For all the wonders of digital media, let’s not forget the importance of speaking in person, writes frequent conference-goer Stefan Priebsch.

Talks and the power of human interaction

The room was already filled with people, even if not all of the seats were taken yet. The conference speaker was setting up his laptop to work with the projector. The topic of the talk was promising, and the speaker’s reputation impeccable. We were all looking for a talk that might have been the highlight of the day. Then, all of a sudden, a few union workers showed up and started to remove the PA.

The speaker started his session. Talking to a room filled with around 100 people without amplification soon began to take its toll on the speaker’s voice. Since my eyesight is pretty bad, and I usually want to be able to read the slides, I was sitting in one of the front rows, so I could still understand the speaker. Maybe I was not even paying too much attention, because I was following the conference’s Twitter stream.

At the time, using Twitter during a conference was still fancy, if only because wireless internet connectivity is notoriously bad at so many IT conferences. In one of the tweets, another attendee of the very session I was sitting in, complained that the speaker was hardly audible in the back rows.

This is actually a true story, one I have frequently used to amuse myself and others. Why would somebody tell this to the whole world, that, not unsurprisingly, is rather remotely interested in such information, instead of raising their hand and politely asking the presenter to speak up (which in fact, I did, acting as a Twitter proxy). Two people in the same room should prefer direct human-to-human communication over social media, after all. Or should they?

This year, when I was (once again) speaking at an IT conference, the conference organizer had announced that they would make use of a great new service that some new startup company had created. This service would allow attendees to ask questions on a session they listen to. And they would be able to use their smartphone to do this. As an additional benefit, other attendees can vote on questions they also think are worth while. At the end of the session, the speaker was to visit a web page (or use an app) to retrieve the questions asked.

I was really curious. Would people use the system? Had the time of „we do not need to speak to each other while staying in the same room“ finally come? Turns out not. To my knowledge, none of the attendees had used the system in any of the other sessions as well. To be very frank with you, I am not really sad about this.

Social media has its place and all that, but when we stop talking to each other in person, even when we are gathered together in one location, things start going really, really wrong. There is a good reason why I prefer to speak to a live audience (well, multiple reasons, actually). I have done a few webinars, and was never really happy with them. You miss out on the interaction with attendees. You lack the non-verbal feedback, which is so important in helping you to either slow down or pace up based on the reactions of the listeners. Let me tell you: talking to your monitor is very different from talking to live persons.

Dear technology geeks: please do not let us forget that one of the last reasons why we still travel from time to time is so that we are able meet with other people. We want (and need) to interact with them, at a personal level. Once attendees can ask their questions online, why should they even attend the live event in the first place? Will the next big thing be presenters who answer the questions online instead of verbally? Will we answer to nobody in particular by just „typing back“? This means that we would miss out on the non-verbal feedback that is so crucial for figuring out whether somebody is satisfied with the answer, or maybe has trouble understand is, requiring further clarification.

I have seen online discussions go completely awry. Browse through the PHP internals mailing list archive if you want good examples. I know people who are incredibly nice in person, but are extremely difficult to communicate with online. And as a consultant, I have seen teams discussing features and implementations through commit messages and the comment functionality of a collaboration platform – even though they all sat in the same room all day.

Human communication comprises of a verbal and a non-verbal part. Researchers have stated different ratios between verbal and non-verbal communication, but all of them seem to agree that the latter has a share of more than 50%. This is why communicating online is far easier to misread or misinterpret then direct human interaction. In online communication, we lose most of our means of expressing ourselves, and the means to understand the other party. We should never do this without a very good reason.

Stefan Priebsch unites expert knowledge with an extraordinary sense of when to use which tool. His specialities are object-oriented development and software architecture. As an internationally-acclaimed author and speaker he thrills auditoriums and likes to share his tremendous practical experience.

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