When you speak in a meeting or present to an audience, how do you know if people are engaged or bored? One answer comes from an unexpected source: an article published in the science magazine, Nature, in 1885. Thanks to Sir Francis Galton, we have “the measure of fidget” as a way to tell if you are connecting with your audience…or not. In his very short article, Galton solved his own boredom by finding a way to measure boredom in others.
Galton was sitting on a stage behind a person giving a speech. He writes, “the communication proved tedious” and he couldn’t hear much of it anyway. So he began to notice the expressions and gestures of the audience in front of him (and the speaker).
He noticed that when people seemed to be paying attention and listening hard to the speaker, they sat upright with their heads held straight. When they were less engaged, their heads tilted and they seemed to exhibit “the mutiny against constraint,” slouching, leaning sideways, trying to get comfortable in chairs that weren’t.
They also fidgeted.
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So Galton counted fidgets, during periods of both engagement and boredom. During the boredom period, the average person appeared to fidget about once per minute. He noticed that “the audience was mostly elderly; the young would have been more mobile” and have a higher measure of fidget. Sounds about right to me.
So what can we take from Galton’s short piece on fidgets?
First, fidgets are a good measure, indeed. Especially when I talk to a class of first year university students, one of the toughest audiences, I try to keep them engaged, and not fidgeting, although I’d never put it in those words. When people are listening hard, they freeze, they lean forward. Galton knew that over 100 years ago. Maybe we should learn to adjust if we notice too many fidgets in our own meetings and presentations.
Second, I admire Galton’s ability to occupy himself in a positive way, even in a boring setting. Often if I’m frustrated with a meeting or presentation that hasn’t grabbed me, I start calculating the person hours being spent. That frustrates me even more. Going forward, I’ll try to find something positive out of every meeting, boring or thrilling. One colleague of mine already does that well by looking for one new idea, for an insight about a person in the meeting, or for an interesting fact or statistic.
Finally, Galton’s ability to write in a creative way that was of his time but also so droll that it’s inspiring. His suggestion to other “observant philosophers” (and who wouldn’t want to be one of those) is to estimate the “frequency, amplitude, and duration of the fidgets of fellow sufferers…and acquire the new art of giving numerical expression to the amount of boredom expressed by the audience.”
Is he joking or is he serious? Either way, fellow sufferers, take note and avoid the curse of the fidget!