Maintaining control over an audience can feel a bit like trying to calm the ocean’s waves. Just ask Alice Van Ness, who lost her gig as a yoga instructor at Facebook after admonishing her students to turn off their cell phones and focus on her lesson.
If I had my way I’d insist that there were tiny lockers where people had to leave their electronics outside of each conference room. But that’s not going to happen; people are far too devoted to their devices. Everyone who teaches, trains or speaks in public has to deal with distracted and inattentive audiences, and figuring out how address the issue is a real problem. I personally think that humor works best. Kidding someone about their inability to tear themselves away from their iPhone is a good strategy, but humiliating them is not.
As with most public speaking challenges, it all comes down to being aware of the relationship you have with your audience. I’d be entirely comfortable insisting that an employee of mine turn off their phone, but I’d never do that with a client. I was teaching a class once where the president of the state bar association fell asleep while sitting in the front row. There was no way I was going to embarrass him by drawing attention to the fact that he was starting to gently snore. Luckily, his secretary happened to be sitting next to him. I was able to make eye contact with her and she was able to nudge him without causing a scene. She had the kind of relationship with him where she could do that. I didn’t.
There are different ways of asking someone to put away their phone, and I don’t know how well Van Ness handled the situation. Without having been there it’s impossible to know whether the “look” she says she shot at her student was appropriate or not. This case seems to have received extra attention because Facebook is such an object of fascination and because it’s a little ironic that it was a yoga session that was interrupted. But any time you’re dealing with an audience it’s your job to understand your relationship with them and what’s acceptable in their environment. Understand that there may be serious consequences if you don’t judge them correctly.