Five words that make a great teacher, speaker, comedian…

I know when the magic is happening. At first, it’s hard to fathom what is going on, but close observation, and a little quizzing of the magician will reveal a lot. Turns out, it’s quite simple. Simple but not necessarily easy.

What’s happening is that a great teacher (or speaker, or comedian) is plying their craft, but let’s just call them a teacher for the sake of simplicity. This is a ‘lesson’ that we can all benefit from. It makes us more effective in interpersonal situations, and that’s something I’m interested in learning about.

Ask a great teacher how they do it, and they use five words:
…and the kids are thinking…

Generally, they are not backward in telling you this. All that is needed is a polite query. They find it so normal, such a part of the everyday execution of their job, and no big deal. To the rest of we mere mortals, it’s a mystery that we need to fathom. It’s a skill that comes naturally to some, but I believe that others of us can work to develop it in ourselves. I’ll illustrate how ‘and the kids are thinking…’ plays out in a classroom situation.

Ordinary teachers might speak to the class, deliver a lesson, teach the content— they do one thing.

Great teachers do two things at once. They speak and they mentally place themselves in the heads of their audience. They ‘see’ and ‘hear’ themselves teaching, they experience themselves as their students experience them, and they know what reactions their words provoke in their students.

Here’s an example:

Teacher A: Cows have four stomachs to digest grass and make milk.

Teacher B: That milk you put on your breakfast cereal, that was changed from grass to milk inside the cow by going through four stomachs. 1, 2, 3, 4. Out of one stomach, into the next, then the next and the last, each one squishing and digesting. And the kids are thinking, Ewww, that happened to my milk and I drank it and I didn’t know. They are also sensitive to feedback: You could see the kids imagining what was happening in the four stomachs.

They relate the lesson to the students’ experience on a visceral level. Teacher B might go on to say: Imagine if your food went from your stomach into another three stomachs. Imagine all the gurgling that would go on inside you. Where would you put those other three stomachs?

Meanwhile, Teacher A is showing a diagram of the four stomachs.

Teacher B might play the situation for a cheap laugh. There are two reasons for this:

  • a class laughing at the teacher’s joke is an attentive, engaged class;
  • the students are more likely to remember something that made them laugh.
  • The common denominator is that it’s all about the experience of the class.
Great presenters do two things at once, getting into the psyche of their audience

I’ve noticed this skill is almost universal in the great teachers I have been lucky enough to know.

It was the same, with a sophisticated tweak, with one of my great high school teachers. It was the 70s and she got us thinking about all the issues of the day. The tertiary students were out with placards and slogans of peace; we were sitting in Modern History with those same sentiments stirred up in our heads by the issues our teacher was presenting. Again she was in the heads of her audience while she was talking to the class.

It’s almost an out-of-body experience that these teachers are having.

Out-of-body.

They have the ability to be thinking and delivering content, but also thinking as the student and to be constantly monitoring how their words and actions must be being received.

We aren’t all teachers. Does this apply to everyday life?

You betcha.

It applies to the obvious — motivational speakers, preachers, politicians on the campaign trail.

It applies to anyone who has an audience. Personal trainers, coaches and gym instructors come to mind. Comedians get the most immediate of feedback and ignore this at their peril — either they get a laugh or they don’t.

Another group who benefit from getting out of their own way and getting into the head of their audience is salespeople, and when the tactics are used for evil, con artists.

Writers do it. They will get out of their own heads, even if it is at the editing stage, to read their words as their readers will encounter them, and think of the impact they are having.

I’d argue that anyone who speaks to another person would benefit from constantly assessing how what they say is being received by their audience.

Here are some tips for how to do it:

  • It’s not about you.
  • Accommodate more than one thought at a time — what you are saying, and how those words will impact your listeners.
  • Take feedback from the audience, but the master of this anticipates the feedback.
  • Relate what you say to the fears, aspirations, visceral reactions, emotions of the audience.
  • Use humor, but never at the expense of anyone but yourself.
  • People react well to fun and lightness of mood.

So I’m hoping that you guys reading this thought:

  • What are the five words? ie I hope you were intrigued and hooked.
  • Your understanding was completely clarified by the example.
  • The image reinforced the point and also made it clear. It gave something for the visual thinkers and gave a take-away.
  • You could see, from the examples, how this might benefit you in what you do, as you are most likely not a teacher.
  • You got some broken-down take-away tips that you feel you can apply.
  • You think that I preached, but also practiced what I preached by applying the ideas to this article.

I’d love to know if all that happened. Comedians have it all over writers when it comes to obvious and immediate feedback.

For those who like the visual, I’ve put a Pinterest Board on my website with examples of teachers turning this skill into color and art.