Meetings, seminars, and laptops

Communicating face to face is supposed to be more effective than electronically. Yet it is common today to see professionals travel thousands of miles to be in the same room and then engage in parallel play on their laptops while one of them is giving a presentation. The speaker stands in front of tables arranged in a U, facing a wall of open laptops. The people behind are silent and focused, and seldom make comments or ask questions. They appear to be taking notes, but in fact, they are completing an unrelated budget spreadsheet, checking emails, or playing solitaire.

It takes the presentation skills of a Steve Jobs to successfully compete for attention with the rest of the world coming to each seat through the web, and most speakers do not have these skills, especially when in a foreign language, and it is also quite possible that the information they have to convey does not lend itself to an entertaining presentation, but today’s business audiences make no allowance for this.  The notion of giving each person a polite hearing, as taught in elementary school, is gone.

The intrinsic discourtesy of this behavior, however, is not the main problem. By providing escapes,web-connected laptops make badly-organized, boring meetings bearable, and allow them to continue unchallenged. Possibly the most tedious of all business rites, the regular staff meeting involves members of a department standing up one after the other and giving a status update on issues that are usually of interest only to themselves and the manager. Without laptops, some members would fall asleep and snore, and others would eventually rebel against this waste of time. And this would lead to a positive change. Wired in to their laptops, they don’t challenge the status quo.

A few years ago, cell phones routinely disrupted meetings,   with their owners leaving the room to take the calls, which were obviously more important than anything the people present in the flesh might have to say.  Today, cell phones disruptions are abating, as meeting participants usually comply with requests to turn them off, or, even better, to “turn them back on at the end of the meeting, so that they don’t miss their important calls.” The current situation with laptops, however, is not sustainable. It is a technology-induced problem, that technology may actually solve. Laptops are an endangered species, likely to be replaced with tablets that do not provide the same kind of visual shield as a raised laptop screen. Already today, people who bring iPads to meetings actually participate in the meetings, as doing otherwise would be too conspicuous.