Running Diary: The high school speaking gig

I had a colossal speaking engagement failure, and I mean that in a really good way.

The high school that my daughter will eventually go to also happens to be the one where my Dad ended is 25+ year teaching career in gleeful retirement bliss.  As such, he’s got a lot of friends still there on campus and one of them happened to be teaching a pair of courses in the business department that seemed ripe to pick my brain on things I’ve learned over the last 15 years at HP.  The first is a business development course where students arrange themselves into groups and run a ficticious business of their choosing, having to deal with accounting, hiring, business analysis and the like.  The other is an HTML development course that eventually gets into Flash editing.

I’ve done dozens of presentations for HP VP’s over the years, but there’s nothing quite like being stared down by an angry teenage girl and I was reminded about a few things in the process.

I got to the room, filled with computers and featuring a mirror in the back of the room so that the teacher could see what was on everyone’s screens from his desk in the front, about 30 minutes before 1st period started.  The first two classes of the day were two batches of kids in the same business development course while 3rd and 4th period had the HTML classes.  I got a chance to meet all the teachers in the business department where my Dad worked and it was really nice to hear people sing his praises, although I have to admit a part of me felt like that heightened expectations.

The first bad sign was when I realized that this was the first Monday after Thanksgiving and that meant that this would be the first class that these kids would have after having 10 days off.  Whatever they were doing during that time off was surely more exciting than whatever I could possibly say to them.  After getting introduced, I started in with my speil:

  • 1988 graduate of a nearby rival school
  • UCSD on the 5 year plan, degree in Computer Science
  • 15 years at HP and had a lot of exposure to a lot of different business models

I asked what kinds of businesses had people planned?

Total, awkward silence.

5 minutes in one guy was already sleeping and everybody else stared at me, expressionless.  Fortunately for me, Dad’s friend (the regular teacher of the class), saved me and called on a few people to state their business idea.

Most had to do with some sort of retail establishment, so I started to talk about the differences between hiring hourly employees and salaried employees, drawing heavily from conversations I’ve had with a Dad from my daughter’s class who is the manager of a nearby Target store.  I talked about my own experience of being hired for a salaried position and told my uncle’s story of vetting someone through driving.  While I completely lost the right side of the room (those who weren’t paying attention were at least keeping the noise level down) three students on the left side of the room asked a ton of questions and it was a very interactive session.

For class #2, I stood on the right side of the room, opposite the teacher’s desk in an attempt to balance the conversation physically a bit, but I can’t say that helped.  While I did get one girl to talk about her training experience as an hourly employee at Cold Stone and used that to talk about how in retail a lot of times the hourly employees are the only touch points your customers have with your business, after that I didn’t get anything out of anybody.  One girl in particular stared at me with a look of disdain and contempt I’ve not felt since, well, high school.

Thankful when the first HTML class came in for 3rd period, I felt like I was more in my element there from the very beginning seeing as they’d already learned HTML basics and were moving onto CSS styling.  As he was introducing me, the teacher talked about an article he found in the paper that touted HTML page design pay rates and remarked that things they were learning in this class were the foundations for that kind of work.  I leveraged off of that by talking about how Mark Zuckerberg is the youngest person on Forbes list of billionaires and that he created Facebook it with no formal training from his dorm room at Harvard.

I then showed them CSS Zen Garden and a few tricks that it utlizes before contrasting it with Disney’s new main site, which is extremely Flash intensive.  About a dozen different students asked questions and the lively hour zoomed by.

When the final class showed up after lunch, I made a really bad assumption.  I thought I had captured the attention of the first HTML class with my knowledge, forgetting the necessity of persuasion.  So I made the huge mistake of jumping right into CSS Zen Garden and heard nothing but cricket chirps when I prompted the room for questions.  15 minutes in, I realized my mistake: what had sparked interest in the first class wasn’t my knowledge, it was the lure of Zuckerberg-like riches.  I tried to work that in, but it was too late.  I had already lost the room and we mercifully ended early after about the 4th prompt for questions went unanswered.

Here’s what I learned during this experience:

  • In an odd way, it felt good to feel uncomfortable.  I spend 4-8 hours on the phone in meetings every day and persent the same kinds of things to the same kinds of people.  Standing in front of an audience with which I had zero credibility was an exercise in humility.  It was a good scenario to fail in as it wouldn’t get me fired if I messed up, only embarrassed.  That, I can live with.
  • You have to give everyone in your audience a reason to listen to you in those crucial first 2-3 minutes or there is no point showing up.  I know that rule and have preached that rule, yet I completely forgot that rule.
  • Teenage girls are a tougher sell than angry VP’s.
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