Let me give you my thoughts on the “hijacking” of clinics and the larger question of etiquette and common courtesy at clinics. I am not an Emily Post aficionado but will give my perspective on things from the front of the clinic room up near the screen and the projector (and hopefully a microphone).
First, as a referent from someone trained in academe –and regardless of what Wikipedia might be saying at the moment- at an academic conference in say history, panelists and speakers have the floor from 20-40 minutes and do not expect and usually do not take questions. Questions and audience “discussion” are left until either the individual speaker is done or until all of the panelists are finished. This format can vary in other disciplines among the social and hard sciences, not to mention engineering and medicine, but generally the speaker determines the structure of their own presentation. While a model railroad clinic may be very different content wise from say an MLA presentation on gender roles in cinema, it is normally understood the audience will respond to the speaker when the speaker has finished her presentation. At the same time it is understood that the audience expects a presenter to be fully prepared to give whatever talk they have promised and to do so in a way in which the audience will both enjoy themselves and also hopefully learn something. As such, the person speaking should have practiced their talk to meet the given time limit with room for Q&A, have all their PP slides in the correct order, and be ready to go as soon as they take the floor. Although to be fair, it takes most people time to learn to speak in public, which can be daunting for many, so it is always best to also give a speaker some slack if they seem like a newbie.
People trying to take over a discussion can be problematic no matter what the venue. As Pierre Oliver, of Elgin Car Shops notes on his blog this week, the description of the car he manufactured has been hijacked in a fashion in a current product review (but that is a story for another day).
Over the years I have given talks at various RPM meets including Napierville and also some of the smaller regional RPM conventions, at a few of the annual railroad historical society meetings, and at various NMRA meets at the divisional, regional and national level. The great majority of the time I have very much enjoyed giving talks and have felt gratified that I was given the opportunity to share my work with others.
While I wasn’t in Cocoa Beach this past weekend (although I heard it was great like it is every year) I have run into a few people once or twice who have tired to ‘assist” me in my presentations from time to time and hijacker seems a fair enough term. These “gentlemen” can often be spotted before a clinic begins either because of the loud and boisterous nature of their conversation with others, even if they are far across the room from each other, or because in my experience, they often enter right before a clinic commences and usually are speaking very loudly to others as they walk down the center aisle as they take their customary front row seat. My approach to these people, if I sense their presence in the audience, is to explain politely that I will not be taking questions during my talk as I have say 100 slides to get through and we are already behind schedule, which is often true enough. If that does not work, and I am interrupted frequently, I simply ramp up my presentation both speed and density wise. In short I begin to accelerate… and to move quickly enough, with so much information, no one can possibly interrupt. This is similar to someone in a cross country or long distance track race surging for a bit to leave others behind. It only takes a minute or so and interestingly enough, the really annoying people almost always get up and leave at that point when they figure out are going to have a hard time co-opting my presentation. Either that or they just sit there silently until the house lights come on later. Inevitably they don’t aks a question during the Q&A. This approach worked perfectly at a very large talk I gave at the NMRA National this past year on slavery and railroads.
It is just a theory but it seems to me that many of those who attempt to hijack talks never give clinics themselves (and yes I can think of some exceptions), which may be part of the problem…
For the most part I draw smaller audiences as I talk about rather esoteric railroad history topics but overall I like to “lecture” as my talk is of a piece and leave time for questions at the end. Some speakers encourage limited audience participation which can itself drive along a clinic although if a hijacker is present a speaker can lose momentum, or if nothing else, lose valuable time from their precious few allotted minutes. It all depends upon what the speaker is trying to accomplish and also what the audience wants. Getting off track (no pun intended) for a few minutes is OK but if a speaker answers too many questions early on the talk can sometimes sadly degenerate quickly into a “discussion” even if that was not the intention of the speaker. I assume if you flew across the country to hear my friend Bill Welch talk about southern agriculture and ACL watermelon cars, you don’t really want running commentary on his talk in real time by a person in the second row (especially since he knows les than Bill does). I have seen on at least one occasion an audience member silenced by the audience itself which as a collective tired of his endless interruptions. Overall I think RPM audiences are overall unfailingly polite and courteous. As a general rule if you are an audience member it is always best to just let the clinician speak. If the person at the podium wants the audience drawn into the presentation to make it a discussion, he or she will do so. If not, wait until the Q&A.
Oddly enough at NMRA meetings I find there is another problem. This is the phenomenon of an older men who falls asleep almost as soon as the clinician begins (and that has included my own presentations) and snores, sometimes very loudly. I have never quite known what to do but usually just continue speaking, hopefully louder than the snoring. Often, but not always sleeping beauty often wakes up after a fashion or is elbowed awake “accidently” by a neighbor. It goes without saying cell phones should be silenced by everyone who attends a clinic or formal presentation (with the exception of physicians and emergency personnel) but that remains a problem and not just among the young. As some others have already suggested, if the audience polices itself and defers to common courtesy everyone will have a great time.
Gerard J. Fitzgerald