Something strange and wonderful happened this week. I turned a corner to face the realisation that I’m of another generation. I’m the X in the XYZ of generational clusters, morphed by circumstance and defined by having lived both with and without computers. I can still remember the magic of receiving my first Fax and being blown away that an image could be sent across telephone lines. When I recall that, I feel old, and yet it’s been a long time since I was the oldest person a room of nearly 200.
A few weeks ago, I received an email asking me if I’d be interested in giving a one-hour public speaking workshop at the SUSI reunion in Budapest in April. That’s what I do. Give workshops on public speaking and communication in general. I was interested. But really? An hour? To cover public speaking, intercultural communication, and interpersonal communication? How effective would that really be? I expressed concerns. They added an additional hour. Better, but not great. Still, I was thinking workshop… maybe 15 to 20 people at most. I asked for more details, particularly about their expectations of the outcomes. Turns out they’d been thinking more along the lines of a plenary session for about 180 people. Plenary session? Yes, I could stand and talk for an hour and then take questions from the floor, like any other plenary session I’ve ever been to. But after further conversation, it turned out that what was really required was an interactive session with a room set up in tables of 8-10 rather than auditorium style. And the audience? Undergraduates from 28 different countries aged 18 to 25.
I was sorely tempted to say ‘thanks, but no thanks.’ Keeping 180 young people engaged for two hours would stretch me in ways I wasn’t quite sure I had the energy to deliver on. But I said yes anyway, because I have a hard time saying no. And truth be told, I wanted to see if I was up to the challenge. Sure, I’ve spoken to bigger audiences. Yes, I know my subject. And I’ve had plenty of practice at working a room. Those weren’t the issues. What was making me think was the audience and how I could relate to them.
Study of the U.S. Institutes (SUSIs) for Student Leaders are five-to-six-week academic programs designed for foreign undergraduate students between the ages of 18 and 25 to improve their understanding of the United States and to develop their leadership skills. Institutes include a four-week academic residency consisting of interactive classroom activities, discussions, lectures, readings, site visits, and workshops; a one week educational study tour to a different region of the United States; leadership skills building activities; community service; and opportunities to interact with their American peers on a college campus. Each Institute includes approximately 20 participants from selected countries.
Over the course of the next few weeks, I spoke to friends who had experience in training and working with this particular age group. I ran various ideas by them. Some, they told me, were dated. Others might work. Video was one tool I toyed with and I had a few in mind. Trialling Kahoot, an online engagement app I could use to get audience participation, posing questions and then collating answers on a big screen, was another. But that would require a certain amount of technical know-how (something I’m quite short of) and would also leave me dependent on having a strong, uninterrupted Internet connection (something I’m loathe to trust).
I could give them an exercise to do in groups and then get their feedback but given that for each minute of the exercise I’d need 5 to debrief, I simply wouldn’t have the time. Public speaking: I could do that by showing how it’s done. Intercultural communication: I could do that by telling stories of the many blunders I’ve made over the years. Interpersonal communication: That wasn’t really an issue. They’re of a generation that communicates with each other via social media, a world I’m reluctantly part of. What I thought more important to discuss was intergenerational communication. Just as I was anxious about keeping their attention and engaging them for two hours, when it came to getting sponsors for their programmes, buy-in for their ideas, funding for their projects, chances were good that they’d be communicating with my contemporaries and did they know how to do that? I wondered.
I spent countless hours reading up on the generation classifications from Generation X to Millennials (Generations Y1 and Y2) to Generation Z (iGen). Social marketing sites like WJ Schroer, Kasara, and Iberdrola are full of explanations and discussions as to the characteristics of each and it’s fascinating stuff. Just think: Three very different generations live alongside each other and have to get along despite being completely different in outlook and drive, not to mention communication style.
I knew I couldn’t deliver a slick, tekkie presentation with music and lights and artistic fades. I knew they wouldn’t sit through a traditional PPT with bullet points and pictures no matter how perfect they were phrased or parcelled (especially as I had drawn the dreaded after-lunch slot). But no matter how different we all are, I thought, we’re all human. We share a love of stories. The child in us wants to learn through stories, not through lists or arguments.
My challenge to them was to listen to me tell my stories. To really listen and see what the stories said about who I am, about what motivates me, about what my pressure points are. The stories were examples of good (and bad) practice in communication – be it public speaking, interpersonal or intercultural. I asked how many of them spoke in public at least once a month, once a week, once a day. The hands gradually came down to just a few. I said I didn’t believe them because engaging with social media is public speaking. Posting on Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat, LinkedIn whatever – that’s speaking to a public. And we went from there.
Once I’d finished with my stories, they got to ask me questions and yes, they’d listened. They weren’t at all backward about coming forward. The questions were insightful, indicative of strategic thought and creative thinking. Then, working in groups, they had to come up with a scenario wherein I could have any title, any position. Their challenge was to get me to agree to do something. Anything. One group wanted to hire me as an advisor to the Hungarian government to help bridge the gap between younger and older employees. They were tenacious but I held fast. Another wanted to convince me, a serial killer, not to kill one of them. An easy sell. A third wanted me, a midwife, to deliver a baby for a friend of theirs whose parents had thrown her out. A fourth wanted to publish my memoirs. They were creative. They were persuasive. And they showed me that they’d listened.
We discussed what had gone well and what could have gone better. We pulled out different lessons around choice of words, body language, context, vocal variety. We had fun. I had fun. It was both an exhausting and an exhilarating experience.
I wondered if they’d remember any of what we did in weeks to come. And I think they will. Some came up to me afterwards and said that the stories were what engaged them, what resonated with them, what they’d remember. And as memory man Jim Kwik is fond of saying, information + emotion = life-long memory.
I’ve been all over the place this week, physically and mentally. I’m counting down the days to April 18th when I can retreat to the village to recoup. And while the media continues to show me how asinine our world is becoming, I take heart in the fact that some of the strong characteristics of Generation Z is how they are committed to helping others, how they are inclined to group action, how they care about the environment, and how they want to change the world. I’m grateful that I got to see all this first-hand. I’m grateful for the sight of a better tomorrow. And I’m grateful for the having had the opportunity to contribute to the programme in some small way.