Talking to Teens

You’ve just been asked to speak at a Rotary luncheon. You accept with pleasure. You get a request to address a group of Army veterans. No problem. You’re scheduled to participate in an informal Q-and-A session with the local chamber of commerce. Piece of cake.

The neighborhood middle school principal wants you to talk to an auditorium full of 12- to 14-year-olds. You immediately book the next flight to anywhere.

Teenagers are the original Tough Crowd. Demanding, disinclined to tolerate anything they perceive as artificial, easily distracted, conditioned to absorb – or ignore – blizzards of information from the mass media, excruciatingly self-absorbed and self-conscious, chafing against authority, possibly distrustful or suspicious of the motives of adults, possessing an alarmingly low boredom threshold – this is not an audience for the faint of heart or the unprepared.

Now the good news: Teenagers are not a bizarre and combative subspecies. Think of them as trainee adults who have the same needs and desires as their older counterparts: respect, understanding, trust and a little entertainment. Fill those needs and you’ve got yourself a receptive and even enthusiastic audience. 


                    “What’s essential? An authentic message and a sense of humor.” – Bryan Jossart


Bryan Jossart successfully faces such an audience every day – five times a day – as a math teacher at Serrano Intermediate School in Orange County, California. A high school and junior high school teacher for nearly 17 years, the former engineer has been so successful at communicating with his charges that he was named the Orange County Teacher of the Year for 2006.

What’s essential? An authentic message, says Jossart, and a sense of humor.

“I live on [a sense of humor],” he says. “And I think it’s appreciated because I never take myself seriously. I take my subject seriously, but there’s a certain entertainment value there, and it’s important when you try to communicate with a group to keep it light and not be heavy-handed. It’s so important to have a sense of humor about yourself. I won’t poke fun at their idiosyncrasies, but I’ll poke fun at idiosyncrasies of mine.

“A lot of times my students say, ‘You should have done stand-up.’ I tell them I am doing stand-up. I do five shows a day.”

Like it or not, a speaker facing an audience of teenagers is competing with a formidable adversary that isn’t even in the room: mass media entertainment. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, by age 18 the average teenager will have watched approximately 25,000 hours of television. That’s a lot of sound bites, quick takes and marketing hustle.

“Teenagers have been conditioned to expect a certain amount of entertainment and will disengage if they don’t connect,” writes motivational speaker Josh Shipp in an Internet “manifesto” titled “Entertain. Inspire. Empower. (How To Speak a Teen’s Language Even if You’re Not One).”

“Plugged into music, the Internet, television, movies and video games, the world of entertainment is the language they are accustomed to...[It] can be tough to earn their attention and trust. We have to break through the barrier and show teenagers that we care.”

How? By treating teenagers authentically, neither talking down to them nor elevating them to the status of adults.

“I find that I can communicate effectively with my students if I am not condescending to them,” says Jossart. “You can’t treat them like children. Every now and then you’ll run across someone with that kindergarten tone – ‘Now, boys and girls...’

“You can’t treat them as adults either, but I try to treat them as somewhat older than they are. It makes them feel a little more grown up. I use what I would think of as high school humor with my junior high students. I don’t downgrade my vocabulary, but if I say something that I know they won’t understand, I’ll define the word right away, without actually saying I’m defining it: ‘I was pondering something the other day, thinking about it...’”

As with any presentation to a group, doing a bit of advance research on your audience is always handy. According to the Pathways to College Network, a national alliance of organizations dedicated to helping underserved students attend college, today’s teens: 

  • Believe their futures are bright. A total of 71 percent of them agree with the statement “I’ll always be successful.” 
  • Care about education. A total of 82 percent of teens expect to go to college. 
  • Tune out messages that aren’t clear and straightforward. 
  • Like being made to laugh. 
  • Don’t need you to be cool in order to listen to you.

That last one can be fatal to a speaker.

“If I tried to become one of my kids and talk like they do, they’d recognize that as totally phony,” Jossart says. “It would not work. It would be like a 50-year-old man deciding to dress like he was 20. It makes people roll their eyes and say, ‘He’s not pulling it off.’”

A good talk is more than words, and with an audience of teenagers facing you, it’s often much more. Communication, says Shipp, is two-way.

“Pay attention,” he says. “Sometimes responses are nonverbal. Are they on the same page with you? Are they getting it? Check in with their nonverbal and verbal cues. Half your audience is blind and half is deaf. You may have to use more than your words. Visual aids, body language and eye contact can all support what you are saying. If the volume was turned off, would they still get your point? Are you understanding one another? Listen to their responses with your eyes and ears. Be a teacher and a student at the same time.”

Jossart has seen those glazed looks before. His antidote? He makes fun of the situation.

“If I’m looking at a crowd and I’m not connecting, I’ll start making fun of myself and maybe talk in a terribly monotone voice about how terribly boring I am,” he says. “I might lie on the ground and say, ‘Oh, I am sooooo bored.’ It changes the pace, gives them something totally unexpected that’s not part of the program. They’ll say, ‘What did he do? What did he do?’ Now they want to pay attention because something might happen that they don’t want to miss.” 


                    “Teenagers are not a bizarre and combative subspecies.
                    Think of them as trainee adults."



And he gets kinetic. “I mingle, I go into the audience,” he says. “I move around a lot and try to interact with them as personally as I can. I can make eye contact with a specific person. Then it doesn’t feel like I’m on stage and they’re an audience and I’m just talking to air and they’re not part of the process.”

Yes, it’s tough. But, it’s worth it, says Shipp, particularly when you’ve managed to earn the trust of an audience of teens. Then comes the fun part.

“You have teenagers’ attention and trust; now where are you going to lead them?” Shipp asks. “Remember, everything you do should have the intention of changing the world for the better. Why else should you open your mouth? If you are going to say something, let it be words of inspiration. If your intentions are for improving teenagers’ lives, inspire them. Tell them why they are needed and important. Express your concerns honestly and if you approach them with respect, they will respect you in turn.”

There’s no magic bullet in speaking to soon-to-be adults, says Jossart. The key is, simply, common sense. Keep it light, keep it real and keep it respectful. Most of all, keep it fun.

Which beats a flight to anywhere any day.


Patrick Mott is a freelance writer from Fullerton, California.

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