Drooping heads at public meeting are no napping matter
Written by Michael Lewis on February 11, 2015
At the podium former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman was talking about energy, yet hundreds of heads had drooped into a posture that said anything but energy: it seemed to be after-meal nap time.
But Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce trustees weren’t napping last Wednesday. Members were alert and energetic, yet they were paying close attention to anything and anyone but the speaker. Handheld devices were out and active.
Surely Ms. Whitman could see it. So could anyone who was actually listening – which wasn’t that many of us.
At my table I was alone in paying attention. At the table on one side five of six heads were deep in concentration on the devices of their choice. At the table on the other side four of five heads were down. At the table in front, it was four of seven.
The digital era has changed so many things that it’s no surprise that it has upended the etiquette of listening – or at least pretending to listen – to the speaker whom you have paid good money to hear. Nobody was forced to attend – and few seemed constrained to listen.
Granted, it was hard to call the speech electrifying (though it was all about electrical energy). There was no talk of sports or of scandal. It was just solid, important information on a topic of which every trustee was aware in advance: the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition and the implications for Florida of clean and safe energy.
Trustees wouldn’t have dreamed of eating with their fingers or talking throughout the speech. But their good manners went out the window when the handheld devices went on. It was every man and woman for himself or herself.
Maybe the younger generation is great at multitasking and can absorb and analyze the concepts and statistics that Ms. Whitman was offering while absorbed digitally at the same time. But has human brainpower really expanded that much so quickly?
What’s far more likely is that many of the group missed the heart what Ms. Whitman said – so what was the use of staying for the speech at all? If it was to be polite and not just walk out, using those handheld devices missed the mark by a mile.
A look around spotlighted who was off somewhere in another world – a digital world. We KNOW who you were. Don’t you feel even the tiniest bit guilty?
Life is fast and everyone is busy – certainly everyone at a chamber trustee lunch is busy. But does life have to be that fast?
So, what’s the solution to gaining attention at meetings when digital devices and their tempting wonders are right in your hand? What should the protocol be?
Try these alternatives:
1. Check your hardware at the door, as they did with six-guns in the Old West. Have a staffer take each handheld device at a checkroom and return it – or one that looks very much like it – after lunch. Instead of the Power Lunch, call it the Powerless Hour.
2. Instead of after-lunch prize drawings at events, sprinkle them throughout lunch, with the speaker inserting winning names or numbers between cogent points. Those who snooze, or answer email and don’t listen, lose.
3. To hold attention, have a mandatory quiz after lunch with similar alluring prizes.
4. Sell two classes of lunch tickets, charging extra for those who multitask. Two tasks, two charges. Or break into two rooms after lunch, one room to listen and another with eyeballs and attention glued to the tiny screen.
5. Do away totally with the in-person speaker and let everyone take a speech off the web while seated together – together and yet alone.
6. Our preferred answer: simply tell lunch guests to leave the room if they absolutely must do business or entertain themselves with handheld devices during the speech. Put it on every invitation so that nobody can possibly be surprised.
Surely one of these will work. If not, just cancel the whole thing. It’s too annoying to the few who do listen and terribly rude to the speaker.
Now, having solved the problem of the handheld device at the public meeting, let’s go on to the same issue at the concert. Then we’ll try mightily to set digital rules for the family dinner table.