In a recent meeting with my colleagues, we all sat around a conference table, our identical Blackberries in front of us. As one by one the Blackberries chirped, clicked, chimed, and buzzed, we found ourselves laughing at we looked at each other and then down at our individual devices, simultaneously declaring, “It’s yours” or “It’s mine.”
As the meeting went on, we each took our turn emailing as the speaker continued talking, holding the little silver gadgets in our laps or just under the edge of the table, typing with our thumbs in a failed attempt to be unobtrusive and not disrupt the proceedings. Every one of us was, at some point, guilty of allowing technology to interrupt and compete with our focus upon what was being discussed in that room.
I have now made it my practice, when I am speaking to a group, to announce at the outset that I expect cell phones and Blackberries to be turned off or, at a minimum, put on the “vibrate” setting. I ask my audiences not to place their devices on the table in front of them, but, rather, to store them in their bag or pocket and use them only during breaks.
For the most part, my request is ignored. It is not uncommon to see attendees going in and out of the room as I am speaking.
I have tried a number of techniques to discourage and eliminate the behavior. For instance, when the IPhone first hit the market, I jokingly told my audiences that, if their phone rang during my presentation, I would confiscate it the way my son’s high school principal once collected his — and kept it until Friday afternoon. (You would have thought the world had quit spinning on its axis! I think I was actually punished, rather than my son, because I had to listen to him whine and complain about not being able to send text messages to his friends for four days.) I added, “So if you have an iIPhone, please let it ring because I’m looking for one. We will trade phones and I’ll thank you before you leave today.” Everyone laughed, but no one really got the message.
I’ve also stopped my presentation and waited for the offender to finish his/her activity, encouraging the rest of the audience to join me in watching him/her type. Undeterred, their thumbs have generally continued flying over the tiny keys until they are ready to hit “send.” When a class participant gets up and leaves the room, I sometimes encourage the rest of the class to wave at them as they exit, saying, “Let’s all wave!” or asking the person walking out with his/her cell phone up to his/her ear, “I hope you’re not going away angry.” Generally, they turn, wave back, laugh . . . and keep talking as they walk out the door.
Yes, I am a frustrated stand-up comic.
But I am also a frustrated public speaker.
I am old enough to remember life before cell phones and Blackberries. I recall when business was transacted without those convenient tools. I remember when a secretary would have to actually get up out of his/her chair and walk to a conference room to summon his/her boss to take a telephone call. Better yet, I remember the days when my secretary told callers, “I’m sorry, but she’s in a meeting. I’ll have her return your call when it concludes.” People were satisfied with that response. Whatever the issue was, it would wait for an hour, two hours, or even until the following day.
These days, secretaries just send an email, knowing that the boss will read it while in a meeting, class or seminar.
It seems that every issue has now been elevated to “urgent” status, requiring an immediate response. Just as our attention spans have shrunken so has our ability to receive responses to inquiries, address issues, and resolve conflicts. And as the acceptable “turn-around” time has evaporated, so, too, has our ability to analyze, ponder, consider, and deliberate over important matters. To our detriment, in my opinion.
With those quick responses come off the cuff remarks, snarky replies, and split-second decision-making that all too often, we regret later, especially when we realize that there was more information to be gathered, more factors to be taken into account, about which we were unaware when we fired off that reply email or text message.
How does all of this bode for the business and world leaders of tomorrow? Teenagers and even younger children are experts at text messaging. While we Baby Boomers have had to work to become adept at typing with our thumbs, and still struggle to remember which key is for punctuation and which is for the number keypad, not to mention grasp the text lingo, our kids find it perfectly natural.
Are we raising a generation of impulse buyers and leaders with attention spans matching those of gnats? And how can we ask them to pay attention in school and refrain from text messaging and emailing during class, using the cell phones and Blackberries we provide them, if we can’t refrain from the obnoxious and rude conduct ourselves? In other words, shouldn’t we be setting a better example, modeling behavior that will encourage them to “do as I do,” rather than as I say?
Click here to read Part Six.