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I was invited to give a research seminar in another department, and two professors kept looking at their mobile phones while I was talking. They were doing this at the start of my talk, and they kept looking at their mobiles for a fairly long amount of time, maybe 15 minutes, without interruption.

My personal view on this is to be tolerant. I accept that nowadays “technology is in our pockets” and the web offers infinite opportunities for distraction. Moreover, people may look at their smartphones for scholarly reasons, for example they may be doing a quick search for literature related to the topic being presented. I do not know for sure what people are doing on their mobiles, and it’s not up to me to discipline their behaviour.

That being said, I think that the basic rules of politeness and consideration for each other’s’ feelings still have a role and place. For example, if I know that I am going to be distracted during a talk, then I sit at the back of the room and try to get unnoticed. If I can’t resist the lure of the smartphone, then I keep it under the table and I try to look at it only for a short time. And maybe add an apologetic smile.

But on that occasion, both professors were sitting in front of me on the first row, with their mobiles in full view, and acted as if my talk didn’t matter. I must add that both professors are much higher in status than me, also the university where I gave the talk is of much higher rank than my university.

I didn’t want a confrontation so I pushed all the unpleasant feelings aside, and I concentrated on my talk. However, I recently thought about this episode, and it occurred to me that maybe I needed to show more assertiveness. Not for the sake of my ego (I don’t care about these two and what they do in seminars), but because assertiveness shows that we care about our research and our value as scholars, regardless of our status.

How would you deal with people overtly and persistently looking at their mobile device (phone, laptop, etc.) during your talk?

  • 34
    "professors", they're tricky, but a cardboard box, some crayons, a few sweets, and the promise of a Happy Meal may have worked, but trying to keep them focused for more than 5 min's is a universal issue ;) – arober11 Aug 19 '15 at 15:54
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    Be glad they didn't have laptops and typed furiously the whole time... *sigh* – Raphael Aug 19 '15 at 16:17
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    On a related note, there are some people who are excellent multi-taskers - I've seen this behavior a couple of times, and oftentimes, the first row cell phone typers still ask to-the-point questions at the end of the talk. – DCTLib Aug 19 '15 at 18:35
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    FWIW, I think it's extremely polite for someone to come to hear to my talk, even if they apparently need to do other things or are not very interested. So when I see someone not concentrating, I usually don't have any unpleasant feelings. But I guess you can't force yourself to think the same way, so this probably doesn't qualify as an answer. – JiK Aug 19 '15 at 21:30
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    @AMR terrible, terrible advice. This means you let yourself and the whole audience get distracted by a trivial hit to your ego. Just ignore them. – Cape Code Aug 20 '15 at 12:36

16 Answers 16

79

My attitude to life is to spare my mental capacities to things I can affect and change. Yes, it is annoying to see people at a workshop not paying attention. No, there is nothing I can do in the moment that would (i) change their behavior, while (ii) not make me look petty.

So, disengage from these feelings. Focus on those members of your audience who pay attention and interact with you. Make a resolution to have a great first slide for your next talk that may sway one of the two (or maybe both!) to get pulled into the talk. These are the things I can affect.

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    Exactly this. After all, if you're on a conference, most likely your topic is too special to maybe 80% of your audience to be truly understandable. The 20% that understand are likely following you even if they seem not to be (maybe looking up a relevant paper on arXiv or whatever). The 80% need to know roughly what you're working on, and they can probably sight-read it; they've been doing that for ages, at every conference and they master this ability. – yo' Aug 19 '15 at 22:09
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    I'd like to pretend that those who look at the phones or laptops just look up something related, but in reality they're most likely simply not paying attention at all. Either way, it's not something that I can fix that very moment. It just wants me to learn to make better presentations. – Wolfgang Bangerth Aug 19 '15 at 22:12
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    What @WolfgangBangerth said. There have been times where I've had to text a colleague to arrange a time to meet up in the next half hour. I've also had a dead laptop battery and have needed to take a note or two on my phone (about the presentation). Some—but not all!—behaviors are acceptable. When speaking, focus on those that are paying attention, and hope that those who look like they aren't really are. – jvriesem Aug 23 '15 at 22:08
75

I'll offer a dissenting point of view.

I often use my mobile device (smartphone, laptop, whatever) during a talk - because I'm taking notes on it!

I used to write my notes on paper, then transcribe them to my giant brain dump TXT file (very easy to search through, which is why scanning is not a solution)... until I noticed that I always put off the transcribing part until I had lost my paper notes. Since then, especially if a talk is relevant, I have been taking notes on my phone, so I can copy & paste the notes directly into my TXT.

Don't immediately jump to the conclusion that people fiddling with their electronics are not paying attention.

(If I'm using my laptop, I'll sit in the back, since I know that my keyboard can be distracting.)

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    When I pull out my phone during a talk, it's often because I want to look up a definition or refresh my memory of a relevant detail. – Vectornaut Aug 19 '15 at 20:09
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    This justifies occasional use of a device, but not permanent use. – Raphael Aug 20 '15 at 7:20
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    I use a laptop/smartphone during a talk, because I need something to do after I can't follow the talk anymore. The pacing of a talk is always wrong. The presenter spends too much time on the parts I feel obvious, while not describing the background and the novel/nontrivial parts in sufficient detail. Sometimes I need to think about something the presented said for a while, but I can't pause the talk while I do so. As a result, I usually lose the track of a research talk after the first few minutes, even when I actively try to listen. – Jouni Sirén Aug 20 '15 at 9:41
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    You can tell the difference when someone is actively listening and taking notes and someone is just taking up space and sexting someone or playing Words With Friends. You know full well that what the OP is describing is not what you are describing. – AMR Aug 20 '15 at 10:37
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    This is a brilliant point, since it allows the speaker to assume that everyone is taking notes even though in fact they're not paying attention at all. Everyone's happy. – Steve Jessop Aug 20 '15 at 13:07
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If you are presenting a topic and the audience do not take advantage of your experience and knowledge, it is their loss and not yours. However, two things came to my mind about this topic:

  1. Make Your Presentation More Interactive: I'm not saying to bring big amplifiers and blast music and throw free t-shirts at the crowd, however you can engage the audience with the topic you are working on. You can ask them questions, about their prior knowledge about the topic, and build the presentation around that. If the presenter is looking at the ground, not paying attention to the audience, or not asking any questions, then they won't get the respect they deserve.

  2. Don't be Judgmental About the Audience Behavior: Don't be an insecure presenter, and think negatively right away why the audience do this or that. Maybe they were tweeting how good your presentation is. You don't know what they are doing, so don't waste energy on why the audience is doing this or that, you are the captain in that room, and you should take control of your presentation and audience at the same time.

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    I don't think I could resist the lure of integrating a small, pointed (but friendly) dig at screen-watchers into the interactive part. – Raphael Aug 19 '15 at 16:19
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    I agree that the best way to reduce smartphone usage is to be more engaging. However, I wouldn't throw away the free t-shirt idea so quickly – after all, it's hard to catch a free t-shirt with a cell phone in your hand. ;^) – J.R. Aug 20 '15 at 10:58
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To echo some of the other answers and comments that suggest just trying to "get over it": the pre-cell-phone/internet version of this was senior faculty reading their mail: noisily ripping open envelopes, sometimes large manila envelopes with preprints sent (by physical mail), but invariably dozens of envelopes ripped open. Much noisier than looking at cell phones. Yes, you'd think that if they were away from their home campuses they'd not have piles of mail to go through... but in those days delaying looking at all the importuning physical mail was the analogue of today's delaying figuring out what to do with an inundation of email.

And then there was/is the style of "bringing a pad" to any talk: get some thinking done, and annotation of it, while allocating a little attention to the speaker. This does make sense if one is fairly expert, fairly experienced at "listening to talks", and so on. The remarks about "successful multitasking" are on the mark for experienced professionals: they often know fairly precisely how much attention is needed for a given task... and can control allocation... and thus get much more done each day.

The point is that it's not about cell-phone manner, it's about the culture of "listening to talks". Truly, from a fairly expert viewpoint, most of these talks have a very low (relative!) information rate. True, a person interested in making the speaker "feel good" would act the part... but if one is doing an awful lot of attendance-at-dubious-talks, the goal of "making the speaker feel better about themself" becomes less-clearly a high priority.

(Certainly being not-so-obvious about one's multi-tasking is a "grace", but/and it appears to be unrealistic to uniformly expect academics to aim for this...)

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    The assumptions resp. experiences underlying this answer begs the question: why do we give talks at all? – Raphael Aug 21 '15 at 11:25
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    @Raphael, I guess sometimes we give talks because we have to. Sometimes because we want to attempt to make more of an impact on others (by "affect", for example) than an inert PDF or piece of paper might. Sometimes that impact is "by being seen". Sure, often seminars are a high-noise environment... but, arguably, less noisy than "Internet". Not the ideal that one might have dreamed-of. Still, not clear that everyone wants a "heroic figure" (as in some famous seminars of the past) running things with an iron fist, etc, enforcing civility. Petty impoliteness is not the worst price to pay... – paul garrett Aug 22 '15 at 22:54
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    Oh, you make a good incidental point. The host of the seminar could enforce policies! That might actually be a suitable answer. – Raphael Aug 23 '15 at 9:28
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    It's the speaker's job to create a talk which will keep the audience rapt. Some people will come as polite gesture to the inviter to fill up the audience; sometimes to discover something new to learn. But this politeness/interest needs to be matched by the speaker. If 200 people spend one hour of their life in a talk possibly not in their field of main interest, they deserve to get something out of it. This, to put it mildly, does not always happen. If people do sit discreetly in the back with open laptops, their goodwill to come possibly wasn't matched by the quality or relevance of the talk. – Captain Emacs Dec 22 '15 at 18:59
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I agree that their behavior was very rude, and it is best keep looking at smart phones or laptops during a talk to the absolute minimum.

Having said that, I think that anything else than what you have done (trying to ignore their behavior) will be very unlikely to have any positive outcome for you. If you would address their behavior, even in the politest way, they probably feel annoyed at you (or worse). I fail to see how you could benefit from this.

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    I absolutely loved the lecturers that enforced 'no mobiles', etc. in their lectures. Loved it! Albeit I am not stupid enough to waste a lecture like that on my phone and the lecture sizes were quite small... 30-60. – insidesin Aug 21 '15 at 14:36
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    @insidesin My boss has established such a rule in approximately 200 students lectures. Even though he would, if push came to shove, have no actual way of enforcing the rule, students usually follow suit; they are dependent, after all. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive; motivated students realize that screens in their field of view are an awful distraction. – Raphael Aug 23 '15 at 9:30
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As a speaker, your job is to speak.

It's the hosts (or moderator's) job to make the environment welcoming for the speaker. If you want the audience to behave a certain way, talk to the host/moderator and ask them to mention and enforce it. Nobody has the job of demanding an audience's attention or respect.

It's pretty normal for people to sit through a talk because they were at the one before and the one after. To them, the present talk is a bit of a break. Is it distracting? It can be, especially to the presenter. Is it rude? Often, but not always, and it almost never is intended to be.

Think of your opportunity to talk—and your audience's attention—as a privilege, not a right. Be thankful for those who give you their attention, and ignore the rest. If you give a good presentation, it will be their loss.

Is there a breakdown of respect? Yes. Should we do our best to reverse it? Yes, but it begins with ourselves and with the youth. Teach your kids (if you have any) and your students (if you have any) and those who look up to you to be respectful.

You can earn respect, but anyone who demands it looks bad.

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    Heh! Yes, "demanding respect" leads to all sorts of troubles... – paul garrett Aug 23 '15 at 22:41
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It is somewhat rude and distracting to sit in the front row and obviously not pay attention. But tough luck. You're not a school teacher so you don't have the right to demand your audience's attention. Focus on the audience members who are paying attention to what you have to say: that will help you avoid the distractions, at the same time as directing your focus to the people who will benefit the most from it.

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For me, the main problem would be the distraction.

There is a technique used by some really good high school teachers. Move around a bit while you are lecturing, spending just a little extra time in the zone near the distracting individual. The additional proximity for a few moments will probably make the offending character(s) a little self-conscious and therefore less distracting. You don't need to be blatant about it. The more subtle the better this works.

The other thing you can do is pick up a manila folder or a couple of pieces of paper or something, and hold it in as discreet position as possible, that will block out the front-row in-use phone from your view. This will help your concentration.

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    I've seen a speaker who would walk through the entire seminar room during his talk, all the way to the rear of the room and back. It was very effective. However, this was at a summer school with a senior speaker and a junior audience. I don't know how it would be taken the other way around. – gerrit Aug 20 '15 at 10:37
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    @gerrit As an audience member, I'd find that extremely annoying. When somebody is speaking to you, they stand in front of you, where you can see them, make eye contact, see their facial expressions and feel involved in the "conversation", even if the talk is one-way. If they stand behind me, they may as well be a loudspeaker. – David Richerby Aug 20 '15 at 19:06
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    @DavidRicherby - Since the phone users are in the front row, you would not need to stand behind anyone. Also note, you don't need to keep moving for the whole 50 minutes. – aparente001 Aug 20 '15 at 22:34
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    @DavidRicherby Depending on the size of the room, walking towards the back allows you to interact with those sitting in the back in the first place. As long as you balance it out, I don't see a huge problem with doing so. – Raphael Aug 21 '15 at 11:26
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    @Raphael You can interact with people at the back of the room to a reasonable, though imperfect, extent while standing at the front. Walking to the back of the room means you've turned your back to the majority of your audience, strongly excluding them. Also, in most seminars, there are plenty of empty seats. If the people at the back wanted to be interacted with, they could usually have chosen to sit much closer to the front. – David Richerby Aug 21 '15 at 11:30
4

The vast majority of the people attending a seminar that is held regularly (e.g. every week on a fixed time) will do so on a routine basis. They may sometimes be very interested in the subject and on some other occasions they may be less interested. For some older professors this is their regular nap time.

4

One more useful tactic to add to those already discussed: focus on the people who are enjoying your talk.

This trick was taught to me by a professor whose lecturing style I find excellent. In every audience, there will be a range of reactions. Some people will like the talk more than others, and if you let yourself notice those people, then their smiling and nodding will have a positive feedback effect on your emotions regarding the talk. That in turn leads to a better talk, which leads to more smiles, etc.

The same happens in reverse: if you pay attention to the people ignoring or disliking your talk, then the negative emotional impact will tend to degrade your quality of delivery, feeding back in the opposite direction.

The wonderful final corollary: if you are in the audience for a friend and you want their talk to go well, the best thing that you can do is to smile.

3

You probably can't do much about them, unless their behaviour is so gross that you can get away with a "reverse heckle" from you to the audience. (E.g. "The next lemma is so obvious that you should be able prove it while playing a game on your iPad, so I'll press on...") Best to practice that at your local stand-up comedy club first, though ;)

I guess you were making some eye contact with the audience, otherwise you might not have noticed what was going on at all. A good strategy is to search out a few listeners who are paying attention, and concentrate your eye contact on them to maximize the amount of feedback you get. If you can pick out three or four people in different parts of the room, most of the rest of the audience will subconsciously assume you are "looking at them" as well.

The worst instance of this that has happened to me wasn't an academic seminar, but a musical concert where I was a soloist. A teenage daughter of one of the concert organizers was sitting on the front row and ignoring the concert completely while doing her school homework, with intermittent shuffling of paper, dropping of books and pens, etc. I remarked to the organizer afterwards that his daughter seemed to have enjoyed the music. The only response was a rather pained look.

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    Your suggestion is passive-agressive. It sounds as a joke, but it only turns out as a joke if you're known for making jokes and your audience knows you really well (in general, this works in small "closed" communities). Yes, you can be passive-agressive, but people hate being targets of this, and targets of the looks of other people. If you're ready to be hated, go for it. – yo' Aug 19 '15 at 22:06
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    I agree the "heckle" approach isn't for everybody or every occasion. If you can't "read" the audience to judge what their reaction will be, you probably shouldn't try it. I don't see anything passive-aggressive in the strategy in my second paragraph, though. – alephzero Aug 19 '15 at 22:14
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    Yeah, sorry, I wasn't enough specific. – yo' Aug 19 '15 at 22:33
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    "concentrate your eye contact" on a few good listeners -- excellent. – aparente001 Aug 20 '15 at 3:19
3

"How to deal with people looking at their mobile phone during my presentation?"

You don't. As long as they don't make noise you should be happy they took the time to be there. If it helps, pretend they're telling all their friends about the awesome presentation they're attending. Now this one is culture dependent, but in case you feel your senior colleagues are being overly rude, or have offended your honor, you can always challenge them to a duel; just be careful before you slap them in the face with your glove since dueling is nowadays illegal in some countries and you don't want to go to jail just because someone didn't pay attention to your presentation.

2

The mindset I have while teaching: if my students are bored during the class, it is me who is boring. It is my fault, so there is no point in getting upset with them. The same applies if people are sleeping: either I am boring them, or they are taking medication that makes them drowsy: either way, it is not their fault, and it is probably mine.

The same applies to a talk, it is my responsibility to be engaging, clear, and overall, make an useful presentation. With an extra catch: a research talk is something very specific, and cannot always be fully conveyed in the abstract. I have attended many talks that sounded interesting, but realised after five minutes that they were talking on a completely different level, or taking a radically different approach than what I am interested in. As an example, I would attend a talk about machine learning applied to biology interested in the machine learning bit, but it may turn out to be heavier on the biological part, and loose me quickly.

If I can't follow a talk, there is no point in me looking at the slides; so I better do something better than just wasting my time. We are all consenting adults, I don't have to go around policing people on what to do. Furthermore, if many people have chosen not to listen to me, it is a bad sign I should pick up and fix before my next talk.

1

paul garret makes good point in a comment that I think deserves its own answer.

If it is a regular thing, some ground rules may make sense: do not talk too long, take open-ended questions offline, do not take calls while attending, and -- maybe -- do not use electronic devices while somebody gives a talk.

Assuming there is a host for this seminar, i.e. the person who sends the invite, talk to them. Ask them to establish a set of rules and enforce them. You can propose a rule regarding your wishes.

1

I agree with Dave Rose's answer

The top thing that you can do is to keep the talk interesting. That way people will be staring at your power point even if they have no idea what is on it. What I have noticed from my own experience both as an audience member and a speaker is that people drift off when there is something/anything at all that they do not understand.

So a lot of pictures, a lot of summary, a lot of predictability in your talk (like reusing slides but with different words), a lot of prompt words "When, Why, What, How..." but also make sure that all of them are satisfactorily explained.

For example:

  1. A lot of people put a single picture/figure on a slide and then ramble on for 5 minutes. Remember your audience has to digest everything you say, which can be very difficult to follow the more technical the material. What I would do is to put just enough information underneath the figure on the power point slide so it is self-explained. So audience never feel like they have lost track of everything and my talk is like supplementary material.

  2. Also the more technical the material, the more motivation it needs. For example, when some speakers are explaining a method or an algorithm, they quickly jump to the blackboard and start setting up the entire problem. My approach is always go for the simplest example imaginable to show the big idea, then lead the audience into more involved examples. I rarely use the black board by the way because audience tends to do their own little thing when you are showing your back to them, I use the blackboard to draw pictures, nothing more.

  3. You can always bring your audience back when they drift off. You can adjust the tone of your voice, sound more excited "Look at this result, isn't this wonderful". I saw one very experienced presenter who inserts images of his children (along with other random stuff like animals) into the slides and let them do the talking. People are interested in kids. Do that.

All in all there is a lot a presenter can do to make the talk interesting, and that is the KEY to keep your audience focused. The more interesting it is, the less likely they will do something else like looking down at their phone or iPad or their Laptop. This works especially well for your front row audience.

-4

It's a rough matter, in my opinion. And I have plenty of opinion; see Technonomicon for one tiny slice.

One way-heavy-handed thing you should not say (perhaps a commenter may have a better idea) is to say:

"I've worked hard on all this presentation to give you my best, and I can't give you my best if your attention is split between me and a smartphone. So why don't we have a few minutes' silence to post off those last emails, or whatever will be distracting if we jump in, and then we'll all be in a position for the lecture to go well."

In a non-academic setting, there is a famous (blue-collar) restaurant where they ring an obnoxiously loud buzzer if someone is using the cell phone. The wall has a wall plaque saying, "We don't allow cell phones in this restaurant. If you are someone so important that you have to be on a cell phone, you should be eating someplace much more upscale."

  • 7
    Quoting CapeCode's comment to the original question: "terrible, terrible advice. This means you let yourself and the whole audience get distracted by a trivial hit to your ego. Just ignore them." You are stopping the talk and wasting everybody's time for a dubious gain in attention. – Davidmh Aug 25 '15 at 10:07

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