The Truth About Multi-tasking (spoiler alert: it’s a myth)

“Look, I’m an adult. I’m responsible. I can do two things at once. When I check my email, I’m not being disrespectful toward you. I’m capable of listening to you while I respond to emails I’m receiving on my phone. We’re all grown-ups in this room, I don’t think we need rules about our behavior like we’re in kindergarten.”

A colleague shared these thoughts with our organization while I was leading the opening session of an all-staff meeting several years ago. We were establishing ground rules for the remainder of the day as well as for future all-staff meetings. Several heads nodded.

“Shall I remove ‘No cell phones’ from the list of agreed-upon group norms?” I asked the group.

Several nodded. Most stared at me to see if I had a counter point. I didn’t. All I could do was cross “No cell phones” off the group agreements chart.

I thought of this interaction recently when I read John Medina’s Brain Rules. According to the research cited in his book, the idea of literally multi-tasking – trying to do two things (such as reading email and listening to someone talk) at the same time – is a myth. Someone who is interrupted takes 50% longer to complete a task and makes up to 50% more mistakes. This is why talking and/or texting and driving is such a dangerous proposition. It’s also why the idea that someone can compose an email and absorb your presentation is a losing proposition.

It’s not a matter of “being an adult.” It’s not a matter of “being able to do two things at once.” It’s science.

What’s a Presenter to Do?

You can certainly try to “legislate” behavior through ground rules and setting expectations that everyone agrees to at the beginning of a session. You’ll probably find more success (and everyone will be happier) when you don’t offer the audience an incentive to check their email in the first place.

The more lecture and talking at the group, the most incentive people have to pull out their iPhones to see what’s happening back in their office (or tweet about how they’re bored to tears from your presentation).

The more opportunities the audience has for engagement – individual reflections to a question posed by the presenter, small group discussions, brainstorming, simulations, demonstrations – the less desire to multi-task. In fact, putting people into small groups to discuss or problem solve or create something – a setting in which everyone’s participation is important – makes it darn right rude of them to pull out their smart phone to check their email.

And You?

What do you do to prevent “multi-tasking” from happening during your presentation?

Looking for some ideas to engage your audience, try these posts:

Know someone who still believes in multi-tasking? Pass this along.

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7 Ways To Keep Your Audience Engaged (Even after Lunch)

You know that conference session that comes immediately after lunch (when it is always hardest to keep your audience engaged)? Guest blogger, Megan McJennett (full disclosure: she’s also my wife), attended one of those sessions this week and a funny thing happened.  Everyone was engaged. Here’s what she observed:

As I prepared myself for the always-dreaded post-lunch keynote address at the recent School’s Out Washington Bridge Conference, I thought to myself: how is he going to keep me engaged? Is he going to keep me awake? Is he going to keep me from checking my email?

John Medina (of Brain Rules fame) did not disappoint – he is a gifted speaker and the content is riveting.   But about 5 minutes into it, I realized something. As “Mrs. @FlipChartGuy” I have been ruined. My husband’s one-track mind and crusade about how every presentation should be engaging has crept into my own psyche. No longer am I paying attention to content, I am paying attention to style. What is it about John Medina’s talk that was so engaging? What kept me from sneaking a peek at my iPhone?

How Did John Medina Keep His Audience Engaged?

Dr. Medina is a developmental molecular biologist speaking to a crowd of after-school educators. How did he reach us so effectively?

  1. Avoided Jargon: He spoke about neural pathways and neurotransmitters in a way that was very accessible by using nonscience-y vocabulary to introduce the concept.
  2. Set Expectations: He primed his audience at the beginning by letting us know that we were going to walk away with 2 practical ideas we could implement as soon as we got back to our programs.
  3. PowerPoint as Co-facilitator: He used slides as props, not crutches.
  4. Used his voice and body: He raised and lowered his voice, moved purposefully across the stage.
  5. Anecodotes: He told anecdotes to illustrate his points; the stories made the group laugh and get teary. He left space for both.
  6. Repetition: He reiterated his point succinctly before introducing the next point.
  7. Suprise: He kept us guessing (have you ever heard of a developmental molecular biologist refer to as a source?)

Sitting through this post-lunch keynote, I have to admit that he made this social worker want to go back to college just to take a few molecular biology classes.

What strategies have you seen that help keep participants engaged after lunch? What do you do to keep YOUR audience engaged?

Are You Trying To Turn Your Learners Into Foie Gras?

In his book Brain Rules, John Medina describes how foie gras is made:

“Using fairly vigorous strokes with a pole, farmers literally stuffed food down the throats of [geese]. When a goose wanted to regurgitate, a brass ring was fastened around its throat, trapping the food inside the digestive track. Jammed over and over again, such nutrient oversupply eventually created a stuffed liver, pleasing to chefs around the world.  Of course, it did nothing for the nourishment of the geese, who were sacrificed in the name of expediency.”

I doubt anyone wakes up on the morning of their presentation, looks at themselves in the mirror, and thinks to themselves: “I want to jam as much nutrient-rich information as I can down the throats of my audience today, and when they seem like they’re going to regurgitate, I’m going to jam more information down their throats.”  But it’s often what we end up doing as presenters.

And the less time we have to present, it seems the more intent we are to jam even more information down our learners’ poor throats.  We know we only have one shot to make an impression, and we know our topic is the most important thing in the world.

The problem with jamming lots of information into a presentation is that it simply makes our learners want to vomit.  So what’s the trick?  How do we make an impression without making our audience want to vomit?

The following video is the best presentation I’ve seen on the topic (thank you to Alex Rister for pointing it out in an earlier blog post) – if you have 15 minutes and/or if you’re interested in learning more about how to make your point without overwhelming (or boring) your audience, you must check it out.

New York City has outlawed foie gras.  As trainers or learning and development professionals or simply as people who are asked to put together a presentation, it’s probably about time we stop trying to turn our learners into foie gras.

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