Phones and Laptops at Conferences: Friends or Enemies?

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.

Author: deirdrereid

Deirdre is a freelance writer, who after more than 20 years in the association and restaurant industries, is enjoying the good life. Away from her laptop, you can find her walking in the woods, doing yoga, journaling, cooking new recipes, or relaxing in a comfy chair with a good book and a glass of craft beer or wine.

27 thoughts on “Phones and Laptops at Conferences: Friends or Enemies?”

  1. I was, frankly, astonished to see that conversation on the listserv this morning (I get the daily digest). Seriously–people think they can tell a room full of adults who paid hundreds or even thousands of dollars to be there, not to mention are taking time out of their busy schedules to attend–that they are forbidden to use a laptop or another device during a presentation? What’s next–hitting people’s hands with rulers if they don’t sit up straight enough during the presentation? I honestly find the whole concept of trying to control attendees incredibly insulting. When I present, I know it’s on me to present interesting content in an engaging way–and if people in the audience were playing games or Facebooking while I was talking, that would be on ME for not engaging them, not on THEM for being “rude” to me, the presenter.

    I’ll digress, but it’s with a big sigh and a shake of the head…

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    1. I was amazed there weren’t a ton of replies telling him why people use laptops and phones and that, no, you shouldn’t try to limit their use, but, on the contrary, encourage it. But I suppose most people did what I did — say nothing because we’re tired of arguing with people who don’t seem to notice that the world around them is changing.

      I just checked the original thread and see that this morning you, Ed Rigsbee and another have added to the list-serv discussion, thank goodness. And thank you!

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  2. Great post Deirdre! I wouldn’t tell a speaker how to present so why would they have the right to tell me how to digest their content.

    This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from the comic D.L. Hughley – Either lead, follow or get the f— out the way. Mobile technology at conferences is here to stay. Just ask all of the vendors giving away iPads in the exhibit hall.

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    1. Ha ha, good quote. It would be interesting to examine trends through the lens of exhibitor give-aways! I wonder what they were giving away 20 years ago.

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  3. When I attend an educational session, my cell phone is OFF. It’s not on vibrate because I have no need to know who is calling. Whoever it is can wait.

    I don’t take a lot of notes, and I’d rather not lug a laptop around with me. If I’m bored by the speaker, I’ll leave.

    Yes, I think it’s rude to surf the web, play games, or pick up your email during an educational session. You can do that somewhere else.

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    1. I used to turn my phone off but then I would forget to turn it on again and wouldn’t realize it for hours, usually when someone comes up to me and says, “where were you, we tried to call you.” I think voting with your feet is a nicer policy than ripping someone up on Twitter, although the venting probably feels better in the short-term, it really isn’t very nice. However if a speaker is really horrible (I had one a few weeks ago that read her awful text-heavy horribly written PowerPoint word for word off the screen, but I was trapped), it seems like community service to warn others off. Hmm, that’s a tough one.

      I hope to buy some kind of netbook or iPad soon, otherwise I’m going to be permanently leaning one way because of my heavy laptop. But I won’t leave home without it.

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  4. UGH…this just makes me so upset! No one is allowed to tell some one how they are supposed to learn or absorb information.

    I always say…
    RULE #1 – Know your audience.
    RULE #2 – Give your audience what they want.
    RULE #3 – Give your audience what they want in the way that they wish to receive it.

    As a speaker, I personally welcome people to type…and write…away during my sessions. So much so that I speak and PPT in 140 characters or less whenever possible. It isn’t about me…it is about the audience. If they are playing games or checking email, I look at the bright side and hope that they are leaning something. Because something is always better than nothing.

    Adapting to different learning styles within a room is a huge concern for associations and conference organizers right now. And they better start figuring it out soon or else attendees are going to gravitate towards “learning in the hallways” a lot more than “learning in the session rooms.”

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    1. Emilie, I’m not surprised to hear you say this because you are definitely an educated speaker who knows how to deliver content. Here’s an interesting idea. A lot of conferences will mark sessions by track or broad topic with some type of symbol or color — I wonder if we might start seeing sessions marked by type of learning style. Some folks might prefer a straight lecture, or a very interactive, exercise-intense session or a hybrid — why not let them know which one the session will be. Thanks for commenting.

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  5. Well, I think you know what my answer is going to be… 😉

    This is like a teacher telling a class to put their pencils down and stop writing. It backwards thinking and one of someone trying to control another person. Speakers and executive directors do not control anyone but their selves.

    If a speaker is boring, voting with your feet is the best thing to do. However, there are people who attend conferences that think that getting up and leaving a room during a presentation is also rude…just as there is thinking that using a laptop or phone is rude. Rudeness is in the eye of the beholder and there is no reason for an audience to try and please that beholder.

    This is probably about an Executive Director being offended that an audience did not listen to a speaker that he/she possibly handpicked to present. Perhaps, just perhaps, the Executive Director had a hidden agenda that he/she was trying to force on people and thus got offended that people were not paying attention.

    Let’s get one thing straight…sitting quietly, facing forward does not equate to paying attention. Quiet rooms full of people listening to a speaker does not mean that they were paying attention. Audiences have perfected the skill of being bodily present and mentally absent. Attention has to be earned not forced.

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    1. Yes, I had a feeling you’d agree with me on this one. 🙂 If only your blog was required reading for all conference organizers, we would be spared so many bad sessions, speakers and over-reactions.

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  6. Two issues are being addressed here. How people learn, and how they behave in learning situations.

    Yes, people should be able to learn in any way they want. And yes, many associations don’t understand that.

    But how they behave when the learning situation isn’t what they want is another issue.

    If you were talking with somebody and didn’t want to continue the conversation, would you start doing something else in front of them or would you politely excuse yourself?

    The definition of “rudeness” seems to be changing.

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    1. A conversation and an educational session are two very different things with two very different standards for those who are on the receiving end. When I speak at a conference I expect to see people in the audience either staring at me or the slide, writing, typing away at their laptop or on their phone, or reading their laptop or their phone. Even if they do other things, as long as it’s only a few, I figure it’s not a reflection on me, it’s them. It’s important for me to stay in the room rather than in my head.

      If they leave the room, I figure it’s either because they want a different experience or something came up. I’ve never had people leave in droves so even though I know I’m not as engaging (or educated about adult learning) as, let’s say, Jeff Hurt, I can’t be too bad. I don’t take any of these activities that personally. I see it as typical conference behavior, not at all rude. If a speaker sees that behavior as negative or rude, they need to realize that they’re the ones that need to change, not the behavior.

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  7. Deirdre, Jeff, Emilie, Maggie and Stephanie I pretty much agree with what you are saying but I do have a but…

    I’m totally cool with people taking notes, blogging or doing whatever on laptops…but please get a keyboard that does not click loudly. I think we all know what I’m talking about. How many times have we had to sit next to someone and gotten completely distracted by the loud tap tap tapping away…

    It’s akin to bringing an electric pencil sharpener with you and constantly sharpening your pencil with a Zzzzzzrrrrrrrrr Zzzzzzzzzrrrrrrr.

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  8. Great post Deirdre! I too was suprised by the list serve posting and proposed ‘solution’. Our organization holds sessions that attract sizes from the handful to the thousands, and all we ask is turn off the noise (no rings, alerts, etc.). I agree with Traci, though, a clickety-clack keyboard – always owned by the person who types at warp speed of course – is very distracting.

    Your comment about being a speaker make me wonder – are session organizers talking with speakers about ‘today’s audiences’ and what to expect? Alerting speakers that people will type, take notes, walk in and out, etc. may help them be more comfortable presenting – not everyone is a professional or experienced speaker.

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    1. You would think that they are giving speakers a heads up on that, but in my experience, most don’t. A simple email would do. There’s no way to do that before a session, too many things come up that will distract staff. Another good point, thanks, Tammy.

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  9. Great article Deirdre. I’d love to see a follow-up on how meetings should embrace this new dynamic that is here to stay. I get really upset when there is no free wireless in a meeting room for attendees and don’t get me started about no cell phone coverage in many ballrooms.

    We need to embrace our attendees technological needs and make the experience interactive. We started putting a tweet stream on a big screen during the session so anyone using our hashtag showed on the big screen. I just wish I could require hotels and convention centers to have adequate wireless coverage.

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    1. You raise a HUGE issue that isn’t being loudly addressed yet — the lack of affordable wifi. Some event and education bloggers are raising it but only a tiny percentage of hotel and convention center executives probably read blogs. Your message needs to come more loudly from association executives perhaps via SAEs, MPI chapters or trade magazines. Thanks for adding that to the conversation, Dave.

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  10. Traci raises a point to often forgotten when we make this a speaker vs. participant issue. It’s also a peer-peer issue. What I choose to do sends messages and affects those around me. TED used to have a Laptop Lane designated in the meeting room for those who wanted to type, recognizing that it might disturb others who just wanted to sit back and listen.

    I think the “turn off our cellphone” announcements that used to be de rigeur at almost every conference and the start of every session or meeting was grounded in the idea of respecting each other, not respect and defer to the speaker. While it would be cumbersome to at the start of every session, when it is appropriate I’ll often engage participants in a quick conversation about what we want the learning experience to be like and what shared agreements we can make to support that happening. Instead of inflicting and enforcing what might seem like an arbitrary standard on others, I think we’re better served by engaging people helping create the experience they will value.

    I obviously lean toward people using technology to advance their learning, but not if that might significantly inhibit others who choose to engage without an electronic device. Just because technology is moving forward doesn’t mean we want to leave others behind … or that we have to.

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    1. That’s an interesting point. But I would hate to see people inhibited in their learning because their method is voted down by the crowd, seems like there could be some compromise. Of course, some sessions are not note-taking type sessions, particularly those that are more leadership-oriented and requiring more attendee engagement, like many of yours are.

      When I enter a session room that is more of a note-taking session, if I don’t see laptops spread out all over, I’ll choose a seat at the back or the wall, so I’m not distracting to others. I remember my first SAE event here in NC, I was the only laptop in the room. Now there are dozens. But sometimes I never take my laptop or phone out because it’s just not that type of session. Although I’ve sat in a few where I wish I had something to distract me because, oh boy, they were bad.

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      1. I definitely was not suggesting majority rule, but rather what you point out: finding a way to use the space and time to let folks engage in the manner they desire while respecting the different preferences that may be present. If we don’t give people a chance to make their preferences public, I think we miss an opportunity to have a conversation about how we’d like the learning to unfold.

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  11. Deirdre,
    Timely post, Don Tapscott, author of Macrowikinomics: Rebooting Business and the World, was on Talk of the Nation today (http://www.npr.org/2011/07/14/137853462/rethinking-how-we-teach-the-net-generation). He spoke about how we teach the Net generation. He made many of the same points as these comments. These kids (and some of us older folks) don’t learn the same way. Their mind has developed/adapted so they can switch quickly from one topic to another which is not the same as multitasking.

    I must confess I have switched from Twitter to check my email but usually because the speaker has lost my attention. I’m still surprised how often there are only a few people with laptops, netbooks, and tablets at other than social media types sessions. But it’s spreading and I agree the organizers need to “get over it.” That horse has already left the barn.

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    1. It really is about attention, isn’t it? It would be interesting to me to have a conversation among people about when they choose to check Twitter, email, or something other than attend to the conversation in the room or on a conference call or webinar. Some probably do it at the first hint of boredom or disconnect; others I imagine try and stick it out in the moment a bit longer.

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  12. Noise draws the line. If you want to pay money to get work done, so you earn CEUs fine. Thank you for coming. If the speaker is boring, etc., leave, unless you need CEUs (see last sentence).

    Make a noise and you need to leave. That goes for any ringtones, clicky keys on a keyboard, etc. Someone in the room may be very interested in the presentation. If the presentations are very interested, then tweeting, electronic notes, etc., is exposure. Gotta love good PR.

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  13. I lugged a laptop to the ASAE Annual Meeting this year (for the first time). I still didn’t take a lot of notes, so I didn’t make a lot of clicky noises, but it was helpful to be able to record thoughts I’d like to share later online.

    Wi-fi was available throughout the convention center, but it was a real pain trying to logon at the hotel.

    Most people at the sessions I attended did not use any devices. In a couple of groups of about 100, I saw 4 laptops, 6-8 iPads, and about 15 smartphones (there were probably more).

    It was helpful to login to blogs and LinkedIn, and do work, between sessions. So, yes, devices should be allowed in meetings, but the majority of people really don’t care.

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