It was a “shush” that resonated across a roomful of meeting and association professionals.
The occasion was the annual Tête-à-Tête dinner and charity auction, hosted by Meeting Professionals International’s Ottawa Chapter. The dinner has raised about $115,000 over the last eight years for the Ottawa School Breakfast Program, becoming a premier networking event that brings local planners and association executives together with suppliers from across Canada.
Last week, pushed along by a small audiovisual glitch, the tension between the impulse to network and the dictates of politeness came to a head.
Like their counterparts in other communities, the 620 Tête-à-Tête attendees weren’t about to let a few speeches get in the way of their conversations. They chatted through podium presentations and sponsor videos. And the buzz continued as Christine Lauzon-Foley began explaining what the local industry helps to achieve by supporting the breakfast program.
Lauzon-Foley described a local elementary school where 90 percent of the children live below the poverty line. (Therein lies the importance of school breakfast programs: Kids who are hungry can’t learn, and kids who can’t learn will never break the cycle of poverty.)
The chatter got louder as she talked about a little boy who eats four bowls of cereal every Monday morning, probably because he eats so little over the weekend. The volume went up another notch as she told the story of a Haitian dad who had registered his three children for school, arriving in Canada after his wife died and the family lost all it owned in the devastating earthquake.
Suddenly, Lauzon-Foley was interrupted by a deep, resonant “Shushhhhh.” It didn’t stop until the room quieted down. The new voice at the mike belonged to David Ogilvie, chairman of Tourism Toronto and regional vice president with Starwood Hotels and Resorts. His message to the group: This is important, so listen up.
“We’re all guilty of [talking during a presentation] on occasion,” Ogilvie said afterwards, but “we need to be much more conscious of who’s up speaking.” Participants might chat through a promotional video, he said, “but I get really annoyed when it’s someone doing something charitable, especially when they’re telling an emotional story.”
Participant David Dunlop, former deputy chief of protocol for Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs, agreed that Miss Manners would not have been amused at the behavior on site. He put part of the blame on faulty audio: The speakers were so small and underpowered that no one outside the center of the room could hear.
Ogilvie countered that “the buzzing was so loud. Even with the AV at full capacity, people wouldn’t have been able to hear very well.”
Good audio or bad, we’re an industry that pays careful attention to protocol. We have speakers who make a living on issues of etiquette and decorum. But this time, when we gathered over a sumptuous dinner to support basic breakfasts for all, it was a triumphant moment for every meeting professional when Ogilvie got everyone to: Just. Pay. Attention.
Mitchell Beer, CMM, is president of The Conference Publishers Inc., Ottawa, 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 email@example.com.