Speaking and wifi at events

Jeff Veen had some interesting thoughts last night on speaking at events where access to wifi might be a potential distraction to the audience and the speaker: Is anyone listening? WiFi and the new ADD. I’ve had similar thoughts at recent conferences.

Jeff Veen had some interesting thoughts last night on speaking at events where access to wifi might be a potential distraction to the audience and the speaker: Is anyone listening? WiFi and the new ADD. I’ve had similar thoughts at recent conferences.

Jeff sums up a concern here:

“Recently, I’ve been finding myself speaking to rooms full of attendees with heads down and typing. At first, I was happy to assume people taking were notes or blogging the event. But my recent informal surveys as an attendee (that is, looking around at screens) shows me that most folks are buried in email, feed readers, and various web-surfing activities.”

I certainly notice a difference in the way I’m able to connect with an audience between venues where wifi exists and where it doesn’t. I still haven’t decided if one scenario is better than the other. I sit on the fence for the same reasons Jeff stated and those Maxine gave in her comment (#5) on Jeff’s post. I know wifi’s existence at any future event is more and more likely.

A couple months ago, I was fortunate to speak at two conferences back to back. One had no wifi in the auditorium and only two power outlets on either side of the stage; the second had wifi and power strips run under every other row of chairs, and laptops were open everywhere. My sessions at the first conference went great. Possibly the best time I’ve ever had speaking, because the audience was right there with me. At the second conference, I bombed and thought I was going to get yanked off stage at any second. Of course the two conferences covered different ranges of topics, and catered to different interests. But I also think my performance (and my own perception of the performance) was affected by how connected I felt to the audience.

I don’t mind when lots of people in the audience have laptops open — whether I’m on stage or in the audience. It’s not necessarily a distraction for me either way. I do think the amount of people who have their heads buried into their laptops have an effect on the quality of that talk, presentation, keynote, or lecture though.

Pardon the lame wannabe-connection. Being up on stage to speak is kind of like a band being up on stage in a small venue. If the audience is into what’s going on, it fuels the band. And they play/sing with more energy. And that feeds back into the crowd and they get pumped up. And the whole thing is a snowball effect. If a good portion of the crowd ignores the band and takes up interest in conversation, their drinks, waiting for the headline act to come onstage, whatever… Sometimes you can see a noticeable impact on the band’s performance. Even if the audience is talking about the band, if they’re not showing any interest to the band, it comes off as apathy.

My point: audience interest, engagement, and participation leads to a more dynamic, enjoyable event for everyone. Duh.

The responsibility here doesn’t lie solely with the audience. It’s also up to the event organizers and each speaker to engage the audience with whatever means available. Obviously interest will wane if the speaker/panel stinks, or the topic misses the audience completely.

This new era of connectivity everywhere opens up new possibilities for engaging the audience. At some point, maybe they’re not just possibilities anymore — they are requirements if a speaker wants to charge and engage a potentially distracted audience.

Just like Jeff opening up AIM for the audience to pose questions without using a mic — great idea. I’ve seen other speakers project the IRC channel on a side screen so everyone can see the discussion happening in the background. I’ve also seen some really cool accounts of the conference and new perspectives when people live-blog the event, whether they post immediately or after the conference is over.

As a member of the audience, I’m also torn over wifi or no wifi at events. Sometimes, I’m glad to find connectivity in the room because I get to see the meta-conversation for that session. Or find photos posted a minute ago to Flickr. Or check out examples the speaker just mentioned. Or, let’s be honest, check email. Other times, I’m relieved to find there’s no wifi and no power outlets in the room, because I know my laptop will stay closed (as will most others’) and I just get to sit back and enjoy and learn and soak it all in.

So I don’t know what the answers to Jeff’s original questions are. But I doubt those who want to keep the wifi out will be able to keep it out for long. We might need to adapt our expectations as speakers and as audience members. Because the way we interact at events and public gatherings is changing. At least where geeks are present. And the mainstream won’t be far behind.

Now… excuse me while I “disconnect” my laptop and whack myself over the head for using too many variants of “connect” too many times, and for completely different purposes.

Update: I think I need to restate my last paragraph as a question before too many people go down the road of “I can do whatever I want if I paid for it.” That’s not what I’m after here, because I already mostly agree. What I’m wondering instead: Should (and how should) speakers and event planners adapt to engage the audience if the way we interact is changing because of new technology and available connectivity?