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Is Anyone Listening?

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Consider, if you will, the evolution of the modern meeting. I refer to The Meeting as the workhorse of the global system. Apart from global media, the meeting is probably the main channel of communication in the global system. Global policy networks will not work without meetings. Advocacy requires meetings. Public interest lobbying requires meetings. Even business deals require meetings. As they say on Wall Street: You cannot fax a handshake. There is no doubt then about the importance of The Meeting.

But is anyone listening? A time there was when if you had to address a meeting in the global system - anything from 30 to 500 - all you had to worry about was how to be compelling. The preoccupation was to try not to bore the listeners, to pull them away from reveries and side-chats or sleep. So, people took courses in how to give riveting presentations, how to arrest and keep attention, how to dazzle, anything to keep them listening until you were done. In those days - it seems like long ago now - it was understood that mobile phones had to be switched off. If your phone rang, other participants directed gazes of disapproval at you, as if to say: 'You idiot, what do you think you are doing!'

Have you noticed how that is changing? As Professor Taeku Lee was saying to me the other day - he came down to Washington to work on a book we are editing together - these days people bring their mobile phones to a meeting, plunk them on the table in front of them as if to say: 'Folks my phone is part of this meeting!' And, true enough, once the meeting starts, they will start dashing in and out to answer calls. At other times, they will be answering emails or surfing the internet.

All this was brought home to me the other day. I was somewhere in Europe attending a meeting of a global policy network on one of our issues. I was part of a panel, and was the last to speak. While my fellow panelists were presenting I had a chance to study the room.  That was when I noticed that almost everyone in the room had a laptop in from of them. As I later discovered, people were doing an amazing variety of things. They were listening to the speakers, but only partly. Occasionally, a participant would stop, look up, listen fully for a while, then go back to the laptop. I found out that you got more attention paid to your point of view during coffee breaks, during lunch, and during dinner and drinks than during the formal sessions. 

As Nicolas Carr and others have been telling us, it appears that we live in the age of Hypermultitasking. People worry about its implication for the quality of thought. I merely mention its implication for the simple business of listening and The Modern Meeting.

So, my question is, given the trend, what is it going to take to get people to listen when they go to these expensive-to-mount global meetings?

Photo Credit: Flickr user ky_olsen


Submitted by Anonymous on
It is a myth that the human mind can perform multiple tasks without losing efficiency (Compared to the sames tasks done sequentially) or errors. Excellent book on this topic :

Submitted by Anonymous on
"So, my question is, given the trend, what is it going to take to get people to listen when they go to these expensive-to-mount global meetings?" Wifi signal jamming devices. I think at this point its too late to kill this trend: the social norm has changed. I remember being laughed at 10 years ago when I predicted that the norms would change so that we would be *expected* to be always contactable, and that people would think it rude if we did not respond to the yanks on our electronic leashes from phonecalls or emails.

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