Today, I focused on the structure of the one chapter Inspirational Talks, where JC and Riccardo are talking by the fire. It is becoming clear that JC is keeping Riccardo alive and encouraging him to share his learnings from working with teenagers.
The fire is an obvious metaphor for Riccardo's life force.
The chapter begins and ends with JC and Riccardo talking by the fire. The main part of the chapter seems to be a long reflection by Riccardo on what has worked well in his inpirational talks with teenagers. Thus the reader is getting a long lesson in the skills and attitudes they can develop if they want to have similar success with teenagers.
JC knelt a little closer to Riccardo who seemed to be fading in and out. He put his jacket across Riccardo’s thin bony shoulders and shook him gently. “Old man. Do you remember when you learned how to get magical transformations with teenagers?” JC asked, hoping that the question would bring Riccardo back from his terminal dreaming.
Riccardo’s eyes flickered as he awoke slowly. “There was a time when I struggled to do that,” he almost whispered, “and then
I learned,” his voice rising, “Trial and error. Or as I like to say, trial and success. Focus on what works. Let that be your guide”, he admonished with increasing vigour.
Pleased to have been able to keep Riccardo alive a little longer, JC was encouraged to explore further. “Was I the first teenager you pulled out of the fire?” he enquired.
The fire crackled as another log fell into the hot ashes, sending up a show of yellow sparks in mention of its name.
“By the time we met, I had hundreds of hours of learning, from giving talks. To teenagers who were like you, in the fire, not in the midst of a choosing a criminal lifestyle; but nevertheless, in the middle of something hot.”
“This was when you were teaching?” asked JC, his voice rising in question, in almost disbelief.
“No, teaching was way too limited, too much focus the syllabus. I used to teach Maths you know.” Riccardo paused. JC didn’t know, and this was not where he wanted the conversation to go, so he moved ahead. “No, this was many years later, from giving talks to college students.”
“You got paid to give talks at college?”
“No. You don’t understand. It wasn’t for the money.” Riccardo paused again. How could he explain to JC that he gave the talks for no money?
“It was after I had been running my company for 25 years. A quarter century doing almost the same thing, chasing assignments, chasing money, even doing it well. I was getting to the end of that kind of work, losing interest, and I was turning 50. I wanted to do something that had more meaning than getting paid for doing business communication training over and over again.”
“So you turned down paid work?” JC asked almost horrified.
“Not to begin with. I was still working full time, and I wanted to inspire teenagers. Later, there were some days when I had to choose one over the other.”
“And you chose to do paid work?” JC asked with hope in his voice.
“No, I chose to inspire teenagers. It made me feel good. Very good.” Riccardo savoured the goodness as it flowed from his belly, rising to his heart, bringing the warmth of a job well done. He smiled broadly.
“What about money?” JC asked.
“I learned to live just as well, on less of it. The company had plenty of money in the bank. I always had what I needed and still had a great time talking at the colleges. I learned so much. So much.” Riccardo gazed into the fire, it was burning brightly again.
For his 50th birthday, Ricardo had sent himself out on a mission. He would give 100 free inspirational talks at local colleges. He had made the promise to himself directly after he had been accepted to be a speaker for Tango, a local not-for-the-money social change agency. Ricardo had promised himself that he would become Tango’s highest ranked and the most frequently requested speaker. After all, if Tango was going to hold the door to local colleges open, Riccardo could at least stand tall, and do the best he could.
Riccardo liked challenges. They helped him grow.
“It is always a challenge to give a talk to a group of unknown teenagers. Every teacher feels nervous the day before they meet a new class of teenage students. Indeed they can feel nervous on the same day they meet them, which may or may not serve them in a good way”, Riccardo reflected.
One thing Ricardo was sure of was that teenagers did not care what he knew, until they knew that he cared.
It was a catchy phrase and a simple way to remind himself that no matter how intelligent he might be, and no matter what amazing things he may have done in his life, teenagers don't give a shit until they know that you're not full of it.
The very first thing to do in any encounter with teenagers was to clearly demonstrate that you care. Once that has been established, a line of communication is open and further negotiation can take place.
And there has to be negotiation. Since Ricardo was a visitor to the college, and had neither rights nor obligations towards the teachers or students, he would have to negotiate every single step of the way.
And the best way to negotiate was to know what results he wanted to achieve, and at the same time be acutely attentive to the results the students and teachers wanted to achieve.
For the inspirational talks, in most cases, there had been some kind of statement in the invitation from the teacher which hinted at the kind of results that were hoped for.
However, Ricardo knew not to blindly follow what may have been written in an email or said on the telephone before the day of the talk. No, he would pay acute attention to what was happening in the room and allow his intuition to inform him about what results were truly being asked for.
The first inspirational talks were something of an experiment. Riccardo tried out the traditional talk and slides, with the talk being very well-prepared in advance. The talks worked well, but not well enough for Riccardo. He was well aware of the famous quotation by William Arthur Ward.
The mediocre teacher tells,
The good teacher explains,
The superior teacher demonstrates,
The great teacher inspires.
Riccardo wanted to be the one to inspire the students, or at least demonstrate something interesting and useful to them. So he chose never to tell them anything whenever he could ask them a question instead, and to avoid giving an explanation himself when other alternatives could be found.
Riccardo’s next talks were more inspirational. The slides became fewer, had less text and more pictures. The well-prepared talks were abandoned sooner each time. The title of the talks became more vague, allowing for in the minute interpretation. Yes, things were shaping up nicely.
Riccardo knew that his talks were becoming more engaging and inspirational because of the feedback he was getting during and after his talks.
The people who had conceived of Tango had the foresight to insist on the teacher and students giving their speakers feedback. The feedback was organised, collected and collated by Tango. There were questions about the contents and the delivery of the lecture. Some questions could be answered on a scale, others could be answered with a sentence or two.
Riccardo loved getting the written feedback, not least because it was overwhelmingly positive. Riccardo knew from the interactions during the talks that he was doing a good job. But wow, having the proof in his hands pleased his ego tremendously.
Riccardo learned to use his ego as a servant on his mission to inspire thousands of teenagers in his 100 inspirational talks.
For some people the ego is a selfish creature who takes over a person, steering their life towards over-indulgence. As true as it may be, it is not the whole truth. The ego is a passionate being who loves to be centre stage, in the limelight and receiving applause. If the ego could be used in a positive and constructive way then why not do so? As long as it is done in a way that is caring, assertive and with vulnerability, surely the ego can have its day? Ricardo had decided to find out.
With the teenagers, making the first connections was a delicate combination of openness, authority and authenticity.
Riccardo had learned that adopting a caring approach would give the best connection and results. He would seize upon the earliest opportunity to show that he cared about the people in the room. They were important to him he was there for them not the other way round.
Being vulnerable meant being willing to share personal details, something which Ricardo developed a taste for after telling a few of his life stories from when he was a teenager, making the same choices as the people in the room. Somehow in the retelling of the stories Ricardo became a teenager again, and at the same time was himself with all his years of experience being able to understand himself as a teenager, and even able to give himself some well-timed advice.
Being assertive, meant looking for what was wanting to happen, and naming it. Ricardo worked partly with the title of the talk which had been given to him in the correspondence, and mostly with whatever the student showed interesting on the day. Sometimes the interest was communicated in words, and on other times it was communicated in silence or in body language, or just a feeling in the room. Ricardo learned early on to listen to his intuition and rely on it more and more.
When it came to negotiating the contents of the talk, Ricardo had learned to just ask, and be prepared to work with whatever came up. It sounds simple, but it takes self control to not talk from your own perspective, or follow the notes you wrote yesterday, last week or last year. No, it took courage to be fully in this moment, and ask what they wanted to learn about the subject at hand.
Apart from showing that he cared, Riccardo knew that the second most important aspect to focus on was managing the group’s internal relationships. Noticing who the informal leaders were, and getting the onboard with Riccardo being the temporary leader of the group. If that was not achieved, the whole group may well follow the informal leaders actions and ignore, challenge, or disrupt.
Structuring the talk, was done in the moment, based on what had come up, the time allowed and whatever ‘felt’ right. Riccardo relied on his intuition, which became more acute and more reliable over time.
Riccardo knew that using positivity and humour gave the best results. So he told stories that had those qualities. To begin with these stories had been carefully rehearsed. Over time they became more natural, chosen more in line with what was happening in the room, and with what the students needed to hear.
As for getting engagement, Riccardo used role play. Characters in the stories Riccardo was telling could be played by the students. Even if they didn’t know the right words to say. Riccardo used whatever came up, with humour and positivity. Role play, or guided improvisation as it might bette be called, stet the room on fire. It never failed to ignite the most reluctant teenagers. Everyone wanted to be chosen to play a part.
Bringing the talk to a close was always a matter of elegant timing. Sometimes Riccardo stopped short of the allotted time, just because it felt right. More often he went over time. Nobody ever got upset about that. At the end of the talk, Riccardo asked for the students reflections on what they had experienced, what they had learned, what they wanted to say about the inspirational talk. Often the learning was greatest during the reflections.
Getting the best possible conditions for feedback was a matter of saying how it affected him, his ego, to read their written positive feedback. The organisers, Tango, had done a good job in arranging the logistics of the feedback.
“I recall one time, Riccardo mused, when there were but five students in the audience. We had got to the end of the talk and I wanted to ask for feedback. I told them I was an applause junkie?”
“A what?” JC asked, slightly startled.
“A junkie. You see it was my ego who was on stage, and it wanted to hear that it had done a good job. So it asked for applause, affectionate applause, just to feel good.”
“And what happened?”
“Oh, they delivered. Even though there were just five of them, they gleefully gave a huge round of applause. They seemed to understand my need for acknowledgement.”
The fire hissed. JC turned to see that all the logs had burned through. All that was left was a heap of glowing embers.
“All done?” Riccardo asked.
“Not yet old man. It’s time to put some more logs on the fire. I’m sure you have plenty more to say.” JC cajoled.
“That may be so, but I am tired”, pleaded Riccardo.
JC searched for his next question. He piled an armful of logs onto the fire. The damp ones hissed as they landed on the hot embers. The drier ones burst into flames.
“Do you remember when you learned how to get magical transformations with teachers?” JC enquired.
Riccardo was looking into the flames, his eyes reflecting the passion that burned within him.
“Oh yes, I remember,” he grinned.
The Book Club
I am a teacher, a business-owner, a public speaker, a coach and an author.