Confronting the ring of rudeness
Presenters, beware: One of your closest companions is out to ruffle your feathers and stop you dead in mid-slide. Who is this miscreant? Your cell phone.
An estimated 200 million people subscribe to wireless services worldwide, including 80 million in the United States alone, according to the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association. Most of them are as loyal to their mobile phones as they were to their childhood teddy bears - and therein lies the problem. Hardly a meeting, presentation, movie or even church service isn't interrupted by the ringing of at least one cell phone and then (even more annoying) the sound of a one-way conversation from the idiot who actually takes the call.
It's a bleeping war out there
As a result, presenters are beginning to rack up cell-phone war stories. We heard from one presenter who watched in amazement as a front-row audience member literally crawled under a table to answer a call. (Hard not to notice that.) A business student in Milwaukee recently stumbled through an in-class presentation that was worth 20 percent of his grade, painfully aware that his professor was chatting on his phone through most of it. In the middle of a lecture at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, professor Kathleen Anne DeHaan watched a student leave class when her phone rang; when she returned, she told DeHaan it wasn't an emergency, just "keeping in touch."
Another ringing phone interrupted an executive-M.B.A. seminar that Janine Sieja Hagerman, director of public affairs for the National Center for Genome Resources in Sante Fe, N.M., was attending. "People in proximity to the sound scrambled to find the source," she says. The student-presenter was chagrined to realize her phone was causing the disturbance. Says Sieja Hagerman, "In this case, the victim and the perpetrator were one and the same."
Dealing with the problem
As such instances become commonplace, many seasoned presenters advise others at the podium to address the issue directly. One media-relations speaker, Saukville, Wis.-based Joan Stewart, puts the question to her audience before she starts a program: Do you hate it when cell-phone conversations interrupt a presentation? "When the audience nods its approval," she says, "I then request that they dig into their purses and briefcases and turn off anything that beeps, rings or buzzes."
If a phone rings after you make this request, Stewart says, you have every right to make the person on the phone feel uncomfortable, particularly if the call is disruptive. The presenter should stop talking so the entire audience can hear the conversation. "This will make the person on the phone speed up and get off so you can continue."
Other presenters ask audience members to excuse themselves if the phone rings, so as not to disturb others. Michael Morgan, a professional speaker from Colorado, likes to leaven his request with a little humor: He tells his listeners that if a cell phone rings, they have permission to confiscate it so he can sell it, sharing the proceeds evenly with the phone-nabber.
Do unto others
Besides dodging shrill rings and digital symphonies, many business-etiquette folks remind presenters, they should practice what they preach. Whether you're a presenter or audience member, switch off your phone or put it on vibrate mode before you enter a meeting room or presentation hall, they say. If it rings, leave the room before you take the call. You might think no one hears your hushed conversation, but many cell-phone users actually talk louder while they're on the phone. Furthermore, taking the call tells the presenter and other audience members that they are just not as important as the caller.
If you insist on keeping your phone on during events designed to receive your total attention, be prepared to deal with the consequences. Last year, Broadway actor Laurence Fishburne became fed up with a rude patron whose cell phone rang in mid-performance of the play "The Lion in Winter." After an exasperating 20 seconds of loud conversation, Fishburne boomed from the stage, "Will you turn off that phone, please?"
He got a rousing ovation.
• Julie Hill