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Mobile phones at events

Should they really be banned?

According to IMEX research, 40% of organisers would like to ban mobile phones (and other portable devices) from conference sessions. They say they are too distracting for delegates.
The American comedian Kevin Hart recently tried to do that at one of his gigs. Before he came on stage, the audience was subjected to several aggressive Tannoy announcements that the use of mobile phones and cameras was banned and that they should be switched off and kept in pockets.


Of course, people ignored the announcements, and as a result about 30 people were ejected from the venue. The subsequent newspaper coverage was hardly favourable, with most people agreeing that it was all rather unnecessary and ridiculous.

The smart phone is part of our everyday life, but the actual phone part must be the least used of all its functions. Tech is getting more and more prevalent and more useful, too - and delegates are learning to use it to their advantage.

If a session is interesting, delegates will want to take notes and they will want to do it on their device, because they organise a lot of their life on that device. Many an app has been built to help delegates take notes against slides or to record a presentation and add annotations. It’s really common for delegates to take photos of interesting slides; I know that most organisers state that the slides will be available to download afterwards, but they are rarely available the next day when the sessions are still fresh and topical. At a recent tech conference, many of my fellow delegates had their laptops out and were making notes that way. There were a couple of really fascinating sessions that meant that I was transfixed; I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen because the content was so appealing and the speaker’s delivery was fun and impactful, too. Of course, a few of the sessions weren’t so good, but I stayed in the audience anyway, quietly zoned out, checked my emails and did some writing.

If organisers do ban mobile devices, will that result in a higher number of people simply walking out of an irrelevant session? Even if the presenter is amazing, it’s likely that the session will only be truly relevant for a percentage of the audience.

Some organisers positively encourage their audience to tweet from a session too – although I can’t personally see more delegates attending simply because a colleague tweeted: ‘Joe Clarke is now on stage’ – but that’s a very different discussion.

But hang on a minute, why are we asking the organisers what they want? Who died and made them gods? Surely it’s all about the delegates and their preferences. If delegates want to use their phones, why shouldn’t organisers let them and adapt their working practices and outdated preferences to accommodate them?

And shouldn’t we be asking why organisers want to ban phones? I suspect it is because delegates aren’t paying attention to their dull seminars. We all know that exhibition organisers have to create education sessions to attract visitors and give them a business reason to justify leaving the office for the day to attend an exhibition. Despite the obvious benefits of attending an exhibition, bosses do see education as a more justifiable reason for their staff to be out of the office.

I attended an educational conference and exhibition recently and most of the seminars were from suppliers and were of the ‘aren’t we great’ seminar model. It’s something very common at exhibitions, when the speakers are not paid for presenting. So, if speakers are not being paid, it should surely be essential for the conference organiser to ask why a speaker wishes to speak; to understand what’s in it for them and why they are giving away their time for free. If the session is just going to be a thinly veiled sales pitch, then no wonder delegates are opting to use their phones. What is the benefit of creating a poor conference as an exhibition add-on? The speakers are wasting their time, the delegates get bored with being sold to and the organiser ends up with a poorly received event that is far from educational. Not enough care goes into the hoice of speakers, despite exhibition organisers claiming that education is really important to their event.

If delegates are using their phones in sessions, then organisers only have themselves to blame.

Don’t believe the hype!
Technology in events is all talk and no action

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