Walking Out on the Speaker

I was at a conference last week with many excellent, well-known speakers. They made presentations at plenary sessions of over a thousand and at seminars with fifty to hundred people. Regardless of the notoriety, prestige or quality of the speaker, or the intimacy of the group, those who attended felt free to walk in and out of the sessions at will–perhaps several times in a session for a single individual.

This is not a new, of course. I’ve noticed it for some time in a wide variety of settings. Thirty years ago, however, it was not so.

It used to be that once people arrived at a session, they stayed till the end. There was none of this meandering in and out. To leave would be “walking out on the speaker”–a kind of protest or sign of disagreement with what was being said. Staying in your seat was a matter of respect for the presenter and a courtesy to the other attendees. Those quaint, formal days, my friends, are over.

In fact, this peripatetic phenomenon is so common, so expected, so ordinary that courtesy doesn’t even enter into the equation; others in the meeting aren’t even aware of the constant movement anymore. So maybe if they aren’t disturbed, it is not impolite.

I suppose I should be grateful that most people don’t stay in the room to answer their cell phones and carry on conversations in competition with what is being offered from the front. I suppose that in itself is a form of courtesy. (They could, of course, just turn off their cell phones and refuse to answer them. But I’m trying to be realistic here.) And I am personally grateful that when a session runs long and I had two large cups of coffee beforehand, I can leave and return without too much embarrassment.

If people walk out while I am speaking, I don’t take it personally at all. Maybe they had lots of coffee too. Maybe they came to the seminar thinking it was going to be one thing and it ended up to be another. Maybe they have a crisis at home that they need to stay in touch with rather than just needing to make dinner plans. People in the audience moving about hardly makes an impression on me at all. So if I am not disturbed, maybe it’s not impolite.

In one session at the conference last week, however, people didn’t come in and go out. They stayed in their seats, barely making a sound. Why? They were riveted by the speaker. He was compelling, honest, intimate and profound. He told a dramatic, personal story that captured every heart and every mind. No one moved a muscle.

It is still possible, you see, for people to keep their seats.

Author: Andy Le Peau

I've been an editor and writer for over forty years. I am passionate about ideas and how we can express them clearly, beautifully, and persuasively. I love reading good books, talking about them, and recommending them. I thoroughly enjoy my family who help me continue on the path of a lifelong learner.

7 thoughts on “Walking Out on the Speaker”

  1. One advantage you didn’t list:

    When people stalk out in protest, it doesn’t fluster you because you thought it was part of the usual traffic.

  2. It seems from your final example that there is INDEED a direct correlation between the speaker and his/her content, and the observed modern-day inclination for people to come and go at their pleasure. I assume that is the point you are making.

    This suggests to me that perhaps the pondering should be directed at the cause-and-effect brought about by what is happening at the front of the room, rather than some sort of new behavior on the part of the audience. Maybe it is possible that what is being revealed is a new level of demonstrated endurance (or beter, lack thereof), for bad presenters or bad material.

  3. Michael

    Good point. Maybe that’s why I’m more comfortable now when I speak than thirty years ago!


  4. Chuck

    It is probably a case of both/and. The art of speaking has certainly been in decline. How rare it is to even consider someone an excellent orator. When we think of great speeches we have to go back forty years.

    But I also think that we are in an increasingly informal culture. For good and for ill formality is in decline. I can’t imagine people walking out of talks thirty years ago just because they wanted to check their email or because they were bored. People just showed more respect and courtesy–in a formal sense.


  5. I began noticing this in technical seminars. It seemed to mostly happen because it was hard to tell exactly what the session was going to be about and at what level. If you went to something that sounded real interesting but actually turned out to be for beginner’s and you were looking for advanced, then you just changed to another session.

    This may have something to do with some of these events having lots of sessions going on at one time. Sometimes makes it difficult to decide.

  6. The speaker who preceeded Lincoln at Gettysburg spoke for a LONG time. It was the custom if you were considered an orator. Licoln spoke for only minutes. Who is remembered? Content, custom, common courtesy, good manners, take your pick, the times they are achanging. 30

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