Sidebar Conversations Are Here to Stay

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for davidstrom.jpgBy David Strom
My question for you today is this: when is it appropriate to have a sidebar conversation during a conference call or in-person meeting? By sidebar, I meet a parallel Instant Messenger chat session or texting someone or posting something to your Twitter feed. Whatever your tool of choice, you are sharing your thoughts about what is going on in the meeting to other co-workers who are bored/distracted/uninterested with the current speaker.
I am as guilty of this behavior as the next person: back in the day when I had weekly staff meetings, we had various ways to amuse ourselves over IM chats. I remember when the precursor to the Blackberry first arrived on the scene and we would hide them under the table and check our emails – now they are so much smaller and easier to pull out and use. So much easier, that even our elected members of Congress are sending out Tweets and texts from the House floor this week during Obama’s address. Color commentary at 140 characters at a time, coming to you from those folks that pass bills that most never read. There is some irony in this situation, somewhere.
And this week, the Billerica Massachusetts selectmen passed a law that prohibits people from texting and emailing during town meetings. I am sure more will follow, maybe even our Congress.

There are professors that prohibit Internet-connected laptops (or at least try to) during their classes. Back when I taught a bunch of high school boys computer networking in a PC-laden classroom lab, I had to routinely unplug their machines’ Ethernet cables when their attention wandered to the Internet and the call of more important things, like checking and updating their overnight gaming standings. At least I had a cable to unplug: this was in the era just before universal Wifi coverage.
Call it ADD. Call it multi-tasking. Call it sophomoric or just plain rude. But this behavior is definitely here to stay. And as someone who makes part of my living as a professional speaker, I find this trendlet both disconcerting and yet fascinating. Indeed, at a speech that I gave this week, one of the participants suggested that I should show a live Web link to a Twitter feed so the audience could post their comments on screen, for all in the audience to examine. (This was done last at last year’s South By Southwest conference, to mixed results, as I recall.) First I thought it was a good idea. Now I am not so sure.
Remember how when we watched TV back in the olden times there wasn’t anything on the screen besides the program? Now we have the ever-present logo, sometimes spinning around with the time and temperature. We have little people that pop up at the bottom of the screen announcing some more “must see TV” that will be broadcast later in the week. We have the “crawl” which used to be used to announce snow or other extreme weather conditions but is its own sidebar conversation for many news shows. And Bloomberg TV has so much going on that I get dizzy when I tune in there trying to track all the various windows of data scrolling by. Even “24” shows multiple windows where each character is doing something to get across its real-time effect. (At least Chloe is back in the current season’s episode’s to save the day, we can all be thankful even if the underlying technology isn’t quite realistic.)
I am not sure where this is going, but it definitely is the brave new world of communications. Tweeting and texting during meetings is probably here to stay, regardless of what rules are put in place to stop them. And we as professional speakers will have a harder time unless we learn to incorporate these things and collaborate with our audiences, rather than competing with them. Of course, if we were more engaging perhaps all the sidebar chatter would come to a stop because people would actually want to listen to our speeches.