Brutally honest and easily distracted, children have a way of unnerving even the most experienced speakers. But professional classroom speakers know that with the right preparation and an open mind, there's no need to fear a young audience.
So shed your adult clothes, bring out your best props and get ready to entertain. This is how you speak to the primary-grade crowd and have fun doing it.
Whether you’re considering a career as a motivational speaker for kids or just want to make an occasional presentation at your local elementary school, many lessons can be learned from those who specialize in speaking to children. They’ll tell you that young audiences can be unpredictable, boisterous and demanding. More often than not, the kids are only attending your presentation because they have to and, unlike adults, a group of first-graders are unlikely to pay attention to you or laugh at your jokes out of sheer politeness. That doesn’t necessarily make them a more difficult audience, but definitely a different one.
Put Yourself in Their Shoes
If you’re like most adults, you probably don’t remember what it was like to be seven years old and dreaming about becoming an astronaut or a pop star. When we’re young, we have the whole world at our feet, but as we grow older and are bombarded by messages about what we can and can’t do, our youthful innocence slowly dissipates and we start living our lives in our heads rather than following our hearts. If you’ll be speaking to elementary-school children, then reconnect with your kid instincts, advises Richard Paul, an award-winning motivational speaker and ventriloquist.
“When you talk to kids, you’ve got to think like a kid. You’ve got to be a little goofy and take off your adult hat,” Paul says. “Remember what it was like to be a kid and let it come out through your adult self. You want them to feel like you’re an equal, but not like you’re trying to be like them.”
Paul has presented his anti-bullying and character-building school assembly programs to more than 600,000 children, and says his own kids, who range from ages 11 to 21, have helped him develop his puppet show over time. By stepping into their world – watching shows on Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel, finding out what music they listen to and doing a lot of research on the Internet – Paul has been able to create school-assembly programs that kids relate to and that effectively tie in with the appropriate age group. He also stays up-to-date with new technology and communicates his message through a Web site, a Facebook page, a blog and Twitter. Keeping up with the times, he explains, is absolutely necessary if you are to succeed when speaking to children.
“You’ve got to keep your eyes and ears open for what’s going on. For example, my characters don’t talk about CD players anymore – they talk about iPods,” Paul says. “When I started out, Power Rangers were really big. Today it’s SpongeBob SquarePants.”
Make It Fun and Use Visuals
Kids are ready to be entertained and are more likely to take your message to heart if they’re enjoying themselves in the process. And frankly, they don’t have the attention span required to sit quietly and listen to a stranger tell his story from behind a lectern. Jim Jordan, a motivational speaker specializing in educational school-assembly programs, says a sense of humor is essential for anybody wanting to succeed as a speaker in an elementary-school setting: “Kids love to laugh. They laugh like 200 times per day, while adults only laugh 15 times a day. When I come into the classroom, the first words that come out of my mouth are, ‘I hope you guys are ready to have fun!’”
Jordan was a professional clown for 20 years before becoming a motivational speaker, and he uses magic tricks to get his message across because they help keep the younger children stimulated and entertained. “For K–3 students, pretty much everything is visual, because if you speak to them for two or three minutes on end they’ll end up in a coma. As the age bracket moves up, I use less magic.” However, Jordan points out that the magic is only a tool to communicate his character- building and anti-bullying messages, and he is careful not to sacrifice content for entertainment.
Jerry Jacoby, a professional speaker also dubbed, “the Kid Motivator,” uses comical stories and music to deliver his program “Real Character is No Accident,” which teaches children about honesty, integrity, respect and responsibility. “My contents are never presented in a serious, teaching way. The kids don’t want to be preached at,” he says. “My pieces are all short and full of comedy. You don’t want to give the kids too much time to think.”
Keep It Moving
One of the primary differences between a presentation geared to kids in a school assembly and one for adults in the workplace or corporate conference is the pace and energy level. As a general rule, the younger the audience, the faster the program needs to move and the more animated the speaker has to be. “If I have a character out, I use it for four to five minutes and then I move on to something else,” says Paul, the ventriloquist, about presenting to kids in the primary grades. “The stories are shorter and I get to the point more quickly.”
While adults may happily sit through a 90-minute presentation, Paul usually caps his elementary-school programs at 45 minutes, and keeps it even shorter than that if the presentation is outside, where he has to compete with more distractions. The key is keeping the program action-packed and varied. “Never stop talking and never go backstage to get something, or you’ll totally lose the kids,” he says.
Keep in mind that moving the program along swiftly doesn’t equal speeding up your speech. In fact, the average adult speaks at a rate of 160 – 170 words per minute, whereas children from ages five to seven only can process about 124 words per minute, according to a study by Ray Hull, an audiology professor at Wichita State University. If you speak too quickly and don’t articulate the words clearly enough, you risk overloading children’s central nervous systems and impairing their ability to absorb and process new information. That means a child who appears inattentive could, in fact, be having difficulty understanding you.
Let the Kids Participate
Kids are egocentric, and successful speakers often tap into the youngsters’ desire to be seen and heard. Engaging the children in the presentation is one surefire method to grab and keep their attention It can be done in any number of ways.
When Jacoby enters a school assembly, he’s already got a student lined up to help introduce him. Then he’ll lunge right into his program, telling real-life and fictional stories, playing the guitar and singing songs that tie into his character-building and anti-bullying themes. “I get the audience involved with echoing [the messages], and I bring a lot of kids up to help me. That’s always a winner; they love to volunteer. I never pick a child who doesn’t want to participate,” Jacoby says. “I always want the first row of kids to be seated close, about five feet in front of me. I prefer not to be on a stage, unless there’s a huge audience. Most of the time I’m on the floor, because I want the kids who are supposed to help out to be able to come up really quickly.”
Jordan also uses audience participation to reiterate his message. For kindergartners, for example, he illustrates how to rise above the other schools and glow in the community by letting the kids pass around a magical floating ball. For the primary-grade students, he’s found that quizzes work well for reviewing the message, and the kids love the animal balloons he hands out for prizes. “It’s got to be about them, you’ve got to dangle a carrot in front of them,” he says, because “they ask themselves, ‘What’s in it for me?’”
Tell Them the Rules
A common fear among those who don’t have experience speaking to kids is that the audience will become distracted or rowdy. This problem can be avoided by taking two actions: Keep a good command of the stage and be prepared to present yourself with authority. Kids need boundaries and it’s important to let them know in advance what the rules are, and that you will be the center of attention during the presentation.
“I tell the kids that if they want to say something, they need to raise their hands,” says Melanie Jones, a professional classroom speaker and founder of the nonprofit organization Speak to Children. Jones, who left a corporate career 10 years ago to speak to children about personal values, adds that she asks the kids to keep their hands on their desks and their eyes on her.
During the presentation, Jones moves around the classroom and makes frequent eye contact with the children to make sure they are paying attention. “Sometimes you’ll have kids who are unhappy, maybe because their parents are going through a divorce, and they’re acting out. A child might throw a fit and you don’t know why. When I have kids who don’t follow the rules, I give them a choice: They can either stay or leave, and I tell them that we can talk about it afterward.”
The good news is that a speaker who’s engaging, entertaining and energetic rarely needs to worry about losing the kids’ attention or respect, at least not on the elementary-school level. Speaking to children definitely requires a certain mindset and may not be for everyone, but successfully using your talent to help kids make the right choices in life can be a rewarding experience. “Go out there and have fun,” Paul suggests for those who want to tackle a young audience for the first time. “Know that you touched the heart and soul of a child today. If I can get a kid to stop bullying or to want to do something with his life, then I have accomplished my goal.”
Whether your aim is to talk at a local elementary school or become a professional motivational speaker for kids, these tips will help you get your message across. You can help young people grow up stronger, smarter and better prepared to face the future.
Linda McGurk is a communications specialist and freelance writer based in Indiana. Reach her at www.mcgurkmedia.com.