Are They Paying Attention?

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As I look across the room, I notice open laptops, iPhones, iPads, and Androids in hand as the guest speaker begins to talk. One audience member receives a phone call, answers it, and gets up quickly to scoot out of the room to talk. You can’t help but notice the chattering of keyboards across the room, ringers going off, and heads down with full attention on devices.

Is this what a speaker has to compete with for attention when giving a presentation? Is the speaker struggling with this? Before these devices existed, the speaker was the only one in the room the audience paid attention to, but today we have devices that constantly demand our attention at the same time. What is it like to be a speaker in front of all these professionals, wondering whether they’re paying attention?

In the summer of 1986, when I was twenty-one, I traveled to Beijing, China, with my martial-arts teacher to study at a training center with a national team. It was an experience I will never forget. The majority of our time was dedicated to training, but we visited all the important places, such as the Great Wall, Ming’s Tomb, the Summer Palace, and many other incredible sites. However, the most memorable part of the visit was the people I met and trained with. Although we could not speak the same language, we spent so much time together that there was never a barrier to developing relationships. We went out to eat, visited families, traveled, and walked around the city every day.

It just so happens that a few months earlier, there was another young man who traveled to China to learn the same style of martial art that we were learning. He even wrote a book about his experience, which soon after became a motion picture. This man’s name is Mark Salzman and the book is Iron and Silk. Salzman speaks of many experiences he had during his time in China, but one in particular stuck out in my mind. He described the time he was invited to a home with friends that he met in China and during this visit, they became aware that he could play the cello, and he was asked to perform. Soon after he began to play, everyone got up, walked away, started laughing and talking loudly, and just did not seem interested. Salzman immediately ceased playing. The others all stopped talking and asked, “Why did you stop playing?” He replied, “I thought you were not interested because you were not paying attention.” They explained to him that this is how they connect with music in their culture. “It shows that we are enjoying it,” they told him. “We continue on with our natural conversation and movement and the music is the background.”

We were very eager to learn from the best martial-arts teachers in China, and the training methods were quite unlike what we had experienced in the States. The training was very systematized and deliberate, and it seemed as though no one was really watching. The teachers were present, but did not seem to have their eyes on the students. I was working hard and wanted instruction; I’d traveled twenty-eight hours and halfway around the world to receive this training! On any given day, I could practice for hours without a teacher speaking to me even though they were only 10 feet away. I was sure that I was making plenty of mistakes, so why weren’t they saying anything?

It was surprising to learn later that they actually noticed everything we were doing, and they let us know it. “You are too tense, relax, you are not focusing, let’s see the energy.” Every detail was communicated when the time was right. That’s when I became aware that we were not treated any differently than the other students and that this was just how they instruct. We learned very quickly that no matter where we were in the training hall, they were going to notice. I learned from that and adopted a new culture of training.

Has the etiquette of paying attention changed with technology? Are we going through a cultural change in which eye contact will be intermittent between checking our devices then focusing back on the speaker? Has it already arrived? What about our conversations? Many times, as they are talking with you, people will constantly check their text messages. Is this the new norm? Do you feel ignored, or have you accepted this? Do you feel less important, as if you are not as interesting as the person on the device?

You have to wonder, are they paying attention?


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