My Turn: Getting an Education

Lessons learned from speaking to a captive audience. 

By Rich DiGirolamo, ATMB

While attending a dinner party, I found myself involved in the usual, “So what do you do for a living?” conversation. I said I work with organizations dedicated to improving the lives of others. My conversation partner was a teacher, who after we’d spoken for a while, asked if I’d be interested in delivering a graduation commencement address? The theme would be education as it relates to entrepreneurship. That was right up my alley, and I eagerly accepted.

Then she gave me some specifics. It would take place in only three weeks – and the group I’d be addressing would be individuals receiving their Graduate Equivalency Diplomas (GED). Then came the clincher: The graduates were inmates from the state of Connecticut’s Department of Correction. They were “the worst of the worst.” Yes, I would be speaking to people who had been convicted of rape, manslaughter and robbery. And here I thought I had arrived.

Little did I know I was about to learn a few things – things that we as speakers know but sometimes need a refresher on. 

Rule# 1: Listen. How many times have we been told to listen when other people speak? I’d heard the words “commencement address” and started thinking about the company I would be in; about all the famous people who’d given such addresses. Why ask Who, What, When and Where? That would be...well...the professional thing to do. But I had said, “Yes” already, so how could I change my mind?

Rule #2: Get to know your audience. The day of the scheduled speech was cold. Arriving at the prison, I was informed that half of the graduates would not be in attendance – they were in lockdown because of an “incident” the evening before. An incident? Yes, it involved beating and fighting like we see on TV. I was led to an auditorium where officers, faculty and inmates were milling about. These were the ones who had not been fighting. The faculty was trying to protect me from the inmates, but I just started conversations with anyone I met.

Well, something very strange happened as I was doing this. In their conversations with me, it was evident the inmates knew they had screwed up. They were doing time but wanted to do something with their time – hence, the pursuit of their GED. I was starting to feel good about being there. 

Rule #3: Research your topic. My turn came to address the group. I poked fun at them. We laughed. I spoke about the importance of education in their future. I challenged them to use their education to improve their lives and the lives of others, and to not commit crimes that would bring them back to jail.

I was actually getting through to them, maybe even making a difference. All of a sudden, a strange thought crossed my mind. I thought of how this day gave a whole new meaning to the term “captive audience.”

And then I lost my place.

Which brings me to… 

Rule #4: Show them you’re human.
The inmates knew I had gone off the beaten path and started laughing at me. Heck, I had poked fun at them; we were even now. And that moment of laughter gave me enough time to pull myself back together and continue the presentation.

Rule #5: It’s not about you. After the applause for my speech, one of the inmates addressed his classmates. He started to talk about how important this day was to him. He read from a letter he had received from his young son. The boy wrote how proud he was of his father and this accomplishment. The student speaker started crying. Teachers were crying. Murderers and rapists were crying. I couldn’t hold back my own tears. It was a moment I would have never expected from “the worst of the worst.”

When the ceremony was over, I made a beeline to that man, shook his hand and told him what a great speech he had just delivered. He said it was not as good as mine. I chuckled and told him I was not needed there this morning; what he offered to his fellow graduates I could never have offered – the gift of emotion. He just smiled.

The Biggest Lesson of All
The warden, faculty and principal made such a big deal over me that day. But it was that student speaker who was the star. I researched my topic, spent some time with my audience and did all the things we speakers do. Yet a letter from a little boy to his father made that morning something I will never forget.

Every so often some perspective is dropped into our lives. It was a day I’ll not soon forget. 

Rich DiGirolamo, ATMB,
is a member of the Chamber Toastmasters in Waterbury, Connecticut. He is a business humorist who gives interactive keynote presentations. Reach him at