Meter to show speakers when they are losing the audience

Any speaker or lecturer is familiar with a modern phenomenon. A large fraction of your audience is using their tablet, phone or laptop doing email or surfing the web rather than paying attention to you. Some of them are taking notes, but it’s a minority. And it seems we’re not going to stop this, even speakers do it when attending the talks of others.

However, while we have open wireless networks (which we shouldn’t) there is a trick that could be useful. Build a tool that sniffs the wireless net and calculates what fraction of the computers are doing something that suggests distraction — or doing anything on the internet at all.

While you could get creepy here and do internal packet inspection to see precisely what people are doing (for example, are they searching wikipedia for something you just talked about?) you don’t need to go that far. The simple fact that more people in the room are doing stuff on the internet, or doing heavy stuff on the internet is a clue. You can also tell when people are doing a few core functions, like web surfing vs. SMTP vs. streaming based on the port numbers they are going to. You can also tell if they are doing a common web-mail with the IP address. All of this works even if they are encrypting all their traffic like they should be (to stop prying tools like this!)

Only if they have set up a VPN (which they also should) will you be unable to learn things like ports and IP addresses, but again, it’s a nice indicator to know just what total traffic is, and how many different machines it’s coming from, and that will almost never be hidden.

When the display tells you that most of your audience is using the internet, you could pause and ask for questions or find out why they are surfing. The simple act of asking when distraction gets high will reduce it, and make people embarrassed to have done so. Of course, a sneaky program that learns the MACs of various students could result in the professor asking, “What’s so fascinating on the internet, Mr. Wilson?” At the very least it would encourage the people in the audience to use more encryption. But you don’t have to get that precise. The broad traffic patterns are plenty of information.

Spy on Attendees?

Brad,

I'm guessing that you just had a bad experience at a presentation?

I would think that instead of embarrassing the attendees, you should change the presentation to make it more engaging.

Just a thought,
Randy

"Just make the talk better"

Actually, I don’t have that much of a problem with this but I see it all the time. And even the best speakers find this is happening, you need a talk that’s in the top few percentiles to actually get everybody to look up from their laptops these days, and no, not all talks can be at that level. I’ve seen people surfing the web on some of the most interesting and engaging talks I have attended.

And yes, this is not just in class, but in all the conferences I go to. Annoyingly sometimes even at the movies, but the cinemas are putting in warnings about it because a bright screen is a huge annoyance in a dark room.

All speakers and talks have sections that are more engaging than others. And all but the best speakers see distraction happen from time to time. What a tool like this does is help people understand what parts of their talk are the most engaging and which lag — which is what you need to put you on the path of a talk that is more engaging.

Just don't see how this

Just don't see how this problem even occurs outside of universities. So disrespectful of the attendees and just moronic - dedicate yourself to listening and put distractions off until later.

The stopping to question the audience solution is just as likely to lose the audience in my opinion.

My proposed solution - the MC should ask the audience specifically at the start to shutdown laptops etc and not once, but twice/etc. The speaker shouldn't have to do this.

The general set-up needs to minimise causes of potential distraction, such as using a high volume through the PA system, making the speaker stand, not sit (ie more dynamic). Not sure about lighting but would suggest the audience lighting would need to be dimmed.

This is an addition to the obvious stuff - the speaker needs to lead out with a curious/fascinating story or joke in order to gain audience attention, constructing a narrative for the talk which hooks the listener so they want to hear the outcome, have general public speaking talent etc.

In terms of methods of detecting audience boredom, the treatment needs to be preventative rather than symptomatic - this goes without saying. Apparently coughing is a classic sign of audience boredom and it's something I listen out for while speaking.

boring speakers

Someone once said it's OK if people look at their watches, but not OK if they hold them up to their ear to see if they are still ticking.

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