Tag Archives: future of learning

Assumptions about attentiveness: is eye contact engagement?

WitthayaPhonsawatAt BP’s Future of Learning event in November, we were lucky enough to have the fabulous Crystal Washington as our guest speaker at dinner (follow her on Twitter @CrysWashington).

Crystal delivered one of the most dynamic, engaging and passionate presentations I’ve seen for some time. Keeping the attention of a room full of people when you’ve got the after-dinner slot and everyone’s been at a conference all day isn’t easy! But that’s not the only reason why Crystal’s presence had us all talking throughout the next day.

Crystal gave us a whirlwind tour of social media: the dark side, the war stories, the lessons learnt the hard way by big businesses and unwitting individuals; the generational advantages afforded to both those young enough to have been using technology since infancy and those old enough to have experience of networking and business etiquette to inform their (strategic) use of it; and tips for how to make sense of the web of social networks out there and use them to improve efficiency and effectiveness.

During the Q&A time, someone picked up on the theme of generational differences and Twitter in particular, asking Crystal how she feels as a presenter if she’s in front of a Gen Y audience whose heads are down over their phones. Despite confessing that she doesn’t appreciate her siblings using their phones during dinner, Crystal replied quite firmly that this Gen Y audience scenario doesn’t bother her. She understands that these people are paying attention, they just do it in a different way from what speakers might be used to; this is their way of working and learning. Incidentally, Justin Mass asked the same question of Richard Culatta at Learning 2012 and got the same response: ‘nope, normal.’

Some people didn’t seem to believe Crystal, though: the next question was less of a question and more of a challenge. A lady at the next table pointed out, quite rightly, that I’d been on my phone almost the entire time Crystal had been speaking. She also said that she’d bet any money that I hadn’t been tweeting or taking notes.

Actually, that’s exactly what I’d been doing. In fact, it’s what I’d been doing all day. Crystal had been following our backchannel throughout the event and immediately came to my defence, pointing out that she’d have been more concerned if I wasn’t typing away on my phone while she was talking, as it would suggest I was less interested in what she had to say than I had been all day. After dinner, Crystal thanked me for being a perfect embodiment of one of her key points. Different generations (whether defined by age or by use of technology) have different ways of engaging and learning. This lady looked at me and made an assumption that I wasn’t paying attention – perhaps shopping online or browsing Facebook instead. By contrast, I was absolutely more engaged with Crystal’s content than I would have been had I not had my phone there.

Another aspect to this is the value of the tweets being shared. I found some of the comments on Justin Mass’ recent blog post about real-time activity switching interesting. Melissa Daimler says that she’s observed a move back towards low-tech experiences, towards people abandoning live-tweeting in favour of face-to-face conversation and then tweeting later. She says ‘the tweet is usually more thoughtful since they can give more context around it after having sat with the idea for a little.’ Actually, for me it’s the other way around. I think there is equal value in tweet-reporting (as it were) the content of a session as it happens, and then adding my own thoughtful context later in whatever format or medium is appropriate. I’m a fairly reflective person; I prefer to have time to think before I draw conclusions or make plans. So it suits me to contribute something in real-time, and this rapporteur-style of live-tweeting works for me, and then contribute more fully later if and when I feel I’ve got more to add from a personal perspective.

I’m not by any means saying that, if you aren’t live-tweeting or taking notes on a tablet or phone, you aren’t paying attention. That would be a ridiculous claim to make. I’m still partial to a beautiful notebook and still turn to my trusty pen and paper to take notes during meetings, when jotting down thoughts for my next book review, and in numerous other situations. But my experience over the past few months has been that live-tweeting does enhance my attention and focus in a seminar or conference situation. If I’m on Twitter (or even using a notepad app) I’m not able to easily flit between different apps, whereas if I’m taking paper notes it’s very easy for my attention to switch to my email or other things on my phone. I also have a tendency to doodle in the margins of my notepads which, though not always a sign that my mind has wandered, probably doesn’t convey engagement and interest.

A while back, when Craig Taylor was subject to similar cynicism, I declared myself firmly in the pen-and-paper camp. And I would still today choose to make paper notes rather than digital notes (using a notepad app on my phone or tablet). I prefer paper note-taking for the reasons I mentioned before: it caters better for my personal brand of shorthand, and so on. But live-tweeting is something different. Knowing that my notes are going to be read immediately by others enforces a certain level of discipline; it keeps me focused and concise, and totally engaged. So when it comes to a conference or similar event, I find myself increasingly choosing live-tweeting over paper notes.

Another commenter on Justin’s blog post, Travis Cunningham, says: ‘People are engaged in an activity when you mix feedback, friends and fun … Most trainings lack all three. Twitter adds all three.’ Thinking about it, Travis has pretty much got it bang on for me. Live-tweeting absolutely does not diminish my engagement; if anything it improves my focus and attention. And I enjoy it; it enhances the conference experience for me.

The day after the dinner with Crystal, several people thanked me for helping them see Twitter in a different light. I think if those people now don’t pass immediate judgement when they see someone tapping away on their phones, and perhaps even give some thought to what engagement with a speaker or session really is, then being singled out at the dinner was worth it! 

Image: Witthaya Phonsawat / FreeDigitalPhotos.net