When President Barack Obama delivered the commencement address at Virginia’s Hampton University May 9, he raised questions about technology, communication, and thoughtful deliberation that could have profound implications for your next meeting.
Obama’s remarks on the distractions of an always-on media world set off howls of protest from the IT and social-media communities. But in his observations on the decline of clear thought, he may have inadvertently pointed to a fatal flaw in many meetings.
“You’re coming of age in a 24/7 media environment that bombards us with all kinds of content and exposes us to all kinds of arguments, some of which don’t always rank that high on the truth meter,” he told Hampton’s graduating class. “And with iPods and iPads, and Xboxes, and PlayStations … information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment.
“All of this is not only putting pressure on you,” Obama added. “It’s putting new pressure on our country, and on our democracy.”
In a radio debate a few days later, Wired magazine columnist Clive Thompson described the speech as “dog-whistle politics,” aimed at a demographic that is “tremendously unsettled by everything powered by electricity.” He allowed that Obama was “straightforwardly correct” about the decline of critical thought, but said matters were scarcely different for citizens of Victorian England: They weren’t distracted by high-tech toys, but were certainly preoccupied by the struggle to stay alive and healthy.
And yet, the experience of being distracted by information and technology is far too familiar. In the same broadcast, author Maggie Jackson cited a study in which one-third of participants reported being too distracted to focus on any one task. “They don’t have time to think,” she declared. “People are stuck on the surface.”
The challenge for our industry is that the Age of Distraction has crept into meetings—in the way meeting professionals organize their time, plan their on-site programs, and instill value in the face-to-face experience.
Time management is the least of the problems, and it isn’t unique to our industry: As Jackson pointed out, it’s rare that anyone has time to listen, ponder, deliberate, or sort through the deeper dimensions of any decision when a half-dozen other issues may be clamoring for attention.
But there’s more. In the drive to draw wider audiences, satisfy sponsors, and align with organizational messaging, too many programs at too many conferences substitute spin for substance, pushing too far down the continuum from knowledge, to “edutainment,” to the educational equivalent of empty calories. Too many meetings assume participants will only attend if the knowledge is spoonfed, with every blazing insight intercut or interrupted by a healthy dose of play.
The practice aligns all too well with a dumbed-down media culture, but it sells participants short. Along the way, it betrays a higher purpose that should be the cornerstone of any meeting, and a source of pride and credibility for our industry.
Mitchell Beer, CMM, is president and CEO of The Conference Publishers Inc., one of the world’s leading specialists in capturing and repurposing conference content. Beer blogs at http://theconferencepublishers.com/blog. Send comments, facts, arguments, or column ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.