when we are in a meeting where we are asked to engage in social media during the session.  That’s another story. But when there is a clear point of focus in the room, why do we wander? Are speakers not flashy enough to hold our attention in today’s world? Studies seem to indicate we are hardwired to get sidetracked by blinking lights and beeping noises. Advertisers know this. But we are also easily sucked into distracting ourselves with checking for blinking lights and beeping noises…and I think we are paying a big price for our addictive behavior. Missed moments, lost learning, reduced retention, stunted skill building and fewer real connections to the moment and each other.

I guess the answer to the question of why we digitally isolate ourselves when we ought to be “patched in” rests in that it’s very tough to control our impulses to connect with devices and platforms. And for the conference planner, getting everyone to go along with a phones-off or phones-lite policy is nearly impossible. Like swimming upstream…during a tsunami.

In our professional trainings (EmpowerSpeak trainings in particular), the phones spend the day in summer camp. You wouldn’t believe the separation anxiety evoked by putting your phone in camp. Or maybe you would. Truthfully, it’s not easy for us to do either. We do it because everyone in the room deserves not to be shortchanged. We give a heads-up about phone camp well in advance, of course, to make it as smooth an adjustment as possible.

But boy, is it an adjustment.

When I coach individuals and small groups, people sometimes need to check their phones during the session for emergency reasons and extenuating circumstances. Funny, there are more and more of those nowadays. So much so, that this year, I’m going to look at the impact these devices and our relationships with them, have on our ability to live, learn and enrich each other.  It seems to me like we’ve created our very own cyber-leash and I’m curious to know, when we weigh everything in the balance, whether all this access has given us freedom or taken a toll.

Probably both.