Meeting Mentor Magazine

November 2021

Cover Story

‘Heads Down’ Attendees Alter
Dynamics In the Meeting Room

Stand in the back of any meeting room and see the future. Within a minute of the start of a presentation, heads dip and second screens flash on. Are they referencing slides? Responding to a poll? Addicted to texting? Is their attention span flagging so quickly or can younger generations multitask better than their elders? Meeting specialists weigh in on the changing dynamics in the meeting room and what all this means for stakeholders.

The meeting professional. Bryan Quinan, CMP, director, events, Milken Institute, manages very different conferences and audiences within his portfolio. Still, he sees how the conversation is simultaneously moving away from the stage, and evaluation surveys take place in real time. One recent conference, which is on the cutting edge of technology, directly tackled device usage by placing a social media seat on its general session stage, with two huge screens following the feed and alternating with a slide show of photos from the event fading in and out. “It was an interesting learning experience for us,” he said. “Sometimes it was a success. You could see the conversation continuing offline out of the room, but if a moderator and panelists do not have the conversation an audience wants, you get feedback about it instantly.” Sharing metrics and takeaways is essential for the successful event organizer to drive home the meeting’s real value, he emphasized.

The learning specialist. As an adult learning specialist, teacher and founder of, John Nawn encourages people “to use devices for whatever purposes they see fit, and I respect how they choose to use their time,” he said. He then focuses his attention on those who are engaged and participating. Still, “devices are a distraction, “ he noted, “so if you’re not putting something out there that is compelling, shame on you.” In his experience, learning at meetings and events has not been designed for information to be easily retained and applied by attendees.

The engagement specialist. “It’s difficult to fight the tide of second and even third screens, as people jump in and out of conversations. The education world is calling this behavior ‘bending time,’” said Jeff Hurt, executive vice president, education and engagement, Velvet Chainsaw Consulting. Not only must your conference sessions be “more engaging to attendees than any distraction that comes their way,” they must provide deeper understanding of how to apply the knowledge. The deeper the conversation, he maintained, the more likely attendees will have it face-to-face, with “less need to keep their faces in their mobile device.” Indeed, he pointed to recent experiences with FaceTime and Google Hangouts, which connected on-site and online participants to the immediate benefit of all.

The adult learner. Ian Framson, co-founder of Trade Show Internet, owns up to adult attention deficit disorder. “I don’t feel comfortable if I’m not checking my device,” he said. Indeed, “Gen Y and Millennials are so plugged in and connected, they find it disrespectful if show organizers don’t provide reliable Wi-Fi,” he said. “Many attendees don’t feel that this multitasking behavior could be disrespectful to presenters.” He doesn’t know, however, if this behavior is making him and other attendees more productive (more about multitasking below).

The speaker. So much has changed in just a few years. While devices represent “just another level of engagement with our audience,” maintaining attention is “definitely a challenge,” acknowledged Stacy Tetschner, CAE, FASAE, CEO of National Speakers Association. Which means “no more bland vanilla presentations, because hand-held devices will win out every time.” Rather than tell people to turn their devices off, he noted, speakers encourage attendees to use hashtags and “tweet what is valuable.” They monitor the Twitter feed so they can stay engaged with that secondary conversation, and they get audience interaction real-time with polling tools.

The trainer/facilitator. If there’s one person who’s made audience engagement a signature feature of her facilitation, it’s Joan Eisenstodt of Eisenstodt Associates. She recalls guest-lecturing at a meetings/hospitality class for a professor who became livid that Eisenstodt brought toys and “fun stuff” for the class to use while she was speaking. The professor wanted students looking at “just her” and nothing else. “I was stunned,” Eisenstodt said. “I thought how my mind wanders if I’m not ‘allowed’ to do what makes me most comfortable.”

So that’s the approach she takes with “heads down” behavior. She gives permission at the beginning of a session to participate in a way that is best for the learner/attendee, but doesn’t disrupt others.“If someone isn’t engaged, it’s his or her choice to do what makes them either engage or be comfortable,” she said. “If it’s not working for you, leave.” For their part, meeting planners “are not being as proactive as they could be in redoing room sets and programs. They’re pretty much as they’ve always been,” she cited. Nor are they requiring meeting rooms to have enough outlets to recharge all these devices.

The researcher. Does learning while multitasking actually work? The recent death of Clifford Nass, a Stanford University professor, brought attention once again to his research into how humans interact with technology, which found that heavy media multitaskers are actually poor at multitasking. In an interview earlier this year with National Public Radio, he said, “the research is almost unanimous, which is very rare in social science, and it says that people who chronically multitask…are basically terrible at all sorts of cognitive tasks, including multitasking…yet they actually think they’re more productive.” — Maxine Golding

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