Student speakers worry about hecklers, but that seldom happens to speakers at all. (Comedians have a different situation.) Much more common are the side conversations that go on, to which social media has added another dimension.
I’m old school enough to be distracted when people converse during a speech, and if I’m distracted as a speaker, the rest of the audience will be negatively affected. when I’m in the audience, side conversations interfere with my experience of the speaker.
But in some cultures side conversations are the norm. It’s worth noting that side conversations could indicate boredom with the topic, or could indicate engagement, and it can be hard to evaluate which you’re experiencing!
When audience members are texting during a speech, it can seem as if they are not paying attention–and that could very well be the case. But it could also indicate they’re really impressed with the speech, and they’re tweeting about it.
More and more, rather than a speaker asking people to put away their electronic devices, I hear them encouraging people to pull them out and tweet about some aspect of the speech or conference. Most conferences today specify a “hashtag” so that attendees can easily find each others’ comments. This leads to greater engagement, but can also lead to greater distraction, and if a speaker isn’t doing well, s/he can be savaged semi-anonymously within seconds.
I have seen brave souls actually project the Twitter stream on a screen while continuing the speech!
Certainly, electronic devices are the norm, and it makes sense to incorporate them rather than try to make them go away. In any case, speakers today need to remember that just because an audience is looking down rather than making eye contact does not necessarily means they’re unengaged. To assess that, you’ll have to look for other cues.
I saw one of my favorite cues earlier this evening. I spoke to the students in the University of Tennessee/Pellissippi State Bridge program. When I began there were several side conversations and a bunch of cell phone out. They can make their their thumbs fly on those little keyboards! As I went on with my talk, more and more of them looked up from their phones, some stopping mid-text, especially during a story.
I don’t think you’ll ever engage 100 percent of your audience, and I doubt we’ve ever done so. Electronic devices just make obvious something that has always been there. Because of that, it’s also that much more obvious when you manage to seduce them away from those alluring texts. It’s almost as good when you say something pithy, and all of a sudden all the devices come out.