This morning I was reminded that I spend a lot of my time in a world that’s very different than the world many others live in. Maybe I’m in a bubble.

When the citizens of my world go to an educational session or a conference, we bring our laptops and phones. We take them out, listen and type, tweet or text. This is how we digest information, learn and share.

But not everyone understands our behavior, including many in the association industry — people responsible for providing an effective learning environment for their attendees.

Is it really a question of etiquette?

Yesterday on the ASAE membership listserv an association director expressed his frustration that at a recent panel session 60-80% of the audience were on their phones or laptops. He found it disrespectful. In another session he discovered that some were taking notes but others were using email and Facebook or playing games. Should associations ask people to turn off their phones and laptops during a session?

Another association director likened the use of laptops and phones at conferences to their use at the dinner table or during staff meetings. He suggested that organizers politely ask attendees to turn off all electronic devices so they can better engage and learn. He believes this bad behavior will spread as smartphones proliferate and provide more access to the outside world.

Maybe I’m not the one in the bubble.

tweeting at conferences raleigh freelance writer

Photo by I'm Mr P (Flickr)

It’s not about you; it’s about us, the attendees.

If a speaker or moderator told me to turn off my phone or laptop, my first reaction would be bewilderment. My phone is on silent, why should I turn it off? I’m taking notes on my laptop. What if I want to tweet?

My bewilderment would turn to anger and resentment. How dare you tell me how I should learn? How dare you tell me how I should capture my thoughts and ideas? I’m eyeing the path to the exit door.

Learning and sharing tools.

Why do we use phones and laptops during educational sessions? Here are the positive reasons:

  • We take notes. Writing by hand is not as easy or speedy as it used to be for me. I can type quickly, delete, edit, highlight, bold, italicize and use color fonts on my laptop.
  • We tweet. We share information with those who can’t be here. Some of us might use Facebook instead to do this.
  • We communicate with other attendees. We go to conferences not only to learn but to also meet people and build relationships. We make plans to meet others for lunch, coffee or a beer.
  • We’re live-blogging. We might do this instead of taking notes or to provide a summary of the session to those who can’t attend.
  • We email or text reminders or ideas to ourselves and others.
  • If I’m lucky, I get into a special mindset at educational sessions. It’s professional development so my “work” mind is on. But, because I’m not in my office, I’m stimulated by new surroundings and information, and my mind goes into creative mode. Ideas appear out of nowhere about all kinds of things, sometimes not even related to the session’s topic, but that’s okay. I never want to shut the door to good ideas and I get a lot of them while sitting in sessions.
tweeting at conferences phones laptops raleigh freelance writer

Photo by catspyjamasnz (Flickr)

On the other hand…

Sorry, but there are just as many negative reasons why we’re on our phones and laptops.

  • Your speaker is not compelling. They read their presentation. They’re boring. They’re nervous. They’re selling.
  • We’ve heard it all before. It’s too basic. We’re bored.
  • The presentation isn’t being delivered in a learning style that works for me.
  • My brain is at capacity. It’s late in the day; I just can’t listen any longer.
  • I’m really not interested, but I had to come. I have work I need to get done, emails to check…

What’s in it for you?

Why should you encourage your attendees to pull out their laptops and phones? If you want them to have a rewarding and enjoyable learning experience, let them learn how they wish. If they choose to goof-off, that’s their choice, as long as they’re not bothering anyone. They’re adults wasting their own (or their company’s) money; you’re not their mother.

I suppose you probably spend a lot of money marketing your educational sessions and conference. How would you like free word-of-mouth (or word-of-mouse) marketing? Everyone with a phone or laptop is a potential ambassador of awesomeness if you provide them with an exceptional experience and encourage them to talk about it.

Help them help you. Give your attendees enough wifi, outlets and chargers. If wifi is too expensive at one venue, find another. Hotels and convention centers that don’t provide affordable wifi don’t deserve anyone’s business. It’s time for them to get out of the bubble too.

We all come to conferences from different worlds and perspectives. What works for you may not work for me. Keep that in mind and live and let live.