10 things I learn from Career Day presentations

From the Archives

Originally published May 25, 2014

I love Career Day. Every year I visit schools to share from my professional life with middle- and high-school students. Every year I tell myself to write down the many deep, insightful, and often humorous questions and comments that students share, and then I forget to do so. Every year the experience helps me hone my presentation skills and raise my awareness of what appeals to young people and of how they view the world of work and education. And this year I learned that for the little of the experience that I record, a lot sticks with me long after Career Day is over. Please read on…

Prepare better
Have I gotten lazy – or the excuse I try to proffer, gotten caught up with work – about gearing up for each presentation? Admittedly, yes, and every classroom I visit is a reminder that my top priority each year is to step up my game, much the way I encourage students to do if they are to be successful academically and professionally.

Talk with students, not to or at them
This year my presentation to high school students taught me that after middle school, students view just about any adult who isn’t a pop star as yet another boring person standing in front of them to talk down to them. Answer? Don’t talk to them. Avoid talking at them. Talk with them. I briefly introduced myself and asked them a lot of curious questions about their ambitions and coming career choices.

It’s not business, it’s personal
Career Day has taught me to ask a lot more questions of students much earlier in each session. The questions I put to the audience aren’t generic; they’re geared toward each student who chooses to open up and participate in the discussion. As a result, far more students chime in much earlier, and far fewer feel offended or put on the spot by my sometimes lame attempts at humor.

Share a laugh at my expense
When students (inevitably) ask questions that put me on the spot, I don’t fool around trying to get out of answering. Career Day has taught me to roll with those questions, parlay them into other more helpful ones, and still manage to encourage students about the joys of landing a career or attending college after high school. Sometimes that means a laugh at my expense for their benefit.

One-on-one matters
I enjoy how direct and thought-provoking students’ questions are when youngsters have a few moments away from the group. That’s when I learn more about me in ways that remind me why I do what I do and why I share it at Career Day.

Sharing is caring
It has become necessary for me to anticipate questions whose answers will excite the students enough to enroll everyone into the dialogue. I’ve learned that an appropriate measure of anecdotal assistance can help my answers along, and students eat up the opportunity to share their experiences when they hear their speaker lead the way. They get the point that I’m sharing openly because I care enough about what I do to give them as much insight as possible.

Bring the thunder
Very recently, I walked into a K-8 school with one bag of shiny objects and another that contained only a looseleaf binder of photos from Career Day the year before. All-time best day for those one-on-ones mentioned earlier. Will that magic ever work again? Won’t take the risk. Next session, I’m taking my back out lugging more cool stuff for youngsters to experience because at some point, kids will tire of my voice. They’ll never stop wanting to dig through some bags for shiny toys, though.

Help youth find their voices
Youngsters have all kinds of interesting, fun, exciting, and valuable thoughts racing through their heads all the time. When I’m being the expert and not the listener, I miss opportunities to hear them, and students are gipped of a chance to share them. Career Day has helped me fine-tune my listening skills and flavor each session with insights that come right from the audience. It is more rewarding to hear students praise my presentation for its personal connection to them than to have spoken for 15 or 20 minutes before answering a few questions.

Network with other presenters
Mingling helps presenters get to know each other professionally and personally. It helps to be able to talk up each other’s careers as we visit classrooms. At one recent Career Day, I met and joked with some firefighters who had brought a lot of fun gear and exciting giveaways. Wouldn’t you know that I was scheduled to present after that team of firefighters for three consecutive sessions that afternoon? After the last such following, one of them told me that they had warmed up the classroom for me (pardon the obvious pun), and I opened my presentation with an anecdote that bridged the firefighters’ presentation to my career talk. Students could have a dialogue with me that didn’t abruptly shift gears from their previous speakers’ session.

Stop talking
Do I love to talk? [Insert a series of rhetorical questions, all of whose answers would also be yes.] And when I get going on topics of particular interest to me, I’m unbearable. Career Day presentations have helped me shorten my pitches to clients by condensing what I have to say into small, manageable sound bites. They’ve helped me develop comprehensive packages by anticipating questions and reflecting on comments and feedback from the audience. Most important, they’ve taught me when enough is enough, when to stop talking.

As I’m going to do now.