The bravery of youth

Last week I had my first ever go at public speaking. I’ve delivered plenty of training sessions before but never given a ‘talk’. Not satisfied with just having a go at something new, I picked possibly the hardest audience in existence. Children.

I had accepted the challenge of speaking at a Leadership Summit organised at Spelthorne Council Chambers in Staines by innovative Curriculum Enrichment Leader Stephen Lockyer (@mrlockyer). This was a summit for fifty 7-11 year old students from three different schools. It was a terrifying prospect.

The brief was simple – leadership stories from people outside of the education space. I chose not to tell my own story – frankly, it isn’t that interesting. Instead I reached out to my Linked In network and asked them to answer a single question – ‘what leadership advice would you give your nine-year old self’? Ordinarily when I post something on Linked In it will be read a couple of hundred times, and perhaps one or two people will either like or comment on it. The telling thing for me in this case was that my plea for help was read by over 27,500 people and I had around 150 responses. Amazing. And proof, if it was needed, of how important the next generation are seen to be.

The next challenge was thinking through how to pitch my talk at this age group without being patronising but keeping them engaged and interested in a subject matter that they would have little contextual basis for.

Luckily, the majority of the responses from my Linked In network related to behavioural aspects of leadership, summed up precisely my views on the subject, and gave me something to work with that would be within the realms of experience for the children. I worked this into a number of simple ‘lessons’ and wove a few stories, examples and questions around this.

I had the ‘graveyard shift’ presentation shift, straight after lunch when the kids were starting to tire coupled with being jacked up on lunchtime goodies.  Each of my ‘lessons’ had been written with a question for the young people to get them involved, but didn’t assume that they would engage. But….. I was utterly overwhelmed at how engaged and engaging these children were. They made it very easy for me.

Show-me-how-big-your-brave-is.-Sara-Bareilles

Two things stood out for me when reflecting on the experience:

  1. One of my ‘lessons’ was about being brave, trying new stuff, making your stock response ‘how can I do this’ rather than justifying why you can’t. To start this section I asked for three volunteers. I didn’t tell them what they were volunteering for yet around 90% of hands went straight up. I concluded that children are naturally brave, and left me wondering at what age our instinct for bravery gives in to self-consciousness and the overwhelming feeling that we will be judged on every move we make.
  2. I summarised at the end with an age-old quote that to succeed you need to ‘work hard and be nice to people’. I asked if any of my audience didn’t think they could do this. One young lad told me that he couldn’t because he didn’t want to work hard. The same boy had answered one of my earlier questions with an in-depth description of spending nine hours on his hobby of writing a computer programme. I watched a small light go on in his eyes when I explained that he had already shown me that he could work hard in committing so much time to his hobby, a hobby which could easily be a future job. It was a nice moment.

It was a brilliant experience, hopefully the young people took something away, certainly I have. And the mass intake of breath that happened when I told the group that I had worked in prisons will always make me smile.

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