I had one of the toughest audiences of my life to teach this week! 200 smart kids aged 9-13 who gathered together at 3pm on Tuesday to listen to me take an extended assembly on climate change.
I was really nervous but I tried to make an emotional connection as quickly as I could. I took my Mr. Chatterbox badge that I was made to wear in primary school as a punishment for talking too much. A bit harsh, right? We joked that I now get paid for talking too much and sometimes it might be OK to be a little bit rebellious, because teachers don’t always know everything.
It was a lot of fun and having reflected on it for a few days, there are 12 other things that I learned which seem as relevant for the boardroom as they are for the classroom.
- Children are not persuaded by what you say but by what they understand. Don’t try to sound too smart or talk for too long. You don’t want to under-estimate your audience but don’t give them more than they can cope with either. No matter how well you know a subject, every audience will thank you for a slow and thoughtful explanation of less content, rather than a faster flyover of more content.
- The quickest way to help someone learn something is to make them laugh. Endorphins create chemicals that help people to remember things. Most of the kids remembered 5 interesting facts I shared about the Antarctic, because I narrated them over a muted video of cute penguins falling over. (It really works! Try muting videos and doing the talk track yourself instead of having it on the video).
- If you really must use slides, use them as wallpaper and try not to have more than 1 sentence or 3 objects on each slide. Also – if there are words on the slide, DON’T read them but share an interesting fact or story about them as they read the screen.
- No matter how ambitious you are, what you leave out is more important than what you leave in. For this version of my Climate Reality presentation, I usually have 200 slides and transition between them every 15 seconds. At school I used 100 slides and changed slides every 30 seconds. That was still too much, but the school version was far more memorable, not to mention more enjoyable to present.
- Dedicate 50% of your time to Q&A. No matter how well you think you know the audience, they will thank you if you talk about the things that they want to talk about, rather than what you think they want to hear.
- Be prepared for 5 “Whys“. Kids ask “Why?” a LOT. At work, after a few “whys” things start to get awkward because it feels rude or confrontational. Because of this, very few people interrogate the facts in a business audience but this creates a problem. It allows some presenters to blag their way through a presentation with a limited understanding of the facts. Kids don’t allow you to do that, and asking why 5 times not only gets to the real facts, but helps them to remember them. This obviously means that if you want to be good (and memorable), you probably need to prepare far longer than you thought you did.
- Use the 3 Act Structure. Aristotle was the Greek god of storytelling and created the framework for every great dramatic story. Not a beginning, a middle and an end but act 1, act 2 and act 3. For a presentation like this, to children or business professionals, I like to think about it like this: Act 1: Tell them what you’re about the tell them. Act 2: Tell them. Act 3: Tell them what you just told them (and ask them to do something about it).
- Every Call-to-Action is driven by a “hope budget“. If you give people too much information they get overwhelmed and think either “It’s too complicated” and switch off or think “What can I do really to make a difference, I’m just one person?” and do nothing to act. Too little information and the audience might be interested, they might even share it on social media or tell their friends, but they probably won’t remember it next week or take any real decisive action. In the context of climate change, too much information erodes hope and creates “apocalypse fatigue”. Too little information just leaves you with an interesting talk. The key is to give a clear call-to-action at the precise moment of truth just before the audiences’ hope budget (or complexity budget?) is about to cross that line.
- Bring numbers to life by making them real. Instead of talking about the speed of innovation, I did a show-and-tell with the Vic-20 computer that I programmed when I was their age in 1984. After I short quiz I explained that it would take 12M+ Vic-20s (more than everyone in London) to have the same computing power that I have in my iPhone. And instead of showing a graphic of the atmosphere with the troposphere and the stratosphere, I found the kids who lived 10-15 minutes away and explained that if they drove upwards into the sky in a Harry Potter car, they would reach the edge of the breathable atmosphere in the same time it takes them to get home. It’s not a vast limitless expanse, it’s actually a thin later surrounding the earth about the same thickness as the plastic coating on the globes in their geography room. Stories are more powerful than stats.
- Prepare for a bad AV system. Schools, like some of the rooms you need to presented in, may have never seen a Mac, have a bad colour profile on the projector, the wrong leads, or no sound. Make sure you have a version of your presentation that would work if everything went wrong, just in case it does. 2 minutes before the kids came into my assembly, we had a faded screen with no colour that no one would be able to see. I had a second presentation ready, but luckily we got the projector to work in time. This is why you don’t practice until you get your presentation right, you practice until you can never get it wrong.
- Make friends in the audience before your talk. In the same way that a comedian brings their show to life by including specific people and something personal about them into their act, try to speak to randoms in the audience as much as you can and make them part of your talk. I made a note of a few of the children’s names and something interesting they told me that I could refer to in during the assembly to keep everyone engaged.
- Don’t be nervous – you’re giving the audience a present. I was more nervous for my assembly than all of the 1,000+ audiences I’ve spoken to recently, so I remembered the advice TED curator Chris Anderson gives to his speakers when they are nervous. “Giving a presentation is like giving a present to your audience, so there’s no need to be nervous because everyone likes receive presents and it’s a lot of fun to give them”.