I once worked for someone who, in the middle of his in-person creative presentation stopped cold. He calmly put his hands together on the table, looked directly at the client sitting in front of him and waited patiently for the client to notice the silence quickly filling the room. The client eventually looked up from his smart phone. My boss said, pleasantly, “we can begin again whenever you’re ready”. Effective? Yes. Audacious? Yes. Necessary? You be the judge.

Fast forward to present day. I was in a virtual meeting just last week where the host went to great lengths to not just tell us to put our phones down, shut off apps and browsers, etc, but also how everything was going to run, explain where all the ‘buttons’ were on the virtual meeting dashboard, noted when we were to be excused for a coffee refill or restroom break, how long we had, what to do when we came back, how much time we had left in given intervals…well, you get the gist. The host was not only moderating but also delivering a presentation, which made toggling between “instructions” and “content” confusing. In fact, the instructions at times eclipsed the content. I almost felt… micromanaged? And that felt strange.

Was all that explanation necessary? Some say yes… At least right now while we are all learning this new medium of virtual. But I say this ‘bridge’ time is short-lived, and SHOULD be, on behalf of both the attendee and the host.

Events and Meetings in the age of technology are tricky and have been for some time. Meeting etiquette was beginning to lose its footing before COVID-19 forced us into quarantine, and now it seems even more elusive as the social mores that kept us intact are adjusting to (not evolving with) our new way of living. Add to that the very real pull to remain connected to others, whether that be via email, messenger, text, to stay up to date with what’s going on in our world. We have been somewhat unknowingly conditioning ourselves for a while now to respond to every ping, ding and notification. Even as I write this, I have at least 15 tabs open and there are several unread emails and slack messages calling to me!

While virtual isn’t the wild west for a lot of us, norms for how to “show up” for a virtual meeting or event are still being shaped. Yes, we’ve all seen the lists of “how to run an effective virtual meeting or event” flying around the internet (and we’ve even written some). Many of these are no brainers, and others are much more challenging, but regardless, standards and stakes are high. Attention is gold, but it’s hard to capture and maintain. How can a host hope to compete, much less win against all the distraction? It’s all too easy for an attendee to ‘sneak’ a slack or email in, even though we know we shouldn’t. Where’s the meeting etiquette now and who’s holding our attendees accountable to it? Is this a hopeless situation? And, is it ALL on the host to do whatever’s in his or her wherewithal to fight against this? Almost feels desperate, doesn’t it?

When we met live (remember that??), an attendee would come to a meeting or event prepared to listen, hopefully take notes, and even engage. And even though people did do it, having your cell phone out during someone’s presentation WAS considered rude and could often receive scathing looks (or a call-out as in the case with my former boss!).

Now, as hosts, it’s not just about planning ahead and removing every barrier that might get in the way of an attendee getting the most out of our event. We’re actually terrified of losing our attendees’ “attention”, so we over-index on the logistics. In an attempt to ensure they have everything needed, we barrage them with information on the “how”, while we lose focus on the very important “why” and “what” (afterall, that’s what the attendees have come for!!). In doing so, we’re diluting their overall experience and making it less enjoyable, informative and personally engaging. And, we’re diluting our brand as well. We are event and meeting professionals, not babysitters.

Presumably your attendees are adults. So, here’s a simple thought – why not expect more of them? Or at the very least, to meet you halfway in effort?

What if we held our attendees to the high standards to which we hold ourselves? After all, they registered, logged in, and are now taking time out of their day to join us. It is just as much on them to put their phones down, close out email and messenger to experience what we’ve designed for them. We shouldn’t have to tell them that. We should expect it.

Understandably there is a fine balance between providing clear instructions for attendees so they are able to experience your meeting or event without disruption. So think about this when you’re planning your virtual meeting, and practice this during rehearsal too – you may be surprised by what you observe yourself or your team saying and doing, and this might offer an opportunity to rethink how and when you deliver certain information. Remember, you’re bringing the goods – that’s what they came for! It’s ok to insist on reciprocity. In exchange for an attendee’s time and attention, the host promises quality content and a seamless virtual meeting or event experience. It’s as easy as that.

I believe we will reach a point where attendees and hosts alike will reach a common ground and a shared expectation of “the exchange” and virtual meeting etiquette will be understood and observed. I encourage you and your teams to adopt this mindset, and to help reset the “respect” controls that will help our experiences be better received by our clients and attendees.