I was invited to run a workshop for high school seniors. I’ve never worked with this age group before, so I wasn’t sure what to expect, especially at 8:00am. I dove right in. “If I were queen of the world,” I said, “our educational systems would require public speaking and listening curriculums starting in first grade!” They looked at me blankly. “Each of you has the capacity to deliver a powerful presentation, if you are willing to do the really hard work of distilling your thoughts to their essence, of aligning your physical body with your message, of finding your voice and of understanding what it means to be audience-centric.” They maintained a polite silence. OK, I got it. Time for “show” and not “tell.” I got them on their feet.
These students were not so different from the adult groups I have worked with. Some had natural talents and confidence that made public speaking easy or fun, while others were reticent, self-conscious, and unsure. “It’s not your fault,” I told them, ”and it’s not too late.” The haphazard process of public speaking (and listening) skill-building, feedback and practice is so willy-nilly during school years that unless you take a special course, join the debate or forensic team, or have a super dynamic teacher, the results are all over the place. Welcome to the real world.
In addition to being queens of the world, Barbara and I are committed to democratizing public speaking. I did team exercises with the students to uncover their assumptions about what it means to be an effective public speaker and what that really looks and sounds like. In four hours, I worked hard to demystify the process and treat it like any other skill that requires time, effort, practice, patience, mistakes, creative bursts, fun and self-awareness. As our young children move into their adult lives, I want each of them to feel responsible and able to express their opinions and ideas to individuals, colleagues, bosses, teams, forums of people and to practice the skills consciously every single day, not just in preparation for a “big” public speaking event.
And that is the first in our “If I were Queen of the World” posts.