George is the author of Innovator’s Mindset and I had the fortune of seeing him deliver the keynote address at Tech Rodeo in Tulare, California. While I genuinely value George’s message, it is one that I have been trying to live for several years. He has done a great job of putting it to words, and if you are interested, go ahead and read them, or go see him speak. It isn’t his message that I learned most from during this most recent trip, it was his art.
I have always considered teaching an art. That art is often informed by science and math and improved upon by learning to communicate and read others. It is why we fail often, why we continue to strive to overcome those failures. The art is what makes teaching an imperfect quest. The heart of that art, is building relationships with your students. I was one of those students in the crowd for George’s talk(I am going to call him George despite not knowing him much better than most other educational acquaintances for reasons I will allude to later.) Nearly 200 of them. The concept of a class of a few hundred terrifies most teachers because, let’s be honest, building relationships with several hundred people is hard. So how does one do that in an hour?
As an educator that is trying to have more opportunities to see and impact education on a broader scale, I was particularly interested in this keynote. I wanted to observe it in the analytical way in which I tend to observe most things; not as a passive consumer of the message, but as a critical evaluator of the how and why. In part, I was curious because later in the day I would have the chance to speak in front of about 150 people (for a much shorter time) and I wanted to learn more about how to do it well. Whether this talk was excellent or awful, I would certainly learn from it. After an hour I can only call what George created as an artistic masterpiece. His keynote captivated and inspired the audience, his message was received, and the day was off to an excellent start. By observing this talk, and without giving away too many details out of respect for the artist, I want to share what I have learned about speaking from his talk and others along the way.
(In an uncharacteristic style I plan on listing my learning to make it easier to digest.)
- Make it personal: How on earth do you connect with so many people so quickly? Start with a personal story. In truth, it was Rafranz Davis who taught me this one. Her stories are some of the most amazing and I would love to see her deliver a full keynote some day. I recognized it during this talk, when George talked about his daughter, about his own worries, fears, hopes, and personal struggles with her (she is 5 months old, if you are reading this, gear up George that roller coaster is going to go higher, lower, and much faster!)
- Be a People(As Doug Robertson would say): George is larger than life. Literally, he was about 6-8 inches taller than me. He has done many things in his career and has experienced great success. He exudes that confidence when he stands in front of a crowd. He could easily stand and produce an hour of engaging stories about success, but not every story was about his success. The beauty of this art was that it was also about struggle. Struggle is what most educators can relate to on an everyday basis. In the ever expanding net of social media (which I will henceforth refer to as media- via Crystal Miller) education tends to be the “Everything is Awesome” space. Everyone everywhere shares their awesome. They should, it is important to help people find what works and how to replicate it. It is also important to tell the stories of your school and your students being successful. Conversely, it can be overwhelming to think that so much awesome exists in the world. The awesomeness can overwhelm people and they forget you are a real person that struggles, that failed before you succeeded, and that needed the support of others along the way. George’s talk managed to meet those points while stressing his message, and reminding us that the awesome things only happen when we persevere.
- Keep the Balance: As a speaker and as an educator, you have to know when to let the crowd dangle over the cliff and when to pull them back up again. Finding the right combination of heart-warming examples, grief-inducing struggles, and balancing it out with humor (especially humor that reminds people of you “being a people”) is the best way to build off of the personal connections you made during the beginning. If you take your audience to the edge and then throw them off, there is no coming back from that. You instead need to show them the ground, tie the bungee cord to their feet and jump along with them. The fall may be a little hard on some, but it is important that you help them bounce back. Keeping a large group engaged involves a good story.
- Be a Storyteller: So this is another I learned well from Rafranz (this is really the first keynote I have seen since getting to meet her.) My message is incredibly important to me. It should be important to you, but it isn’t. Why isn’t it important? Simple, I don’t care enough about the characters. As an author, I learned a valuable lesson learning about story telling. If I don’t care about the character in the first 15 minutes of a movie (first 5-10 pages of a book) I don’t want to keep going. In writing you typically have your main character lose someone/thing important, or save someone/thing important. George talked about his dad, about his journey, and about losing him. All that was incredibly personal, but it was also a great story. The stories about others that were told through his voice were equally great stories. Anyone can be a storyteller. Talk to the audience as if they are your old friends. From both George and from Rafranz as well, when they told stories, I felt as though they trusted me with a bit of themselves.
- Complete the Loop: I am reminded of a famous quote by T.S. Elliot, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” The story starts and ends with a message, as well as George’s family. The message: take risks, be willing to try, and always keep learning. In the end, we understand this message through the eyes of George’s mother. The circle completed, our journey brings us back to the beginning, only this time, the audience as a stronger understanding of what has been said.
- The Challenge So this wasn’t explicitly a part of George’s talk, though I wish it would have been(it was still implied.) In Crystal Miller’s session later that day she said something that stuck with me (I will paraphrase) “If we give professional development and it’s not making an impact in classrooms, take it personally and make it better.” I left my Ignite at the end of the day with a question, “What will you do to open up a larger world of possibility for your students?” We have to leave our audience inspired to act. If they don’t take that message and use it to make a change, what good was all of the rest of it?
The talk George gave was a work of art. I continue to refer to him as George not because of a particularly funny moment in the keynote, but because in that short time, he was able to make a connection. Through his stories, I feel as though I know him. His message permeates through the structure and story of the whole thing, and in the end, it was heard by so many because of the connection between the person and the abstract idea we were supposed to take away. I hope to become a speaker of that quality. Even in writing this I have learned more, especially in seeing how all of the things I learned from Rafranz Davis about telling my own story were expertly woven into a message to inspire people. There isn’t a formula for art that will make it beautiful, powerful, or moving. There are, however, a number of useful techniques that, when perfected, come together to bring a gravity to the whole. This is what I hope to achieve personally, and what I was treated to during this talk.
(After having reflected upon this post, many of these realizations are things that I learned from hearing Rafranz Davis talk about telling your story while at the Google Innovator Academy in Toronto. Seeing them play out in George’s speech was a light bulb moment of how they can come together.)