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John Eggers: The art of keeping them listening

BEMIDJI — What can you do when your audience is dying?

Has this ever happened to you? You have just given what you thought was a spectacular speech or presentation. Afterwards you ask some of your listeners what they learned. They respond by saying something like, “Presentation? You gave a presentation? I’m sorry, what did you say again?”

It’s times like that when you want to do what is advised in those Southwest Airline Commercials: “Wanna get away?”

It was pushing nine in the evening and my students had been in class for three hours. I could see they were tired but I wanted to give them a demonstration speech about their next assignment, which was to give a speech about something they were passionate about. I chose to speak about “How to Excel In Excellence”.

Giving a speech to a group of college students at 9 p.m. is like trying to teach our golden retriever puppy and expect her to sit, stay, come and then count to 10 by barking. It just isn’t going to happen.

Although my students were sitting and seemingly focused on me, their minds were at rest — headed for the first stage of sleep. Some had passed the first stage and were heading for the dream stage. I could see them twitching in their chairs.

In doing a self-evaluation of my teaching, “What could I have done to put them on the edge of their seats?”

Maybe I should have given them my never tried standup comic routine. This routine consists of me going over to an imaginary microphone on a stand, picking up the microphone and saying, “Hello everyone. My name is John and I’m glad to be here”.

That’s it. That’s my routine. There is nothing else. I always wanted to be a standup comic and do just that. After greeting the audience, I would return the mike to stand and sit down to raucous applause, of course.

I could have had them join me in signing “Kum Ba Yah.” This always worked for Joan Baez. Of course none of them would have heard of Joan “who?”

I could have done my secret magic trick. I show a card to the audience. They say it out loud. I return it to the deck. With my back toward the audience, I look for the card in the deck, put it in my shirt pocket, face the audience again, shuffle the deck and proceed to find the card. When I show the audience that the card is not in the deck and then pull it out of my pocket, they give me another round of raucous applause. I have never done this before and that’s why it is a secret.

What I could have done and should have done to awaken my listeners would have been to bring our retriever puppy in her kennel and at the time my students were about to dose off, I could let her out to run around the classroom and lick each student on their face. The one big problem here would be, could I restore order with a Tasmanian devil in the room?

Energizers are always good for arousing your audience. One activity I use often is where I clap my hands, say the name of a president, and then they have to say the name of the first lady. Let’s try it: clap, Eisenhower (Mamie), clap, Franklin Roosevelt (Eleanor), clap, Clinton (Hillary), clap Nixon (Pat), clap, Lyndon Johnson (Lady Bird). My students never do well at this. I guess kids still don’t like history.

Food is good. “Let’s take a break and have a snack.” My students are assigned to bring snacks to every week but everything is gone by late in the class. I wonder if eating puts them to sleep. I’ll have to think about that.

Do you suppose that the reason why my students were dozing was because my speech on “Excel to Excellence” just wasn’t that excellent?

My points of the speech were if you want to be excellent at anything you have to 1) continue to learn as much as you can; 2) define what excellence means to you; 3) exhibit a lot of energy; 4) get feedback on how you are doing.

I also had some nifty stories to tell and dropped some names they might know like Michael Phelps, Michael Jackson and Adrian Peterson, people who excel.

Not too bad, I thought. If you followed those four points religiously you could do pretty well at anything. Still, my message didn’t hit home. If it did, it knocked them out cold.

In studying about the brain for so many years I know that if you don’t get enough sleep each day, your brain will take it regardless of where you are and what you are doing. College kids, like most adults, need between seven to none hours sleep a day. They may actually need more because during sleep the brain files the information they learned during the day.

Knowing that I think I know the answer to arouse my students’ attention. “Let’s see the hands of those who want to call it a night and get some sleep.”

“Not too fast now. No pushing or shoving.”

JOHN R. EGGERS of Bemidji is a former university professor and area principal. He also is a writer and public speaker.