I had a great privilege today when I spoke to a group of kids who are in a speech and leadership program in Princeton, NJ. My great friend, Jean Shipos of the Toastmaster Club at Educational Testing Service (Yes, that's right, the same company that has taunted us with the College Boards for decades) invited me to speak to them about humor. I declined, citing the great E.B. White, who said, "Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it." But I really did want to help, so I offered to teach the students how to use their voices and bodies when speaking.
I wasn't sure how a bunch of kids aged 10 to 14 would react to me. If I make just the wrong cultural reference, I'm toast. ("We don't get that, Mr. Rocchi. YOU STINK!") Talk over their heads, and they're bored to tears. (Jeez, you're boring, Mr. Rocchi, YOU OLD FART!) Luckily, I had attended a session by NSA speaker Sharon Bowman, who gives great tips on how to engage an audience. So I just kept it light with knock-knock jokes, fill-in-the-blank exercises, role playing and more. I threw toys from the dollar store at them, and everyone was interested and participating.
The most encouraging news to me was that the kids themselves were great! While I derived some satisfaction in how they paid attention to my lessons and incorporated them right away, I was most heartened about their speaking skills. Their prepared speeches were generally organized and thoughtfully delivered. One young teen incorporated sophisticated animations that he created into his presentation. On the other hand, I was blown away when another student, who was much younger, observed, "I'm concerned that you allowed your media to do your speaking for you." I nearly jumped out of my chair at this insight, especially when seeing how corporate speakers abuse PowerPoint.
I've heard it said that, due to the proliferation of media, we live in a postliterate society in which the younger generation will not need to know how to read and write. I'm happy to report that these bright and promising young people were not buying into this trap, thanks to efforts like Jean's and, presumably, the kids' parents. (I hasten to add that it appeared to me that English was a second language for many of the parents of these students, and I applaud them for paying attention to their childrens' needs.)
I emerged from the event hopeful. We have learned in our recent history that there is a clear connection between communication skills and leadership, and there is no such thing as "just a speech." Good speech is a sign of a facile and flexible mind, not just a glimmer of glibness. I believe that those of us who care about public speaking and effective communication need to get involved in these programs. We need to help our next generation of citizens become skilled communicators and leaders. Thanks to people like Jean and her fellow Toastmasters, this is happening.