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As a scientific researcher, I occasionally find myself giving scientific talks in the conferences, universities, and colleges. I try to make my talk as entertaining and understandable as possible so that people will become interested in it and won't get bored (say by seeing complicated equations).

However, I still find that several people from the audience, probably because they are addicted to their cellphones, keep chatting or playing games on their phones. I find this very irritating especially because I try to make sure that my presentation is interesting and I put in a lot of effort into it. Sometimes I feel like saying this thing aloud during the presentation.

This might be fine when I am talking in front of junior students. But when I am talking in a conference or something, I think that this could be insulting to senior professors etc. Nonetheless, since I find their behavior to be my insult, I feel like telling them in a just way so that it would look normal. How can I do this?

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    Related but not duplicate: How can I politely ask someone to get off their phone? – A J Sep 16 '17 at 10:53
  • Have you ever asked the attendees to refrain from using their smartphones while you are presenting? If so, what happened? – user3114 Sep 16 '17 at 11:10
  • Where are you located and what is the cultural context here? This information will help determine how people will react to different ways to telling people you would appreciate it if they turned their phone off. – user288 Sep 16 '17 at 18:41

12 Answers 12

34

Because Mobile phones have made it harder for speakers to compete for their audience's attention, the speaker has to give them more value that their mobiles would never be able to do in that situation.

What you have done, by asking them to ask you questions is great! This is the sort of value their mobile phone would be unable to give them.

It's a question of motivation: If they don't want to be there or they are there to tick a box, then you can't stop them, no matter how exciting your presentation is.

The only way to stop them chatting on their phones is by breaking them into groups and getting them to agree some questions to ask you or things they should say. This way, in a small group, it will be harder for them to reach for their phones.

If you're speaking at a conference to senior lecturers and your presentation is engaging to 80% of the audience but 20% are on their phones, then I would say you've done well.

It's their loss, not yours.

I used to hate people's phones ringing in class (I deliver workshops and talks almost on a daily basis). Before any of my talks I usually start by saying:

"Is anyone particularly keen on dancing? If yes, those people who think they'd be interested in doing a dance in front of everyone without any notice, are welcome to keep their mobile phones at full blast. So when your phone rings, I am going to sit and let you come and dance in front of everyone to the tune of your mobile ringing. I've done it with a group of Russian business men who looked like they wanted to kill me, I will do it with you."

At that point, everyone laughs and you see them reaching for their phones, switching them off.

  • Good points coming from your own experience @Geek Speaker, though I think "What you have done, by asking them to ask you questions" might refer to my earlier answer rather than the question asked by Peaceful. You are very right that "It's a question of motivation: If they don't want to be there or they are there to tick a box, then you can't stop them, no matter how exciting your presentation is." -- I agree and upvote! – English Student Sep 16 '17 at 13:12
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    "[Break] them into groups and getting them to agree some questions to ask you or things they should say." Er, that's not what happens in scientific presentations. As a presenter, your job is to give information to your audience. You're not in a position to tell them what to do and they certainly didn't travel thousands of miles to the conference for somebody to set them tasks to do. – David Richerby Sep 17 '17 at 12:04
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    My key point is this: If you are running a workshop or a 1h presentation - and you are the only speaker, then do the dancing to mobile tune thing, it really works. If you are at a TED type conference then it is the chairperson's job (the person inviting speakers on and off stage) to set the rules for the conference - i.e. switch mobiles on silent, use mobiles to tweet etc. – Geek Speaker Sep 18 '17 at 6:47
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    @GeekSpeaker "if you're at a conference and your job is to give a TED like 18 min presentation" The vast majority of academic conferences bear little resemblance to TED. It seems to me that you're not talking about the same kind of situation that the question is about. – David Richerby Sep 18 '17 at 9:50
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    Yes @GuyG I have done it with a group of Russian businessmen. At the end of the session they gave me a standing ovation :-) – Geek Speaker Sep 18 '17 at 13:21
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One other thing to consider is that you might be wrong about what people are doing on their phones.

I use my phone to take notes at things like faculty meetings and conferences. I find it very convenient to have my notes in electronic form, and using my phone means that I don't have to find a way to lug around and juggle one more thing. If I have an opportunity, I will sometimes let a speaker know ahead of time that I'm going to do this so they don't think I'm texting, but it's not always convenient. If I'm on my phone a lot while you're speaking, it's because I find a lot of what you're saying worth recording, not because I'm ignoring you.

Obviously if you can hear a game or movie playing or the person is actually chatting out loud you will know what they are doing, but otherwise, if you have made the standard request for silencing phones and you're in a professional setting I would suggest giving your audience (and the compelling nature of your presentation) the benefit of the doubt.

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But when I am talking in a conference or something, I think that this could be insulting to senior professors etc.

You are correct; it would be.

Unless you're actually the organizer of the conference, it really isn't your place to make such announcements. You could, however, contact the organizer ahead of time and request that they include a note in the materials or perhaps make a brief announcement in opening remarks requesting people to be respectful with the use of their mobile devices during talks. But whether such an announcement is made or not is really their call, not an individual speaker's.

The absolute most I would do on your own is perhaps including a note at the bottom of your title slide with something like this:

Please silence your mobile devices.

I don't think many people will take offense at that, but anything more than that will likely be seen as insulting or condescending, as you've guessed.

(Image source: website offering free icons for such uses.)


As a side note, I'd recommend trying not to take offense at people merely using their phone, so long as they're not making noise or otherwise being disruptive or distracting to others. It's possible that they're merely taking notes about your talk. It's also possible that they have some other important matter that might require immediate attention.

Of course, it's also possible that they simply aren't as interested in your talk as they had hoped that they'd be from the abstract or that they're interested in parts of your presentation, but not in others. Different people are interested in different things and there are very few things that everyone will find interesting. It's unlikely that you'll have many cases where everyone in the audience is equally interested.

You don't really have any way of knowing whether any of those things are the case. In any event, none of those cases necessarily reflects poorly on you or the subject of your talk. I'd recommend just trying to ignore them as best you can and continue with the talk for the sake of the parts of the audience that are actually interested in it.

Please resist the temptation to treat your audience like children (unless, of course, your audience actually is children.) Professionals at a conference won't appreciate feeling that a speaker is treating them with condescension.

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    If they are not interested in the talk, they either sit quiet and suffer, or they leave quietly - which is already on the rude side. Using their phone? You mean there are people who are too stupid to pick the right talk to visit, and then are so rude to interrupt the speaker and all the audience? – gnasher729 Sep 17 '17 at 11:45
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    @gnasher729 "people who are too stupid to pick the right talk to visit" It's often difficult to leave in the middle of a session so there's no stupidity involved in being in a talk that you're not at all interested in. – David Richerby Sep 17 '17 at 12:06
  • @gnasher729 Note that I said "as they're not making noise or otherwise being disruptive or distracting to others." I'm not talking about making calls or other such disruptive things. So long as one's phone is silent, one can browse the web or such without being disruptive. – reirab Sep 17 '17 at 18:43
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    "As a side note, I'd recommend trying not to take offense at people merely using their phone, so long as they're not making noise or otherwise being disruptive or distracting to others." I agree – Geek Speaker Sep 18 '17 at 6:54
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Too many people including professors are dependent on and addicted to their cellphones so you have a real challenge here.

You can politely announce right at the beginning of your presentation that you request everyone not to use their cellphones for the duration. That makes your expectation explicit and clear to anybody, so that there is no confusion on the matter.

It is not a question of politeness but habit and power that many of them might still choose to disregard your request, and you did say they are senior professors and cannot be dictated to. Being more aggressive by insisting on the matter will only antagonize those powerful academic luminaries. In that case you have no choice but to bear with it, I think.

I recently gave a class to unruly youngsters who refused to be quiet during my presentation. My response was to allow them to be distracted (since I was only a guest speaker), but I managed to draw them into my topic in innovative ways and they ended up contributing constructively to the discussion (while still making a great deal of noise, may I add: but youngsters are like that only.) Maybe that is the way to go if you want to get and retain the attention of your audience?

I am sorry to state that if our presentation is not interesting enough, people will play with their smartphones.

Note 2: if the audience is not in a receptive frame of mind, it is counterproductive to force the issue.

  • Can you kindly elaborate on exactly which innovative ways you used? – Peaceful Sep 16 '17 at 11:14
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    This was a class about tropical water-borne diseases to junior high-school students. I was going to simply state my points, @Peaceful, but seeing they were so distracted I asked them to state those points one by one. So that set them thinking. (2) I finished the presentation early and told them to ask me questions related to the topic,to clear all their confusions. Again they couldn't just sit passively and chit-chat but came up with many excellent questions. (3) I also made them act some simple role-playing games I had prepared to show how to educate the general public about the diseases. – English Student Sep 16 '17 at 11:21
  • it sounds like you did a brilliant job of keeping them engaged, so I am confused as to why you are saying they kept using their phones for games? when exactly did this happen? also, what context are you in exactly when you have to teach senior professors? - is it like a conference where you break in the seminar rooms or is it when you are a keynote speaker and you've just been introduced on a massive stage? – Geek Speaker Sep 16 '17 at 12:42
  • Maybe your comment is addressed to OP (Original Poster who asked the question), @Geek Speaker? If so it should go as a comment under the question, not my answer, because your posting this comment here will not notify OP. If this comment is for me then please note I was teaching high-school students, but OP was indeed giving a presentation to professors. I think OP @ Peaceful is a professor himself. Audience distraction is the only common factor but it needs to be managed in creative ways. – English Student Sep 16 '17 at 12:59
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I have attended many scientific conferences and given many academic presentations and seminars, and I have never once seen somebody talking on their phone during a session. If people are talking on their phones, that is completely unacceptable and you should just ask them to stop. However, since I have never seen this, I'm going to assume that by "chatting", you mean using text-chat apps.

In this case, get over yourself. You're not a school teacher. You have no authority to tell your audience what they may and may not do. Audience members are adults and free to do as they please, as long as they're not being disruptive. Silently using a phone or other electronic device is not disruptive. Note also that many people use their electronic devices to take notes.

You also need to bear in mind that talks at scientific conferences are so specialized that it's not unusual for a fairly large fraction of the audience to stop understanding by half-way through. Once you've lost somebody, you can't expect them to pay attention to you any more – they're just waiting for your talk to finish. Indeed, there will be plenty of people in the room who aren't interested in your talk at all, but are only there for the one before and the one after: it's not always convient to move in and out of the room in the middle of a session.

What can you do about it? Grow a thicker skin. Give more interesting talks that more of your audience can understand. Devote your attention to the people who are listening to you and ignore the people who aren't.

4

I'm not so sure "polite" is what you want. As you are the speaker, they need to be polite.

When I present I am happy to tell the audience that phones must be off or on silent mode, and if anyone has to take a call they have to leave. Make it very plain that is one of the rules you start your presentation with. It's not rude. It's just firm, directive and sensible.

2

Movie theaters here use the line "Remember to turn your phone on after the movie."

I like this line. It is funny, yet drives the point home. Feel free to use it as inspiration.

  • I would like that reminder at the end of the movie ... it happened to me that I left my phone switched off for a longer time. – Paŭlo Ebermann Sep 17 '17 at 11:20
  • Personally, I find this indirect way obnoxious. Tell them to turn off the phone before the movie starts. And as Paulo said, reminding you to turn it back on at the end of the movie is nice. Say what you mean. Be open and honest. – gnasher729 Sep 17 '17 at 11:47
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I usually use peer pressure to do it. Of course, I always ask/tell people to not use their phones beforehand, and always there are some people that do. I have no problems with people's lives interrupting, as long as they leave the lecture room etc to receive phone calls, but there are those that will sit at the front row and just call someone. And those people will get special attention.

I like to walk around the room where I am lecturing, and if you are on your phone, I will come directly to you. I will stare you down, keep my lecture going, get all the attention in the room to the situation at hand. Most people buckle under that pressure. I will talk louder and louder (I can talk... pretty loud, if I want to. I am no Brian Blessed, but I can be loud. If you persist I will start talking about you, about your idiosyncracies ("This man's left eye keeps twitching while he is talking. Rise everyone, come see") - In the end people always flee.

Now, is this universally applicable? Probably not. It would be hard pull off if you were presenting for the UN security council. But it has the effect that I don't mind people disturbing me anymore. I kinda look forward to it. So no self confidence lost, only an evil smile. That good feeling of vindictive righteousness is hard to come by.

1

Another thing I use my phone (or laptop) for during a presentation is immediate googling of unfamiliar terms. If you use a term I don't understand in your talk, there's a good chance you'll lose my attention anyway. If I find your talk intersting and want to follow it I'll need to look it up. You can't explain everything in a short talk so you'll often have some audience members who need to do this if they're to understand.

On the other hand, in a conference talk there are often people who have no interest in your subject, but can't or won't leave the room -- perhaps they are waiting for the next talk. You haven't got their attention anyway. You can annoy them by complaining about what they do when they're not listening, or you can accept it. Obviously if they're distracting other people, that's a different issue.

0

I'm thinking out of the box here so please bear with me (for a bit).

Apart from showing a 'no phones please' sheet to the audience while getting ready, these days there is another potentially fruitful way to go:
Use an App for your audience to engage in the subject matter during the presentation, and apply the live feedback in your discourse.

While challenging this way will be ultimately fulfilling if successful.

There are already people taping presentations, doing presentations on-line, etc. This is going forward in the same vein. After all there is no going back. (Although the no-phone-while-driving app will have another effect entirely of course)

  • One big drawback here is that you'll lock out the people that opted out. They may refuse to double up with an opt-inner. – Bookeater Sep 16 '17 at 12:58
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    Nobody has time to write an app to go with their talk, and almost nobody in the audience is going to download that app just for one talk -- unless the app itself is the subject of the talk. At a scientific conference, one might end up attending fifty or more talks over a week. Can you imagine downloading fifty different apps? – David Richerby Sep 17 '17 at 12:09
  • For the reason David posted, an interactive webpage instead of an App would be much more fruitful. – Tom Sep 26 '17 at 8:25
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It's common courtesy to turn off your phone when someone gives a talk. There is no need to being polite at all when you tell people to turn off their phones. If someone's phone rings because they were careless, everyone will expect them to turn the phone off as soon as possible. Should they actually start talking on the phone, then you have the microphone, you tell them that if they want to talk, they should do that outside.

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In addition to the many good answers given already, I found that in general straight honesty goes a long way.

Near the beginning of your presentation, after introducing yourself and the topic, add one simple slide with an appropriate phones-off symbol and tell the audience that while you understand they may have various reasons to use their phones during the presentation, you find it highly distracting and irritating, even rude. You will assume that anyone who uses their phones during your talk is aware of that and thus has an important reason. You kindly request that anyone who doesn't have pressing issues that force their attention to the phone please give their attention to you, as you are giving yours to them.

The psychological effect you are aiming at is reciprocity - you point out that you are there for them, and ask them to do the same for you. At the same time you acknowledge that there may be exceptions and important reasons for phone use, pre-empting such arguments.

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