February 17, 2009
Walking Out on the Speaker
I was at a conference last week with many excellent, well-known speakers. They made presentations at plenary sessions of over a thousand and at seminars with fifty to hundred people. Regardless of the notoriety, prestige or quality of the speaker, or the intimacy of the group, those who attended felt free to walk in and out of the sessions at will--perhaps several times in a session for a single individual.
This is not a new, of course. I've noticed it for some time in a wide variety of settings. Thirty years ago, however, it was not so.
It used to be that once people arrived at a session, they stayed till the end. There was none of this meandering in and out. To leave would be "walking out on the speaker"--a kind of protest or sign of disagreement with what was being said. Staying in your seat was a matter of respect for the presenter and a courtesy to the other attendees. Those quaint, formal days, my friends, are over.
In fact, this peripatetic phenomenon is so common, so expected, so ordinary that courtesy doesn't even enter into the equation; others in the meeting aren't even aware of the constant movement anymore. So maybe if they aren't disturbed, it is not impolite.
I suppose I should be grateful that most people don't stay in the room to answer their cell phones and carry on conversations in competition with what is being offered from the front. I suppose that in itself is a form of courtesy. (They could, of course, just turn off their cell phones and refuse to answer them. But I'm trying to be realistic here.) And I am personally grateful that when a session runs long and I had two large cups of coffee beforehand, I can leave and return without too much embarrassment.
If people walk out while I am speaking, I don't take it personally at all. Maybe they had lots of coffee too. Maybe they came to the seminar thinking it was going to be one thing and it ended up to be another. Maybe they have a crisis at home that they need to stay in touch with rather than just needing to make dinner plans. People in the audience moving about hardly makes an impression on me at all. So if I am not disturbed, maybe it's not impolite.
In one session at the conference last week, however, people didn't come in and go out. They stayed in their seats, barely making a sound. Why? They were riveted by the speaker. He was compelling, honest, intimate and profound. He told a dramatic, personal story that captured every heart and every mind. No one moved a muscle.
It is still possible, you see, for people to keep their seats.