I just gave in-room presentations to two classes of high school sophomores. For my readers in other countries, that refers to secondary school students with an average age probably around 15 or so.
I worked very hard to craft a presentation that would grab them and be applicable to their interests, with a quick empathy-building exercise and audience participation. I practiced, refined, and re-practiced my opening until I had it polished, concise, and smooth. I was pumped up and eager to get in there to demonstrate and discuss the aspects of an engaging start to a talk.
My brilliant opening segment… died.
I looked out at a sea of disinterested, bored faces. It took me a couple of minutes to ramp up their engagement AFTER my great opening bit. Everything went fine after that, and I left with a sense that the students had enjoyed the presentation and had learned from it. The second class period was canceled because of weather concerns and I rescheduled to come back and address the second set of students.
That gave me time to think. Why didn't my opening work? Was there something I could fix in that first 90 seconds of talking? I went back over the things I used as ways to connect with the students and get them to care. The first 10 seconds were fine… I created a sense of shared experience in talking about that feeling of "Oh no! I have to give a presentation!"
The next 10 seconds were okay, demonstrating direct applicability of the talk to their interests by referencing the specific presentation assignment their teacher had given them.
It was the next minute where I saw the eyes go blank. I had worked on giving them a reason to care about the tips I would deliver by expressing how the kids would go on to do presentations throughout their schooling, career, and life. My tips would keep giving value long after this year.
I hadn't understood my audience's key drivers and priorities. That opening would have worked for adult audiences. We want to maximize the value of our time investment, recognizing the usefulness of reusing and re-applying concepts in a variety of situations.
But 15-year-olds in school have a very different perspective. There IS no time investment to maximize… they have to be in class no matter what. Attending the talk wasn't a choice they had made.
They may intellectually appreciate that they'll be having a variety of experiences later in life. But they can't connect to that idea emotionally. They haven't experienced those situations of college, career, and life presentations. It's all theoretical.
And then I realized that all day, every day, in class after class, they hear the same thing. "Learn this because it's going to be good for you and it's something you should know."
Adult after adult stands there and pummels them with information. It's overwhelming, leading to a perfectly natural and reasonable attempt to prioritize and focus their attention with the question every teacher hates to hear: "Is this going to be on the test?" Students are honestly puzzled when they get a negative reaction and some platitude about how they should be learning for the sake of learning. Knowing whether something is going to be on the test is the ultimate arbiter of what gets to take top of mind position among all the knowledge being flung in their direction.
As soon as I understood the mindset of my audience, I understood how to fix my opening. I didn't need new slides. All I needed to do was to reframe the "why you should care" setup in my opening.
"I know what you're thinking… Is this going to be on the test? Forget it. You don't have to memorize anything for a test. Instead, I'm going to just give you the whole freakin' answer key! If you listen up, I'm going to tell you EXACTLY how to get a good grade on your presentation assignment coming up."
I kid you not… I had to pause as the room erupted in cheers and 'woop woop' noises. I was astonished. There they were, fully engaged, enthused, and leaning forward to listen.
The rest of the talk went as well as in the first class, but that initial boost in enthusiasm continued to pay dividends to me as a speaker. The students in the second class were quite simply happier about taking part in the exercise. They smiled more and at the end they asked me if I had YouTube or TikTok videos of my presentations. They said, "You should go viral!" I got a big hand as I left the room.
LESSON? Spend extra time thinking about the point of view and the priority drivers of your audience members. They may not be coming at your topic from the same set of experiences, prior knowledge, or value-determinants that you use. What can you say in your first two minutes of talking that establishes a reason FOR THEM to pay attention and get involved in the subject? Make it clear. Make it explicit. Make yourself an indispensable agent in satisfying their needs. You'll love the results.