Just about the last place you might turn for inspiration on public speaking might be summer camp. In fact, summer camp is full of experienced speakers who engage with difficult audiences all day long. The job of a camp counselor is to guide kids through the activities at camp; to ensure that their instructions are heard, understood, and followed; and to make it possible for kids to have a great time. Problem is, these kids are often distracted, homesick, bored, and sometimes even belligerent. What camp counselors do to get through to these kids are techniques you can employ for your own public speaking and training gigs.
Last week, I volunteered to be a guide at my son’s Boy Scout camp. Here’s what the camp counselors taught me about presenting.
Set clear expectations
It’s the camp counselor’s job to set clear expectations at the beginning of every activity. Not surprisingly, this should also be the job of a presenter and trainer. In the presentation world, we call this the BLUF statement—Bottom Line Up Front. You let the audience know why you’re presenting, what you intend to teach them, and what you want them to do with their newfound skills or knowledge.
Here’s how it worked at camp. Teaching archery to a group of 9- and 10-year-olds is not to be taken lightly. At best, the kid hits the target with his arrow. At worst, the kid injures himself or others. So the archery range counselor broke down the process of shooting an arrow into several steps and made it extremely clear throughout his presentation the consequences of not following his instructions (being ejected from the range, getting hurt, harming others, etc.) He made sure that every boy understood each step before he continued on to the next one. The result of his clear communication was not only that the boys shot well, but that they corrected each other when they noticed that someone was not following the instructions.
Listen and be accommodating
If camp counselors see kids who aren’t into an activity, they try to get to the root of the problem. If they can’t get the kid to participate, they provide alternative activities. Here’s an example:
Counselor: Johnny, you’re not trying the climbing wall like your friends. Why not?
Johnny: It’s too high and I’m afraid I’m gonna fall.
Counselor: Yeah, it can be scary, but do you want to give it a shot? You’ll have safety equipment and somebody to belay you so even if you do slip you won’t fall.
Johnny: No, I don’t want to.
Counselor: OK, no problem. Come over here; a couple of the kids are playing Toilet Tag!
How many “my way or the highway” presenters have you seen? They’re not much fun, are they? By listening to what you’re audience tells you and offering alternatives when needed, you will give your audience a much better experience.
Don’t be afraid to look like a goof
Camp skits and songs have a long and storied history. From the classic “Invisible Bench” skit to the hip-hop “Humpty Dump” rap, performances and songs bring campers together in the spirit of fun. And being a camp performer is an all-or-nothing situation. You have to throw yourself whole-heartedly into your performance or the kids won’t be enthusiastic.
When speaking in public, think about including broad gestures, voice characterizations, and humor into your presentations. People respect you if you have the confidence to make fun of yourself. On the other hand, if you take yourself too seriously you might come off as being pedantic or pretentious. Which leads to the last piece of advice…
I can’t tell you how many presenters I’ve seen who don’t smile during their speeches. Can you imagine how this would go over at camp? Camp counselors need to project an attitude of approachable authority. They must be likeable teachers who invite questions and want their kids to succeed.
Smiling is contagious. If the presenter’s having a good time with the material, is enthusiastic and happy to be there, shouldn’t the audience be, too?
What other things do camp counselors do that you’ve used in your own speaking gigs? Were they well received?