One of the recent events I spoke at ended with a standing ovation, that’s how good the five-minute speech was on a hot summer day in August. No, it wasn’t the speech I gave. It was the closing address presented by a former student at Colonial Intermediate Unit 20 in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. The gathering was a “get jazzed to go back to school” mandatory event for 1,500 special education teachers and support staff from the district, and it reminded me of three key lessons for successful events.
The closing speaker was a young woman named Lindsey. In the most concise and heartfelt way, she shared that as a young child, she did not like school. Although she didn’t give specifics, her story indicated that she had a challenging childhood that included some type of neglect and a learning hurdle on top of that. However, along the way, she met a special teacher at this particular district who encouraged her, believed in in her, and gave her hope that her life could turn around. As her story unfolded, she shared a few of her triumphs—gradually getting better grades and finding other adults who cared about her success.
At the end of the speech, she informed the entire auditorium of teachers and aides that she had been hired to work at the district and was about to start her new job —with them! Thunderous applause rang through the room and I joined the ovation, wiping away tears I was shedding for a girl I’d never even met. She followed that announcement with this closing line: “So as you start this school year, please remember, NEVER give up on your students. NEVER give up.”
Afterward, I approached her and said, “What did they need me for? They had you to get them fired up! I think you are going to a be a professional speaker one day.” She smiled shyly and thanked me with a feeling of gratitude that came all the way from her toes. We should all be so lucky to hear from Lindsey again.
Lesson 1: Bring in someone with a story that speaks directly to the people sitting in the chairs. Sure, I fired this crowd up. But Lindsay’s message inspired them in ways I could never have hoped to achieve. It was profound, and in 23 years of speaking, I’ve never seen it done quite so well. Great job.
Prior to the event’s closing, the group gave out special recognition awards. These were peer-nominated and presented not to those at the top of the leadership ladder, but to employees at all levels. Although the awards were a surprise to the recipients, their families had been notified in advance. So, as the slow reveal was being done at the front of the room, the family members were quietly escorted in a back door so they could join their loved one down front after the award was announced. I saw tears of gratitude and moments of sure pride. The touching backstories on why each was getting an award is a blog post on to itself. Amazing!
Lesson 2: When you are presenting awards, keep it flowing quickly and allow each recipient just 60 seconds to voice how they feel. This organization had a process efficient enough to give praise to all levels of service, not just the top tier, and to still make each recipient feel special. They added a pound of spirit that I’ve never seen before. Great job.
Several hours before all of this amazing stuff happened, the day kicked off with my opening keynote. I didn’t find out until 10 minutes before go-time how I had ended up with an invitation to speak there in the first place. It turns out that two years ago, a man named Christopher Wolfel was an attendee in one of my sessions. Before I went onstage, he shared with me that after hearing me speak, he turned to his coworker and said, “If I ever hold a position of authority that allows me to decide who kicks off our orientation day, Laurie is the one I’m going to call.”
He smiled and said to me, “Well, this year I stepped into the position of executive director, and here you are.”
Then, when my introducer came to say hello, I recognized him as a volunteer whom I had pulled from the audience at that same event two years ago. His energy and unbridled spirit made him quite a memorable guy, and I teased him about that for a bit. Then in a serious tone, he surprised me by saying that something I said that day several years ago had changed him. Since then, he has lost 60 pounds and finished getting his doctorate degree. Wow! Because of something I said? That moved me very much, and this was just the START of my day. If I had known then that it was going to end with the speech by Lindsey, I would have been a mess!
Lesson 3: Make sure you ask attendees if they’ve heard speakers who have moved them to take action. Then hire those speakers! Choosing your lineup shouldn’t be about the speaker’s flashy marketing material, their demo video, or the new book they just wrote. It’s about connecting with those who fill the chairs and share ideas that make your audience want to take an action for the better.
To everyone involved in that special day, I say thank you. Not only was the hospitality amazing, but so were the lessons I took home and now have the chance to share with others.
To all the teachers, aides, leaders, and parents reading this, I wish you a very successful school year. Let us all make sure that we NEVER give up on anyone!