When is it Rude to Favour your Mobile Over the Speaker?

This ZA Confidential will be inspired by my own bad manners. Or not. Quite often at conferences, presentations and speeches I will be seen fiddling with my phone or tablet. Sometimes I am sending out social media messages about the event on twitter or Facebook. On other occasions, the event is failing to inspire, and I find my twitter feed more interesting than the speaker. So what is right and wrong in this era when most of us have hand-held communications devices? Is it rude to tweet? Sometimes conference organisers encourage it.   What do our experts think?

Executive Vice President Africa: Vodafone Global Enterprise, Deon Liebenberg:

In a sense, we’re lucky that the early Wild West days of social media are over and the medium is settling down to a more calm and respectable middle age. Anonymity and outrageous comments are becoming more rare. Twitter is being used in business as a tool for people to build their personal brand. Having an anonymous account would work counter to this – what’s the point of having great insight if you don’t get credit for it?  So given that most people eschew anonymity, I’d say that dinner party rules apply to posting from events. Even if you’ve been fed an inedible rubberised steak, you’d still smile sweetly and thank the host for a great meal.  Similarly, it’s not rude to comment from events unless you’ve explicitly been asked not to, but I’d think very carefully about finding positive points to highlight and avoid open criticism.  After all, your hosts will see the comments and so will others.  A persistently negative outlook might just result in a lack of invites in the future.

Speaker and Writer David Bullard:

There’s nothing worse for a speaker than conference attendees furtively looking under their tables at their SMSs from prospective sexual partners for the night. On the other hand, many speakers are so tedious that it’s either a case of falling asleep and snoring conspicuously or setting up some sexual activity for the evening. Simple message…if the audience is bored with what you are saying then they can and will find alternative entertainment. I always take earplugs with me which I can discreetly put in my ears while I am pretending to record a speech. Secretly I am probably listening to music on my iPhone. If you try this, please remember not to sing along with whatever you have on your iPhone. It’s a dead giveaway.

Alan Knott-Craig of PROJECT ISIZWE:

Personally, tweeting whilst someone is speaking is rude, unless it’s very interesting content. On the other hand it’s rude to waste my time with a boring presentation.

Malcolm MacDonald from Tersos:

I certainly think it is situational. If you are in a meeting to participate, then you should focus and participate.  If you are at a function to hear about something new, then the greatest contribution you can make is getting the (public domain) information to your network as fast and accurately as possible. The rule should be: don’t be disruptive for the sake of the people sitting around you; use your technology discreetly and quietly. A darkened auditorium lit by your iPad screen poses a greater dilemma. That would be disruptive. Maybe organisers should also consider the audience in that respect. Say upfront what you would like the audience to do. I have been at conferences where the organisers propose a hashtag and encourage everyone to communicate as much as they want about the proceedings. The problem is when the organisers are silent on the matter, and create an atmosphere (like a darkened auditorium) that is not conducive to discreet tech use. In that situation it depends on the seating arrangement. If the light from your device can be turned down and not distract the people around you – then go ahead. Otherwise, wait till the lights are turned back up. Mostly I’m asking organisers to set clear guidelines so that everyone knows where they stand: i.e. “I am contravening the guidelines on purpose, so expect someone to attack me”, or “I am following the guidelines so anyone complaining is out of order.” Because I know some of you will tweet anyway – but then at least everyone knows where they stand.

Martyn Davies from Frontier Advisory:

It’s hard to integrate social media with audience attention!  

Mario Pretorius from Telemasters: 

The New Era requires new rules. Or at least new requests and guidelines. Only in church and a movie is one required to be stoic and uncommunicative; the genie is out for the rest. Perhaps tweeting and e-mail while driving is exceeding the limit of good common sense, but for paying patrons, who shall govern their behaviour? The unwritten rule is they behave, not to challenge the speaker in his stride, who is selling snake oil. The reality is that in the absence of a riveting, life-relevant and user-urgent presentation, the competition from a million sources will overwhelm a bored and unappreciative audience. And rightly so. The competent speaker will show the twitter feed live on the screen, will outclass mail catch-ups and knock-out his participants. His statements will be googled for accuracy. He will be challenged and debated by thousands in real time. He will have to up his standards to not waste that most precious of all resources: people’s time.

Duncan McLeod from TechCentral:

I think it really depends on what it is you’re attending. If it’s a formal meeting with a few people where your concentration is demanded (a board meeting, say) then fiddling with your phone is probably a no-no. But at conferences it’s often encouraged and not considered rude at all. In fact, Twitter hashtags have become an important and useful way of encouraging audience engagement. It works well. I think it also depends what profession you’re in. Journalists, for example, are expected to be furiously typing away on their phones and laptops when they’re out and about. I think people should apply simple common sense as to when it’s appropriate or otherwise to be fiddling with their smartphones.


Some useful advice. My own approach will continue to involve a tablet and a phone on hand, and sometimes even my laptop.   Provide a worthwhile speech and I will listen and tweet about that. Be boring and my head will be bowed, catching up on the far wittier and more entertaining crowd in twitterland. Or researching the next edition of ZA Confidential.

Tweet of the Day:

Mark Twain (@MarkTwainQuote): When I was younger I could remember anything, whether it happened or not.


ZA Confidential is a subscription newsletter.   For subscription details or any other communication, please contact:   zaconfidential@gmail.com

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s