I taught high school English in an inner city Los Angeles charter school for two years. To people who have known me for a long time, this makes complete sense. I have always loved school. I have always loved writing and reading and literature. Of course I taught high school English. (I truly loved it, too.)
To people who have only known me during this entrepreneurial phase of my life, though, this news always comes as a bit of a surprise. “How random! What does teaching high school English have anything to do with what you’re doing now?” they ask.
My response (in a dramatic whisper): everything.
I think about those two years at Animo Ralph Bunch Charter High School all the time. Other than the years I’ve spent as a mom, I have never, ever worked harder. I truly believe being a K-12 teacher was the best preparation I ever could have had to become:
A confident speaker
A multitasking entrepreneur
An efficient manager of my time
An effective copywriter and content creator
A resilient business owner
A more empathetic human being
***Shout out to all of the K-12 teachers out there! Your contribution to society is INVALUABLE and UNDERVALUED. (But that’s for another post.)***
I was fortunate to teach in a school that offered so much to our students, but the primary resource we had available was us. It all came down to the teachers.
Before the sun was up, we’d crowd around the single table in the teachers’ lounge with our laptops. It was amazing the amount of content we could produce in an hour--lesson plans for three different classes including warm-ups, quizzes, worksheets, PowerPoint presentations, and hundreds of copies. It was absolute madness--paper flying everywhere, two teachers sharing the last available chair, someone passing around a box of donuts that we ate one-handed while typing with the other--until about five minutes before the first bell rang.
That’s when we all ran into our classrooms to write our learning objectives.
Every day, we were required to write a THREE-PART learning objective on our whiteboards. (For those of us who taught three different classes, writing it would take a full whiteboard and up to 20 minutes.) The learning objective outlined what students would learn that day, how we would assess that they’d mastered it, and why it was relevant to their lives. Not only did it need to be written down, but we needed to communicate it to the students at the beginning and the end of every class.
We wrote our objectives until our Expo markers ran dry. It was tedious and time consuming. It was cumbersome and irritating.
It changed my career.
Admittedly, I spent most of those two years teaching in a state of pure survival mode. But since teaching high school, I have taught at two universities. I teach professionals public speaking, copywriting, and content creation. I work with clients to create speeches, workshops, websites, and podcast episodes. In creating all of this educational, informative, or motivating content, the place most people seem to get stuck is where to start. But for me, getting started is the easiest part. I always start by asking the same question:
What do you want your audience to walk away with?
Loosely translated: What do you want them to know, how will you help them to get there, and why is it relevant to their lives?
For K-12 teachers, this skill is as fundamental as having a “No-Name Papers” policy. I learned on my very first day of teaching that if you walk into a classroom without a point, without a plan, without a place for the students to end up…
...they will eat you.
Why, then, as adults, do we show up to presentations like this? (I know you don’t do this, but other adults do.)
I’m just going to wing it.
I’ll just drown them in a firehose of information, and they can make what they want out of it.
They’re just going to have to listen until I run out of things to say.
What would it look like if everyone who ever needed to prepare a speech, write an article, or deliver a corporate presentation emerged from the jungle of information and had a clear, “Here’s what you need to walk away with and how we’re going to get there,” objective? And, how much easier would it be to write your next piece of content if you started with the end in mind?
As I write this very post, this learning objective is written on a whiteboard that exists in the back corner of my brain:
What: My readers will know how to write content that has a clear objective for their audience.
How: I’ll provide five rules to help them better organize and communicate their content so that it’s clearer, more effective, and more relevant.
Why: Their speeches, podcast episodes, website copy, and presentations will truly resonate with their audience. They’ll get better feedback, and that will likely lead to more opportunities for them.
As I give you the rules I learned as a K-12 teacher that have made me far more effective as an educator, speaker, and writer, I want you to channel your all-time favorite teacher. Very likely, your teacher executed every single one of these in her or his classroom.
Rule 1: Have a clear, relevant takeaway and a plan to get there.
Like 10th graders watching the clock tick at 2:59, we have places to be and things to do. We want to know why we’re here, what we’re going to get, and how it’s going to be helpful to our lives.
In the midst of all of your information, what do we really need to know? What do you want us to do with it? How will it serve us? What actions can we take? Start there, then figure out a clear strategy for how you’re going to deliver.
Rule 2: Communicate the takeaway to your audience at least three times (beginning, middle, and end).
At the end of my first semester teaching a college-level public speaking, I was beyond nervous to read the student evaluations. I was pleasantly surprised to read comments like this:
“So organized! Always showed up to class with a clear plan.”
“The most prepared professor I’ve had. Every class was a great use of my time.”
Gee whiz! I was both flattered and baffled. Suffering from hardcore imposter syndrome, I wondered how I’d managed to pull off a facade of organization and preparation.
Here’s how it did it: I always wrote the day’s agenda on the board, and we talked through it at the open and close of class.
Having a takeaway and a plan isn’t helpful if you’re the only one who knows what it is. No one is going to buy a book without reading the summary first. No one is going to listen to a 30-minute podcast episode if they have no idea what it’s going to be about. And no one wants to sit through a two-hour class with no idea about what is going to be covered.
Put the takeaway right there in the title, give us a preview at the beginning, remind us of the plan in the middle, then sum it up at the end. Your audience will be satisfied when they get exactly what they signed up for.
Rule 3: Make it time-bound.
In high school, all of our classes were 50 minutes long. Some of them felt like they were 15 minutes long, while others seemed to drag on for hours. Great teachers have mastered how to use time effectively so that they fill every minute they have with relevant, engaging, and clear content.
There is a reason why TED Talks are only 3-18 minutes. Time is our most exhaustive resource, and we all want to get the most out of where we spend it. Whether you have 15 minutes or 3 hours, make sure that your content fits within the container of time you’ve been given and that you honor the time your audience is handing to you by delivering the good stuff.
Rule 4: Win attention and maintain it.
No one better than a teenager to remind a first year teacher that her very thoughtful lesson plan on To Kill a Mockingbird is boring and pointless. Adults probably won’t fall asleep on their desks or throw pieces of paper at each other if they aren’t engaged in what you’re saying, but they will check their emails on their phones. They will move on to someone else who captures their attention.
To win attention from the beginning, tell stories, use humor, ask questions, or change the routine. Teachers know better than anyone that attention isn’t a given; it’s a gift.
Rule 5: Always have a why.
Here’s a riddle: what do reading Shakespeare, studying inertia, and memorizing the state capitals have in common?
All of them will make students say, “Why are we doing this?”
Are you still thinking about your favorite teacher? My guess is that she always had an answer to this question. (Or maybe in her class, you didn’t even have to ask.) She inspired your curiosity. She helped you see yourself and your role within the content she taught. She made it feel important, beautiful, helpful, or crucial.
Great teachers will give you a reason to listen. Do that for your audience, and it can change your career.