Public Speaking, Including Responding to Questions — At my alma mater, there was no public speaking department, but there was a single public speaking professor who taught persuasive and expository speaking. These classes were very popular and among the few on campus that had wait lists. Yet, Dartmouth canceled the classes and let the professor go because the administration deemed, in its infinite wisdom, that public speaking was not “academic.” (Tell that to the ancient Greeks.) The College has since seen the error of its ways and, after a years-long hiatus, hired a new speech professor.
During the very time that the public speaking class in which I was enrolled was on the chopping block, I was learning HTML and graphic design and systematically contacting every campus department and asking whether they needed someone to make their website. Sometimes I responded to job postings. Either way, I ended up in interview after interview. Now, Dartmouth had a well-regarded computer science department; I’m certain I didn’t have the best resume on campus. Yet I got every single gig. I prepped talking points in advance and discovered that a particular favorite among the middle-aged women administrators interviewing me was, “I can add special code to the website so that blind people will be able to access it with speech browsers.” This was true, and was not difficult to do in 1997, but was probably not something my competitors found a way to work into the conversation. It is important to be able to speak fluently and cogently on the spot.
Later, when I ran my own company, I never paid for advertising; I held events, and gave speeches about what it was our company did. I didn’t give sales pitches; I actually just brain-dumped everything I knew about internet marketing, allowing people to take notes and get all the “inside information.” They generally then decided that they’d rather I did all that stuff for them, because it really was kind of a lot. And I’ve kept doing this ever since; I give college admissions talks at libraries and for PTAs. If public speaking sounds like a chore, it’s a lot better than most other methods of selling.
Why do we have young people write paper after paper, totally ignoring the fact that talking is at least as important as writing in adult life? Why is paper writing an integral part of school, while the debate team is an extracurricular activity? Why don’t we make students defend their ideas verbally prior to the graduate level, when we suddenly spring a thesis defense on them? If we’re going to make students write papers about the Great Gatsby, let’s make them defend those papers verbally. Or give them an option to make a speech rather than write a paper, with the understanding that that speech needs to have a well-developed thesis and make its point via the use of three separate examples with specific references to the text (or something equivalent to the paper requirements), the point being that there’s isn’t a lower bar for cogency when you’re talking than when you’re writing. I once taught public speaking in a prison.
Lesson 1: Tell me something you think and three reasons why. I’ve seen plenty of high school students at expensive private schools who can’t tell me something they think and three reasons why.
Of course, here would be a fine place to recommend Toastmasters as a way to improve one’s public speaking, and the book I used in college, An Introduction to Rhetorical Communication (under $1 used at Amazon), as a source on persuasive technique.
Being Funny, Dynamic, and Interesting — At the company where I teach, Ivy League graduates with perfect scores on standardized tests are regularly rejected for being boring. No one wants to listen to boring people. No one wants to read anything written by boring people (please, go ahead, I am setting myself up to be called boring in the comments, thank you). When you stand up in front of a group to talk, you should not sound like Ferris Bueller’s teacher.
I’ve been doing stand-up comedy for many years, and in 2007 went to the Middle East to entertain the troops. But the amount of money I’ve made doing comedy is dwarfed by the amount of money I’ve made doing other things that people would prefer to have done by a comedian: running a spelling bee, hosting a trivia show, tutoring children, teaching adults, giving presentations, writing textbooks, writing blog posts, maintaining the company Twitter account, etc. And, pleasantly, the bar for being funny while doing most of these things is much, much lower than the bar for being funny in a comedy club. You don’t have to be a comedian to be pretty funny for an accountant, or for a teacher, etc.
If there’s a place to teach being funny or interesting in schools, it’s probably in teaching non-academic kinds of writing, such as journalism (as journalism jobs die out, the task of journalism is distributed to more people, somewhat paradoxically making high school journalism classes more, rather than less, relevant). Such a class would teach students to adopt different styles for blogs, magazines, newspapers, etc., as well as to write in an engaging but didactic style (i.e., make the 10th graders explain some difficult academic material in an interesting way to the 9th graders). Versatility in writing style is highly valuable in the adult world; oh, what variety of job interviews have been nailed by throwing in, “And I’d be happy to maintain the company Twitter account” (or blog, or newsletter).
If anyone wants suggestions, every comedy club and improv theater in town offers classes; in New York, The P.I.T. and U.C.B. are fine places to start. Improv classes are taken by a multitude of people who do not aspire to perform improv comedy. I am an introvert, yet I have a big personality that goes on display when needed. You don’t need to change who you are, but it is possible, and advisable, to learn to bring a big personality out of yourself.
Big personalities rise above the clutter of resume accomplishments that have no practical value to employers. And, of course, they’re fun to be around (see also: How Business is Like Dating), which can only help your cause.
Certainly, these are not all of the not-so-secret qualities that drive career success in a post-resume era. Come back next Thursday for “Personality Qualities That Are Way More Important Than Anything on Your Resume,” part II.