Audience a-Twitter? Make sure your speech is really getting through

Speakers offer guidance as audience members tweet, blog, e-mail and update Facebook during presentations.

Speakers offer guidance as audience members tweet, blog, e-mail and update Facebook during presentations

A decade ago, Kristin Arnold, president of the National Speakers Association, began noticing audience members who kept their heads down, typing away on their laptops, rather than making eye contact during speeches.

In recent years, the phenomenon has exploded, with the spread of BlackBerries and iPhones that enable audiences to tweet, live-blog, check a quarterback rating or e-mail their regrets about that dinner invitation.

These days, speakers everywhere are facing crowds apparently more interested in what’s going on in their own laps than in the talking head at a conference they forked out good money to hear. Meanwhile, audiences are finding more effective ways than ever to trumpet a good point—or register a verbal yawn that everyone but the speaker can see in real time.

How to cope

Though many speakers regard the typing as rude, others say audience members—those not catching up on their online holiday shopping, anyway—are processing the content in new ways. Either way, speakers say they must adapt to the new reality with a sharper message.

Some are even embracing Twitter and other media as tools that can enhance listeners’ experience.

“It really is a little off-putting at first, and you do think it’s rude,” Arnold says. “But really what they’re doing is they’re paraphrasing you, they’re crunching down the main takeaways, they’re solidifying your main message. They’re creating conversation.”

The issue drew public attention recently when former President Bill Clinton reportedly requested that there be no blogging, tweeting, Facebook updates or other media from a speech in San Francisco in December.

Contacted by a reporter, the Clinton Foundation declined to comment, as did Salesforce.com, which is sponsoring the event. A Yahoo News story stated that the former president did not intend to ban social media but simply asked that no mainstream media cover the event, and that Salesforce had misunderstood when it passed along the request.

Is tweeting a distraction?

Angela Sinickas, founder of Sinickas Communications and a frequent public speaker, has stirred up controversy by asking her audiences not to tweet until after she’s finished. Though she admits some users can deftly post a message, she worries that audience members who rush to post tidbits of insights might miss the next point.

Besides, Sinickas asks, is anyone really that interested in reading all those tweets that gush, “Now she says this, now she says this”? Some people clearly aren’t engaging with the speaker at all. Instead, they are writing an e-mail or polishing a document.

“It’s not just me being distracted; it’s the person next to them,” she says. “If they really have that much to do, it might just be more courteous for them to go to the lobby and do what they need to do, and then come back in.”

Steve Crescenzo, principal of Chicago-based Crescenzo Communications, said he first noticed the texting several years ago when an audience member kept his arms under the desk, quivering suspiciously throughout a speech. Disconcerted, Crescenzo asked what the man was up to and discovered he was e-mailing.

Crescenzo hated the phenomenon, but in time he adopted an if-you-can’t-beat-them-join-them approach. He now encourages tweeting at his speeches, saying audiences often post useful nuggets of information. He still hates live-blogging, though, contending that bloggers usually get the message wrong amid all the gush of copy.

The multitasking myth

A deeper question is whether all that multitasking—such as e-mailing while listening to a speech—is counterproductive even for the audience member. John Medina is the director of the Brain Center for Applied Learning Research at Seattle Pacific University and author of the book “Brain Rules.” Medina contends that when people try to two do things simultaneously, they slow their brains down. Each task takes longer than it would have if tackled one at a time.

“Multitasking, when it comes to paying attention, is a myth,” he writes. “The brain naturally focuses on concepts sequentially, one at a time. … We are biologically incapable of processing attention-rich inputs simultaneously.”

Medina describes helping the son of a friend of his do homework. The high school student sat listening to music on his iPod while working on a laptop with at least 11 windows open, including two IM screens carrying simultaneous conversations with MySpace friends. Amid all the clutter was a word-processing program. Not surprisingly, he wasn’t making much progress on his paper.

For speakers, distracted audiences are simply the new reality, says Justina Chen, an award-winning author and speechwriter based in Seattle. She agrees with Medina about multitasking but says speakers need to accept that they are competing with e-mail for attention—and that they will be tweeted. They can either grumble about this or push themselves to become better storytellers.

“Here’s the secret: A story told right and told well can woo people into abandoning typing so they lose themselves in our words,” she writes in an e-mail.

An ‘ah-ha’ moment

Chen recalls an “ah-ha” moment when she was a speechwriter for Microsoft’s President of the Entertainment and Devices Division, Robbie Bach. They were at a ballroom in Las Vegas, where Bach was speaking to 3,000 people, and Microsoft had designed a theatrical moment to introduce Halo, a science fiction video game. As they began, thousands of tiny, hand-held screens lit up the ballroom.

They introduced the game with Gregorian chanting from the theme song and “gorgeous full-bleed imagery.”

“People leaned into the speech and stopped tweeting, so swept up in my president’s words and in the multi-sensory storytelling,” she states. “That’s when I knew we were onto a powerful and effective way to communicate our main messages.”

Not everyone has Microsoft’s resources for high-tech razzle-dazzle. But every speaker, like it or not, has to up his or her game or audiences will respond mercilessly on Twitter. It’s not an encouraging thought for the lonely figure droning on at the podium.

“If you’re really not any good,” Arnold says, “maybe they’re after you.”

Ways to make it work for you

How can speakers deal with all the typing in the audience? Here are some suggestions from several pros.

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