A Tough Crowd: How to Win Over Teenagers

A Tough Crowd: How to Win Over Teenagers

Ditch the jokes and self-accolades;
ask them questions and be direct.

By Pandora Scooter

“Teenagers?! How can you do it? That’s a scary audience.”

I hear this all the time. I’ve been teaching, giving workshops and performing for high school students for the past 15 years. Over and over I hear from seasoned public speakers that they are turned off by the very notion of speaking to teenagers. Why?

“Teenagers don’t care.”
“They don’t listen.”
“They’re unruly.”

Well, it’s true that, on the whole, teenagers like to seem as though they don’t care and are not listening, and they do wind up behaving in an unruly way if there’s nothing to focus their attention. But after 15 years of working with them, I’ve found that there are some basic tenets to winning over this crowd that are successful (nearly) every time: 

Get Down to Business
It’s especially important with a young audience that you use an attention-getting opening that aptly challenges their expectations. Teenagers are used to adults assuming they care about whatever the topic is and that they’re there by choice. Remember, with a young crowd, they’re there because they were told to be there. So your job is to make it clear to them that despite this fact, they can still get something out of their time with you.

Before I even introduce myself to the group, I dive into a quick exercise or poem, or I pose a quick question. For instance, when doing a poetry workshop for a large class of 13- and 14-year-olds, I start off as soon as they are in their seats: “Everyone cover your eyes! Now, no peeking. Everyone who has ever written a poem, raise your hand. Put your hands down. Thank you. Now you can open your eyes.” Then, I continue, “Looks like we have a lot of writers in this group! That’s exciting to me.” Now, the kids have no idea how many people from their group raised a hand, but they do know that a) we’re there to talk about poetry; b) I’m in charge, and c) they’re going to participate. All that without my having to do any explaining. The short way to remember this tip is: Do, don’t talk.

Here’s a word of caution about starting off with jokes: Generally speaking, jokes don’t go over well with teenagers. Jokes make it obvious that you’re trying to win them over, and they instinctively put up resistance. And, if the joke bombs, you’ve just made your life a lot harder. 

Keep Your Intro Short
Unless you have some really great name-dropping credits, keep your biographical information to a minimum. Teenagers don’t care that you won some academic fellowship or that you were nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Don’t even mention that you’ve been on television or in the movies if the shows aren’t very mainstream, because the kids will just ask, “Which ones?” and then you’ll be stuck at a disadvantage. I usually keep my intro short and sweet: “I’m Pandora Scooter. I’m a spoken-word artist. And I love working with kids.”

Be Direct and Honest
Standing in front of 50 inner-city high school students I’d just met, I was charged with the task of teaching them in 45 minutes how to write a play. This was hard enough. But a student in the front row had his head on his desk, which was distracting me. I walked over to him and knocked on the desk. He didn’t move. “Excuse me. Are you OK?” He didn’t move. I repeated the question. He raised his head slowly and looked at me quizzically. “Are you OK?” I asked again.

“Yeah,” he responded.

“Well, then would you keep your head up? You’re distracting me with your head down like that.”

I think he was so baffled that an adult was taking him to task, kindly, directly and honestly, that he sat up for the rest of the workshop and even participated.

Don’t avoid asking tough questions. If teenagers are talking while you’re talking, find out why. Ask them. I’ve stopped performances for high school students to ask the audience questions like, “What’s going on with you guys?” or “Why are you talking while I’m talking?” Usually, I have to cajole the students to answer, to prove to them that I’m really interested in their responses. Usually, I get some apologies and some excuses (Example: “We’re hungry” or “We’re tired”). Whatever the reason, the important point to make is that you’re paying attention to them, that you’re not going to ignore their behavior. This puts them on notice and, most of the time, keeps their attention on you.

And don’t avoid answering tough questions, either. I was once asked if I was famous. My answer was, “Not yet.”

The young girl who asked me responded, “You wanna be famous, Miss?”

And I said, “Yes. I do.” There was silence in the face of my voicing my dream so bluntly. I asked the students, “Do you want to know why I want to be famous?” The kids responded positively. I answered, “Because I want to be able to make a lot of good things happen for a lot of people and I think I can do that if I’m famous.” I believe they respected my honesty and felt they could share in my dream.

                    "Remember, with a young crowd, they're there because they were told to be there."

Another time I was asked by a girl in a workshop if I was a lesbian. I stopped for a moment and responded, “Have you ever asked a teacher you thought was straight if they were straight?” She shook her head. I followed with, “Then I don’t think I should answer your question. Because if it doesn’t matter to you if a teacher is straight, then it shouldn’t matter to you if a teacher is gay.” This started up a whole discussion in the class about whether or not it matters to them, which was truly illuminating and exciting – for me and for the students.

Show Respect and Gratitude
You have no idea how far a “Thank you for listening to me,” or a “You all are a great audience” goes with teenagers. I usually throw in a compliment or an expression of gratitude about a third of the way or half way through my workshop or presentation – long enough into it for them to know that I have something to base it on. It works wonders. 

Eye Contact
Make sure to make eye contact with this audience. Avoid talking above their heads. Speak directly to individuals. Make references to individuals like, “This young lady in red, here, seems to really like this idea.” Or “You with the baseball cap in the last row – you don’t like that poem? Why not?” Again, you need to remember that, for the most part, this audience is so used to being ignored, especially when they’re in groups, that the act of paying attention to them, in itself, keeps them absorbed. 

Make Yourself Accessible
Announce your e-mail address or phone number at the end of the presentation. Go on. Give it out. Less than five percent of the students will ever use it, but they’ll all remember that you trusted them enough to give it out. And that will go over a long way with them. They’ll carry what you said with them on a deeper level and remember it for a longer period after your presentation is over. And the ones who do use your number are mostly the ones you want to speak with, anyway, so it’s a win-win situation.

At the end of your presentation, invite the students to come up and speak with you, or stand at one of the exits and thank them for listening and being there. You’ll find that more students than you think are appreciative of your presentation and they’ll let you know it, too.

Teenagers are our future CEOs, politicians, teachers, engineers, doctors, mothers and fathers. They deserve the wealth of knowledge that we, as the adults in their community, have for them. Reaching them is important. By being honest, direct, respectful, grateful, clear and attentive, you can make the difference in many young people’s lives. I encourage you to embrace this audience and share your powerful messages with them. 

Pandora Scooter is a native of Washington D.C., and currently lives and works in New Jersey, where she is a performance artist and teaching artist. She can be found online at www.pandorascooter.com.