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The Risk of Distraction and Confusion

The journal Nature reported that at the annual Cold Spring Harbor Biology of Genomes meeting in May 2009, director of meetings and courses David Stewart discovered that audience members were live-blogging scientific information that had not yet been published. This ignited a debate about what information can be blogged or tweeted from scientific conferences and resulted in a policy that anyone who live-blogs or tweets must first seek permission from the speaker.

Part of the discussion about the incident was about whether tweeting contributes to distraction. According to Stewart, "Frankly, it can be a distraction if people are typing on their keyboards in the meeting."

It turns out that the backchannel provides a wealth of opportunities for distraction by audiences, presenters, and hosts.

Distracting speakers

The first thing speakers notice when they present to audiences with a backchannel is that when they stand on stage and look at the audience, not everyone in the audience is looking at them. It's a sign of respect to look at someone when they speak to you, so when speakers see audience members looking at their own individual screens, they can understandably feel that it's rude. Backchannel activity easily distracts a presenter and reduces the eye contact that helps a speaker gauge interest and attention.

It's also distracting for presenters to try to manage what's happening in the backchannel while also presenting. A few talented people can manage the task, but most people struggle with it.

Distracting audience members

It's not only presenters getting distracted—audience members using a backchannel can lose track of what the presenter is saying while they are typing fast to keep up or focusing on reading someone else's post. They also can distract one another with the noise of their typing or the bright screens of smart phones and other gadgets.

Because audience members in the backchannel are connected to the Internet, it's extremely easy for them to be distracted by other online opportunities (such as surfing the web, checking email, and doing other online activities unrelated to the presentation in front of them). That's especially likely to happen if audiences think the material is boring. They simply click to something more interesting online.

The risk of all this distraction is that presenters and audiences are distracted to the point that nobody is focusing on the presentation at hand (Figure 4-2).

Figure 4-2

Figure 4-2 The backchannel can distract both presenters and audiences.

When both presenter and audience are distracted, the quality of the experience plummets for everyone involved. With only partial attention being paid to the presentation, it's easy for anyone to misunderstand someone else, take something out of context, or act based on incomplete information.

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