How to change the world by teaching

Updated to Business, Speaking on January 23, 2023.

Picture this —

I’m asked to put together a 2-day workshop for company owners.

I was in graduate school and had no idea how to create (let alone teach) a 2-day workshop.

So, of course, I said “Yes!”

That was the beginning of a 25-year journey as a public speaker.

Fast forward to 2017 and I’m about to open the doors to my 3rd annual BOSS (Business Of Speaking) program. This is the one time each year I teach people, like you, how to build their own business of speaking.

Rather than this post being only about keynote speaking, on the main stage, I want to promote building the skills of a teacher. Here’s why…

Teachers change the world

All great communicators are teachers – from as far back as Plato teaching young Aristotle (who went on to teach Alexander the Great), to current world leaders explaining the state of affairs. Teaching is how we help people understand the need to change and how to make change happen.

This can happen on a convention main stage, in the classroom, with your team, or over a latté with a friend. If you can teach, you can influence change.

My first experience teaching happened on the shores of the Fraser River, in British Columbia, teaching tourists how to tie up a life jacket and hang on in rapids. Pretty simple efforts, but I got a taste for the power of a lesson well taught (and what can happen when the lesson doesn’t stick).

I later graduated to teaching my employees and contract staff, leading workshops and, eventually, speaking on the main stage.

Universal language

Teaching is the universal language for taking complex problems and boiling them down to relevant solutions. Some of your decisions today are based on lessons learned – maybe even decades before.

The better you get at teaching, the more valuable you become. This is true not just in monetary terms, but because you are the catalyst for change – one student at a time.

At the existential level, we often teach what we most need to learn. It’s why David Allen got into time management, Tony Robbins does motivation, and I teach about productivity.

And the ride is not always a smooth road.

The skin of a rhino

If you’ve ever been tasked with teaching an audience – even your own team – it can be a daunting task. You have to organize material, design delivery, add (hopefully) some interactive parts to keep it interesting and then (as if that wasn’t enough) figure out how to make any of this stick beyond 15 minutes after they walk out the door.

In an effort to engage my audience with open-ended questions, I’ve suffered many moments, balancing on one foot, and then the other, waiting for a blank-faced audience to respond.

Within one 10 minute span, teaching can flip from the greatest job in the world, to feel like you’re scraping off wallpaper with a dull spoon.

In fact, any teacher worth their salt has earned the skin of a rhino, wisdom of an owl and patience of a lion.

Once you’ve had a tough audience you quickly realize you can’t take all feedback personally – sometimes, the chemistry isn’t there.

Surviving a tough audience

Last year I was booked to speak to an audience of bus drivers. Now, I don’t remember writing “bus drivers” as a target market, but the event was local, at the last minute their speaker had cancelled, so I agreed to deliver the 2-hour workshop.

In my preparation, I’d learned renegotiations between the union and school district were stalled and some drivers were facing lay-offs. If that wasn’t enough, the venue was a school gymnasium with the audience in the bleachers.

It didn’t start well – not only did most arrive 10 minutes late, but as they climbed the bleachers they casually stepped over my (oh-so-smart) temporary rope barricade so they could sit as far away from me as possible.

I felt my career had just taken a step back 10 years.

Like a good soldier, I did my best, stuck to the material, and finished on time. Sure, I got some compliments – some even told me how my course would help them through this tough time.

The icing on the cake came from one disgruntled participant with a comment scrawled at the bottom of their feedback form (Yes, some clients still insists on ‘smile sheets’) – “I will never get this time back.”


The skills of a teacher

I could fill volumes about leading meetings and seminars (in fact, see below for related posts), but here are 3 skills I know are universal:

1.  Make them work

Maybe it’s counter-intuitive, but folks get more out of your workshop when they make some of the decisions and do some of the heavy lifting. Even making them come to the front of the room to pick up handouts (hat tip to Bob Pike) gets them involved. This post has 7 pretty easy techniques that will get you 100% participation. The audience will learn more and you’ll look like a rock star with the event planner.

2. Anchor lessons

People have a tiny attention span – even worse memories. When you “anchor” a lesson, you attach the message to a story, metaphor or activity that helps create a neural imprint that can be recalled much more readily than just the words. I explain my SLAP technique in this post.

3. Take the punches

When feedback isn’t glowing (trust me, it happens to everyone), the trick is to look for the gems and make small improvements. You can’t meet everyone’s expectations, but you should be getting closer over time.

And when you get a compliment (hopefully more often than not) always ask what’s the one thing they’re going to use. Compliments are nice – learning what worked is far more valuable.

More posts on teaching

Here are a few more posts on teaching, memory and engaging your audience:

  • Here’s a post about creating an online course.
  • In this post I promote taking your knowledge, experience and content and turning it into an online course.
  • This post describes 7 common mistakes (including: doing all the work, boring delivery, and too much content) trainers make in seminars, and what to do instead. Just for you, I’ve made all these mistakes (over and over) and now I’m suggesting a better plan.
  • The SLAP technique to make your lessons sticky. I use this with every speech.
  • In this post I describe in detail how to set up and deliver a dyad.