Public speaking or public conversation?

Many years ago a wise communication trainer told me that eye contact was the single most important thing for effective public speaking. I suppose for many years that was probably the case but not in 2011.

In the last six months I have had the opportunity to speak to a whole range of people at conferences, seminars and visits. Each time the subject of social media has either been the focus or it has become part of the conversation. Many people are at different stages of understanding and accepting the changes to modern life brought by social media.

What has become very clear is modern technology is having an impact, and multi-tasking is essential for modern life. I have lost track of the amount of times when I have been speaking I have been talking to the top of people’s heads. Not in a rude way. They have been on their laptops and mobile phones.  It is something that is transforming the way public speaking is carried out. There are benefits and some challenges.

On the positive side there is an opportunity for instant feedback. You can see by looking at tweets or other commentary whether people understood the message you were trying to make and if it was something they thought was interesting or useful. There is no need to wait for feedback sheets to have been collected, collated and then analysed. It means the speaker can make instant changes to the way they present and ensure they are developing their skills.

So, what are the downsides to this modern trend for interactive presentations?

Some people may be concerned that people are not paying attention to the presentation. That could be the case, but it is important to recognise that new skills are emerging. People now have to find ways to manage themselves and ensure they are listening when they need to and can comment when they need to. This is not something I find difficult because I spent years revising for exams with the television on and selectively viewing.

It is certainly a challenging time for those people in education who have been used to students listening to lectures and making notes. But nothing has really changed, now instead of listening, assessing and making notes, they are listening, assessing and deciding on what to note through computers or social networks. And what is wrong with tweeting from lectures. It could help those not able to attend or just interested people.

I am sure there will be people who are not listening and instead are checking Facebook comments or Twitter mentions. But then weren’t they the students of years ago who would be falling asleep or doodling endlessly on notepads.

Speaking is now more than a lecturing experience, it is a really engaging and interactive opportunity for a conversation. It is not just someone imparting their wisdom to an admiring group. It is now a chance to highlight issues, talk about things that have worked and for people to consider and give views about whether they agree or disagree.  For me this makes these conferences and seminars some really valuable opportunities to share ideas.

My communication trainer from years ago may have been wise and very knowledgeable with sound techniques but this is an era of interaction and ideas sharing. Let us not restrict this because we are set on the ancient rules of engagement. Public speaking is becoming a public conversation.

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