If Your Audience is All A-Twitter is that a Good Thing?

By Jason Menard,

It’s somewhat ironic that social media is perpetrating a behaviour that is inherently anti-social. But while that behaviour would come across as disrespectful to previous generations, it is in fact the greatest show of respect one can display.

After all, seeing a room full of people ‘ignoring’ a speaker and typing furiously away wouldn’t seem to be a positive thing – but it could be the greatest display of approval one can show.

I strongly believe in the importance of showing respect and one of the key ways to do that, I have always felt, is to look a speaker in the eye and give them your complete attention. However, in today’s social-media-dominated business world, it’s not unusual to find people tapping away on various wireless devices or laptops right in the midst of a conversation.

It’s disconcerting, for sure, but it also shows that perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate what respectful behaviour is.

I consider myself lucky to have grown up in the time that I did, as I’m able to remember the pre-wireless-revolution days with an appreciation for the power and potential of today’s social messaging tools. When I was in university, cell phones weren’t as ubiquitous as they are now, texting didn’t exist, and even mass-acceptance of the Internet was in its infancy. Yes, I’m speaking of the halcyon days of the early-to-mid-90s. And while much has changed over the past two decades, there are some basic tenets of courtesy that still hold true – and likely have for generations.

One thing that I’ve never been able to abide is the use of a cell phone during personal conversations. I had a friend who would place his cell on the table, when we’d go out for a weekly breakfast get-together. He would take calls during those meals – rarely excusing himself to leave the table, and never excusing himself after hanging up. I didn’t agree with that then; I don’t agree with it now. I believe that when I’m interacting with someone, they deserve my full attention. And in return, I deserve the same. That’s why you have voice mail. And while I used to believe that the visual display of complete attention applied in all situations, now I’m not so sure if the eyes really have it any longer.

I still find it rude when people are typing away during business meetings on items and projects that have little to do with the meeting at which they’re attending. For that hour, you should focus on the task at hand – not catching up on e-mail or working on other projects. Essentially what you’re saying is, ‘Your meeting/topic is not as important to me as what I’m working on, and I have so little regard for your time that I’m going to not allow an actually scheduled meeting – that I accepted – get in the way of doing what’s important to me.’

And while I used to apply that same logic to conferences, in many ways it no longer applies. If I’m attending a speaker’s presentation, I should be paying attention to the topic. At the very most, I should be taking notes, but I believed that respect was paid with the eyes. Now, increasingly, respect is shown with the thumbs.

It seems counterintuitive in many ways, but as long as you’re Tweeting, blogging, or otherwise commenting on a presentation via a social media channel during a presentation, you’re actually showing more respect for the presenter. In fact, the greatest sign of respect in the future for a speaker may be talking only to the crown of your attendees’ heads.

By tweeting or re-tweeting content that you’re hearing at a presentation, you’re essentially saying to the world, “I find this content extremely valuable and I want to share it with you.”

As a presenter, that’s immensely gratifying. It’s also educational. You have immediate access to how your message is coming across. Are the members of your audience getting it? Do they understand? Or are they focusing on the wrong components. As a speaker, that’s incredibly valuable information to have if you’re at all interested in improving the quality of your product.

As an attendee, it forces you to pay even greater attention to the content, because you want to ensure what you’re posting is correct. Thanks to the advent of hash tags and their use in most conferences, your content is being scrutinized in real-time by people who are listening to the exact same content that you are. If you post something erroneously, chances are you’ll be called out on it. And whether it’s face-to-face or over the Internet, nobody likes to look, or sound, like a moron.

In the end, the same behaviour can be either rude or respectful depending on what’s prompting it. If you’re finishing an overdue project instead of listening to your speaker, that’s rude. But if you’re showing the value of the presented content by sharing it with your Twitter followers, Facebook friends, or other members of the social media community, then you’re being respectful.

A thumb’s up used to be a way to show your approval. Nowadays those thumbs are too busy broadcasting your approval to the world. In the end, who cares if you remember what your speaker looked like — as long as you’ve embraced and shared the message, then you’ve paid him or her the ultimate compliment.

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