Speaking in schools

The map is not the territory

The road to Wetherby was my road to Damascus. On this journey I saw the light. A blinding light.

Wetherby High School had booked me to speak to their Key Stage 4 students. I had no idea what Key Stage 4 was. I had never spoken in a school before.

I was to deliver my new keynote presentation, SatNav for the Soul®, which basically points out to people that consumerism has us imprisoned and is slowly starving us to death spiritually and creatively. The keynote was originally written for adults caught up in corporate purgatory but after I had presented it to a Rotary club and an audience member told me afterwards that he wanted his teenage son to hear it, I wondered if adolescents would find the message instructive too. It was then that I looked to present it in schools.

Getting into schools though proved incredibly difficult and it was only through Richard McCann, a fellow speaker, that I managed to get the Wetherby gig.

The member of staff responsible for the citizenship stand-down day was understandably wary of letting anyone run loose with the young minds of her impressionable charges and so she asked to see a transcript of SatNav for the Soul®. which I duly sent her. After reading it, she acknowledged it was a good message but thought it might be too erudite for fifteen and sixteen year olds and suggested that I ‘dumb it down a bit’. As I had learned the speech by rote, I resolved to change one or two words for simpler ones where I could remember to do so. There wasn’t enough time to memorise an alternate version. She then asked me if I had any slides to go with the speech. I said no, I was simply going to deliver it verbatim as the transcript. She balked at this and suggested I source some images as teenagers today are largely visual and holding their attention without them would prove a major challenge. There was only a couple of days to go before I was supposed to deliver.

I had deliberately avoided using any slides as I wanted to keep the presentation as simple as possible technically but I took her advice and looked at developing some memorable slides. This was the first flash of light.

When I started to think about how I could enhance an important section, the images began to take on a life of their own. It was fun creating alternative ways of looking at things. I ruthlessly followed the basic ground rules of slides; no more than six words per slide, avoid just repeating what you have already said, etc and I started to collect an impressive collection of images. Many a difficult concept was magically simplified with a well thought out cartoon, something I could execute in a few minutes being an accomplished artist. I also discovered slides were a great aide memoir should I forget where I was in the speech. I was ready.

On the day, I was to present two sessions, one immediately before lunch and one immediately after lunch. The morning session I delivered as I would do for an adult audience, reciting the speech as I had memorised it but changing the odd big word here and there for a simpler one. I could see that the four or five teachers present in the audience were thoroughly absorbed in the speech and following every word but some of the kids looked blank. By the end of the presentation the students started to get restless and I was disappointed that I hadn’t been able to hold their attention throughout.

Over lunch I spoke to Peter Muddiman, the teacher who booked me, and he said the language was still too dense, the speech would have been fine at a conference of teachers but adolescents were an entirely different box of frogs. The epilogue, he said, sounded like poetry and went way over the heads of the kids. The next group were a year younger and they were going to find it difficult, if not impossible, to follow any of that.

A year younger!? My heart plunged to the bottom of the Pacific ocean. I would never hold their attention; a year can make a huge difference to someone’s understanding of the world. I realised I would either have to present it as rehearsed and subject them to forty minutes of incomprehensible ‘poetry’ or… or what?

I didn’t want to do the second session, I wanted to go home and debrief. But then a strange thing happened. I decided that I had to do it, no matter what. I couldn’t let people down. But I couldn’t present it as it was, I had to change it radically and I had five minutes in which to think up how. The light started to get brighter.

I decided to throw out the script and speak from the heart using my slides as a reference. This was frightening for me because I wanted to present certain complex concepts in a particular order using precise language, that is why I had learned the speech by rote. Improvising was a dangerous, unknown quantity. An eerie calm flooded through me as I realised I was crossing the Rubicon. I was perfectly relaxed as the children filed into the hall and I prepared to deliver the second session.

One of the teachers from the first session spoke to me as he walked past and said, “I’m looking forward to hearing this again”.

“Oh, it will be different this time.” I answered somewhat taken aback.

The member of staff responsible for the citizenship stand-down day came in last and told me that she had had good feedback (I reasoned this has to be from the teachers, as a lot of students looked indifferent) and that she would sit in on this one.

“…and so give a warm welcome to Ivor Tymchak…”

Still calm, I dived in. And hey! the water was warm! I launched into my subject matter. And what’s this? Hey! I can swim!

I felt like a session musician who had only ever followed the dots previously but suddenly learned, to his astonishment, that he could play improvised jazz. Because I had to rephrase practically everything in simpler language, the words were fresh and vital and I could look directly into the childrens’ eyes and divine if they had grasped the concept or not. If they had not, I explained the concept again using a different analogy. I left out huge chunks of the presentation which I thought were just too far removed from their everyday experience to be of any relevance. When I had finished, I was astonished to discover that the length of the second session was still forty minutes long – how come?

Speaking to Peter Muddiman afterwards (who listened to both sessions) he said the second session was far better for the kids and that I took the time to explain the concepts until they were understood. As an adult, he preferred the first session but from a child’s point of view the second session was much more accessible.

He told me he was impressed with way I had managed to shift gears so suddenly and come up with virtually, an entirely new presentation.

I must confess, I surprised myself too with my new found ability to improvise. It was one of those life enhancing moments, where you let go of something precious, only to discover that by letting go you have found something even more precious.

I’m already working on the revised version of the presentation. It will have more interaction, practical demonstrations and challenging puzzles. It will be ten times better than my last presentation, for on that day in Wetherby, I put away manish things and became a playful child.

4 Responses to “Speaking in schools”

  1. Clive says:

    Congrsatulations on entering the world of professional speaking ‘from the heart’ Ivor.

    We spoke yesterday of my Kit Kat analogy and I stand by that. As long as you message and integrity are intact, being able to alter your presentation content and style to suit your audience is a huge step towards authenticity.

    I admire you and I’m proud of you ivor.

    Clive

  2. Ivor Tymchak says:

    Thank you Clive. It was a breakthrough moment, a rite of passage, if you will, on my journey as a speaker.

  3. [...] New Music Strategies placed an observative post today on Speaking in schoolsHere’s a quick excerptGetting into schools though proved incredibly difficult and it was only through Richard McCann, a fellow speaker, that I managed to get the… [...]

  4. Suzie Rhodes says:

    Hi Ivor

    Great post. I was on the edge of my seat reading it, not being able to wait to find out what happened next. Well Done! That is a lovely compliment from Clive. He is right. When you operate from your heart rather than from your attachment of what you want the outcome to be – you are being authentic!

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