Category Archives for Insights That May Surprise You

Three memorable takeaways from NSPRA 2015

They’re do-able and won’t break your budget.

Ron KoehlerLet’s go!

When SCN asked me for a few beneficial takeaways from NSPRA 2015 in Nashville, I jumped at the chance. As a former past president of both NSPRA and MSPRA, my heart is with you and every in-the-trenches school communicator. I appreciate the positive contribution you make in your school district.

The first two are from the presentation made by Brian Woodland of the Peel District Board of Education in Mississauga, Ontario.

#1 — your logo conveys more than your district brand

It conveys emotion, or lack thereof.

The Peel Board of Education serves more than 100,000 students in a wide swath of bedroom communities outside of Toronto.  They compete with publicly funded private schools and charter schools.  And their target is students and the young adults who are their parents.

What does their logo convey? In a word – FUN!

Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 6.45.33 PMThey want families to feel as this is a place where learning is enjoyable.  So they change their logo with the seasons, even put a pirate hat on their logo for Talk Like a Pirate Day.

I realize that there’s not much I can do with this immediately except to remember that we don’t need to be so doggone stuffy about everything.

Public schools are already perceived as a huge bureaucracy and we shouldn’t reinforce that with an image that says “we’re ancient, we’ve been here since the beginning of time and we’ll be here long after you’re gone. If you come here you’ll do it our way or not at all.”

#2 Another takeaway from Brian

I’m sure you’ve heard this advice before, but it’s still essential.

Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 6.43.51 PMPR professionals need to be intentional about reinforcing their professionalism and experience in conversations and planning with others in their organization.

All opinions are not equal.  Nobody in the curriculum department would accept our opinions on how to teach math and we shouldn’t blindly accept their opinion on communications and marketing.

Brian also reminded us the public relations professional is the keeper of the vision with the Superintendent and should use district communication strategies to reinforce district goals – sometimes as a reminder to other professionals within their own district.

#3 From keynote speaker and author of “Influencer”

Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 6.37.53 PMFinally, the keynote speaker Joseph Grenny, author of “Influencer,” reminded us that communications professionals are expected to do more than sway public opinion – we change behavior.

Do you like bacon and eggs for breakfast?  So do millions of Americans.  But these weren’t even breakfast favorites until Edward Bernays took on the pork producers association as a major client.

Before that, pork products were not a staple at the breakfast table. That’s behavioral change, and it’s an outcome of excellent public relations.

Bernays, known as the father of public relations, died 20 years ago in Cambridge, Mass. He began his career as a press agent but distinguished himself from others in the profession by using sociology and the skills of his uncle, psychologist Sigmond Freud, to create behavioral change on behalf of his clients.

So, there are my takeaways.

Hope you found them helpful!

An unusual word of caution preceded one of my first experiences with school surveys

“Don’t mention the Coast Guard.”

Screen Shot 2015-06-24 at 8.28.57 PMThat’s the parent-teacher conference tip a high school sophomore whispered to me years ago, as she and her mother departed from their conference with a history teacher, and I rushed in to take their place at the table.

I had waited in line for an hour for my turn to speak with this teacher, in a line which snaked around the room with other impatient parents, most of them accompanied by their yawning students.

I’d met with each of my daughter’s five other teachers in the amount of time I’d been awaiting an audience with her history teacher. I was eager to finish. I’d left my daughter at home to care for her younger siblings, and had promised her duty-free time to review for a math test the following day.

Nobody wants a history teacher who isn’t a good storyteller, but this particular teacher was affable to the extreme. I was ready to add him to my Christmas card list the first time I met him.

He was especially chatty about his favorite subject, the U.S. Coast Guard. My daughter had briefed me that some classmates would often try to lure him into Coast Guard tangents, their egos elated if he would take the bait.

As I left the high school that night, I stopped at a table with a tray of cookies, where parents were asked to fill out a paper-and-pencil survey about their experience at parent-teacher conferences.

Huddling around the table was a dad – a neighbor – who didn’t answer any of the ranking questions asked. Instead, he scrawled, “Mostly fine. Curses to the Coast Guard!”

I’ve often imagined the bewildered school secretary, tasked with processing data from those forms, wondering how to interpret and tabulate that perplexing response.

As for the hurried me, I grabbed a cookie and survey and headed for my car. The cookie was consumed on the drive home. I intended to complete my survey from home and return it to school – really, I did.

But in reality, I discovered the survey under a floor mat when I cleaned out my car the following spring.

The advantage of school surveys

Screen Shot 2015-06-24 at 8.32.52 PMFeedback from customers and stakeholders is valuable information because it reveals perceptions, defines your current reality, and identifies potential issues.

School leaders can use the data collected to target communications and improve procedures.

Surveys can be used to take a pulse on building-specific issues, like “How did parent-teacher conferences go?” They’re also handy for capturing impressions of advisory committees, employee groups, and booster organizations.

Surveys are especially valuable for gathering intelligence on district-wide concerns, such as attitudes about impending capital improvement projects or identifying the least controversial areas for budget cuts.

If results of a survey will be used for strategic planning that requires community investment, it’s best to hire an independent researcher to conduct a scientific study. This type of research is crafted to balance demographics of respondents and prevent bias.

But school leaders can effectively survey targeted audiences themselves by following a few pointers, and using some great free or low-cost online tools that were not yet available when my daughter was in high school.

First, some tips for writing surveys:

  • Define and rank objectives. What must you know? What would be useful to know? What would be nice to know?
  • Keep it concise. The shorter the survey, the higher the response rate.
  • Use clear language that’s positive in tone.
  • Don’t force people into “yes” or “no” answers. Add “not applicable,” “undecided” and “I don’t know.”
  • Vary question types. Multiple-choice questions should have an “other” option because all options could never be listed. Use ordinal questions that require a ranking of options to reveal priorities. Ratio questions get at “how often?” or “how much?” Questions requiring respondents to scale levels of agreement or satisfaction work only if the intervals are approximately equal. Ask open-ended questions if you’re gathering opinions or stories.
  • Test-drive your survey with six or more people and study their responses. Are you asking any questions that are too difficult, confusing, or not getting at what you need to know? Nix any questions if the answer is obvious.
  • Include a comments section.
  • Make it easy for people to respond.
  • Publicize the survey with a due date. The larger the scope of the survey, the longer you’ll have to keep the survey open. One week is enough for a limited survey, but allow one month for a statewide survey.
  • Offering an incentive (like a cookie) improves response rate. However, offering something too valuable could bias the survey if people take the survey only to obtain the incentive.

Cool tools for writing surveys, collecting and analyzing responses

SurveyMonkey  Here’s an online tool with which almost everybody is familiar. You can do surveys with up to 10 questions and 100 responses for free.

Google Forms — Fully functional and you can do as many surveys and responses as necessary absolutely free.

QuestionProEasy to use and free, unless you need advanced features.

SurveyGizmo — An advanced tool that’s still pretty easy to use.

Zoomerang — Now part of SurveyMonkey.

LimeSurvey — Open source program that requires technical skills to implement.

FluidSurveys — Intuitive online survey tool with excellent analytics.

SoGoSurvey — It’s not free, but it is feature rich. It will chart and graph results.

Constant Contact — An excellent, low-cost tool.

Getting your survey out

A cookie-laden table at parent-teacher conferences is a good way to distribute a survey about parent-teacher conferences, but offering multiple ways to respond is better.

Post surveys on your school’s website and include the link to it in newsletters and social media posts.

Improve response rates by optimizing the survey to display correctly on mobile devices. You may be surprised how much feedback you’ll get from parents on smartphones while they‘re stopped at traffic lights on their drive home from your event.


19 tech tools recommended by in-the-trenches communicators

Screen Shot 2015-06-17 at 7.30.05 PMIdentifying best practices and new trends are reasons enough to network with others in your field.

Networking generates ideas for  fresh new ways of doing things, which can result in a competitive edge, as well as a more vibrant and valuable social circle.

Because of the nice response to the recent summer reading suggestions sent in by a dozen school communicators, I’ve circled back again and asked a few more experts to share their favorite tech tool.

It’s my hope their A-List offerings will enhance your productivity and create more free time for you.

Sara DeVries

Sara DeVries

Sara DeVries: Basecamp makes it easy for people in different roles with different responsibilities to communicate and work together, which is why Sara, public relations director at Herrick District Library in Holland, Mich. uses it to organize projects that include several people and require multiple tasks. She said she considers Basecamp indispensable because it’s a place to share files, have discussions, collaborate on documents, assign tasks, and check due dates. A 60-day free trial period is available. After that, Basecamp will cost you at least $20 a month. More information is available at basecamp.com.

Basecamp stores everything securely and can be accessed at anytime from anywhere. helps me manage all the timelines and tasks for different PR projects we are working on, including assigning tasks to colleagues and approving their drafts.

Karen McPhee:  The, education policy adviser to Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and former superintendent of the Ottawa Area Intermediate School District, says a powerful search engine is a communications leader’s best ally. “This might seem like a ‘duh’,” Karen said, “but understanding where and how to find reliable information quickly is essential.” Google is Karen’s favorite search engine because she knows how it responds and how deeply she’s need to dig into the search results to discover what she needs.

Karen McPhee

Karen McPhee

McPhee  also recommends that school communicators try a “read it to me” news service like Umano. This app gives you an audio versions of the day’s top print news stories and articles from leading print sources. plus articles that have been recommended by listeners. It also offers a selection of audiobooks. Karen says having news read to her in short spurts while she’s transitioning from one activity to another helps her keep up with what’s happening in the world.

“A world view is the hallmark of a communications leader in any industry,” Karen said.

Tom Gould

Tom Gould

Tom Gould: As director of Howell Public Schools in Michigan, Tom has occasion to write in different styles. But when he’s writing a press release, his aim to write in perfect Associated Press style so print media outlets don’t have to clean-up his copy. Tom says he runs AP StyleGuard, a plug-in for Microsoft Word, in the background as he writes. If breaks an AP style rule (like spelling out February instead of using out the Feb. abbreviation), the app flags it and asks whether he’d like to change that to AP style. AP StyleGuard costs $39 per year.

Although it’s more of service than an app, Tom also recommends using Help a Reporter Out, also known as HARO. Reporters enter queries looking for sources with expertise in certain areas. He answers queries in which he can recommend an excellent source. This is how a Howell Public Schools gym teacher was quoted in a recent Parents Magazine article.

Dave Tchozewski

Dave Tchozewski

Dave Tchozewski: The primary software on Jenison (Mich.) Public Schools’ technology director’s  “Must Have” list are  Google Apps for Education. This absolutely free suite of software (email, calendar, docs, sheets, slides, and more) are how Dave said he gets work done.  These productivity tools work on any computer, any tablet and any smartphone. The most important part of the package may be Google Drive, a file storage and synchronization service created and managed by Google. It allows users to store documents in the cloud, share files, and edit documents with collaborators. Users do have to access Google Apps for Education through the domain of a registered educational institution.

Ron Koehler

Ron Koehler

Ron Koehler: The assistant superintendent of the Kent Intermediate School District (Mich.) agrees with Dave Tchozewski about Google Apps. ”They’ve become so commonplace that a huge gap would exist if they were no longer available,” Ron said. However, in the interest of full disclosure, Ron believes it’s important that users, and would-be users, recognize and remember that Google collects and markets some personal information in exchange for the free use of their apps.

Stephanie Tuttle

Stephanie Tuttle

 Stephanie Tuttle: The app this Grand Rapids (Mich.) attorney wouldn’t want to live without is just for fun: Trivia Crack. It’s a platform for playing trivia games online with players worldwide. Stephanie’s go-to app for professional purposes is FastCase, an online law library database that allows her to conduct legal research in every jurisdiction in the United States, for both state law and federal questions. There are 12 different ways to search and results are populated in a Google-esque fashion with the the most relevant sources placed at the top of the results list. “I have often used this in situations where I’m negotiating a settlement out of the office, or having discussions with other attorneys outside of a courtroom setting,” Stephanie said. FastCase is affordable when compared to other legal research services. A free trial subscription is offered. It’s possible to subscribe month-to-month. An annual subscription to the premium service costs just under $1,000 per year.

School Communicator Gerri Allen

Gerri Allen

Gerri Allen:

This Detroit-area public relations consultant uses radio apps and news tracking services in an attempt to stay abreast of trending stories. “It’s always important to scan the environment for the next big thing that could impact the schools,” Gerri said. Fortunately, there are a lot of good apps in this category. National Public Radio has a good app for mobile devices. Stitcher provides a user-friendly interface for keeping up with favorite radio programs.

Gerri also recommends Dropbox  as a safe, low-cost way of sharing, syncing and storing files in the cloud. A free trial is available.

Kate Snyder

Kate Snyder

Kate Snyder: “Staying up-to-date on current affairs is the most critical part of my job,” says Kate, principal strategist at Piper & Gold Public Relations in Lansing, Mich. “My must-have apps are those that help me stay up-to-speed on local news,” Kate said. The ones she uses most are the  Michigan Radio app, which allows her to live-stream a Michigan NPR-affiliate on her mobile devices, and apps from MLivewhich allow her to tap into news by metropolitan areas.

Linda Wacyk

Linda Wacyk

Linda Wacyk: Communications director for the Michigan Association of School Administrators first used TweetDeck to monitor Twitter traffic in multiple hashtags at a professional conference. It made following conversations in real-time so much easier! Unfortunately, if you’re  not working on a desktop or laptop computer, you’re better off using HootSuite, a Twitter management tool which has mobile applications. The free version of HootSuite allows the user to manage up to five different social profiles.

Rob Pocock

Rob Pocock

Rob Pocock: Email is the most useful technology tool, the world around, says SCN this SCN contributor and former vice president of communications for Spectrum Health (Mich.). Rob says his favorite apps are the ones he uses socially to keep in touch with family and friends: Facebook, Instagram and FaceTime. His affection for visual media didn’t surprise me, since I know that Rob and his wife Cindy are new grandparents.

Kym Reinstadler

Kym Reinstadler

Kym Reinstadler: The cybersphere is glowing with great apps, but I’d be hard-pressed to name one more useful to me than Evernote. Years ago, my life was littered with scraps of paper on which I’d scrawl notes to myself of things I wanted to remember. For quick reference, I’d impale these notes on one of two spindles that sat on my desk. One spindle was for my personal life and the other was for my professional life. One day, two male colleagues seized my spindles and had a sword fight in the newsroom! That’s when it dawned on me that I was being dumb having my three kids’ Social Security numbers — and other important information that I’d hate to flutter away — on spindle that could be commandeered as a play toy.

Evernote is in infinitely better solution. The free version has all the features I need but there’s also a premium version.

I can take a digital note. I can group the notes into topical notebooks. I can instantly access those notes from my Evernote account from any device anywhere that I happen to be.

Evernote makes me look sharp, without a pointy spindle!

School communicators can battle the “summer slide” too!

It happens at the end of every school year.

Schoolchildren at home timeTeachers dutifully send students home for summer break.

Then school communicators begin spreading the word about the dreaded “summer slide” in reading skills and encourage parents and children to schedule reading time together and visit their local library early and often.

Now with this uptick in leisure hours, it’s time to ask yourself how you plan to indulge your own love of learning and language?

In other words, are YOU reading?

I reached out to a host of SCN friends to invite them to share a couple of their favorite books — one fiction and one nonfiction.

Several sent regrets. They love to read, they said, but the whirlwind days of school communicators leaves them, regretfully, with little time for reading that’s not directly job related.

I get that.

Demands on a school communicator’s time can be crushing, especially right now.

But look over these contributions and use them to guard against totally crowding reading out of your schedule.

It’s a great way to expose yourself to ideas with the power to improve lives — especially your own.

And don’t we all love a good story?

So, enjoy!


Mike Paskewicz and Wildcat

Mike Paskewicz (right), retiring superintendent of Northview Public Schools (MI)

Fiction: “Walter the Farting Dog” by William Kotzwinkle and Glenn Murray. It’s important not to take ourselves too seriously. And, it’s comforting to know that — even if you stink up the joint once in awhile — you can still be a hero.

Nonfiction: “America’s Schools at a Turning Point, And how we THE PEOPLE can help shape their future” by Corky O’Callaghan. This book challenges superintendents to become more courageous and tell the truth about how our country is 1) Confusing innovation with entrepreneurship, 2) How current legislative actions are eroding the relevance of public education, and 3) Blaming educators for the issues instead of turning to them for the solutions.

You’ll remember Mike from this SCN story.


Kristin Magette

Kristin Magette, communications director, Eudora Schools (KS)

Fiction: “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” by Lisa See. A sweeping tale of two lifelong friends in 19th Century China. This book completely captivated me from beginning to end. Complex but relatable characters are absolutely endearing, and the plot never disappoints. As a bonus, See is very engaged in Twitter and is quick to tweet with readers!

Nonfiction: “Why Should the Boss Listen to You” by Jim Lukascewski. You’ve probably heard of this one before, but I can’t recommend it highly enough. Outlining seven disciplines of a strategic advisor, he frames his insights into tips and tactics that can be applied immediately. This one both reinforced and strengthened my relationship with and value to two different superintendents.

You’ll remember Kristin from this SCN story.

And this one.

Emma Jackson, Washetaw ISD (MI)

Emma Jackson
Washtenaw ISD (MI)


Fiction:  “The Invention of Wings” by Sue Monk Kidd. I love history and this book intertwines the topics of abolition, the women’s movement, and relationships between slaves and slave-owners.

Non-fiction: “Fierce Conversations” by Susan Scott. An oldie but goodie and a great reminder that when we improve our communication methods we build bridges of understanding and enrich our conversations.




Karen Heath

Karen Heath
Communications Supervisor
Berrien Springs ISD (MI)

Fiction: “Girl on the Train” by Paula Hawkins. Suspenseful and not school related at all!

Non-Fiction: “The Energy Bus” by Jon Gordon. This book is all about developing a culture of positive engagement between yourself and your colleagues. The Energy Bus gives you a language to have those difficult conversations including how to get rid of “energy vampires” –those co-workers who are not pulling their weight or have their own personal agenda that is sabotaging the mission of the organization.




Tom Langdon, Superintendent of Sturgis Public Schools (MI)

Tom Langdon, Superintendent of Sturgis Public Schools (MI)

Fiction: “The Eyes of the Dragon” by Stephen King. This is not the normal Stephen King fare as far as being violent, disturbing, etc. The story is totally captivating and you will learn nothing from it — a great combination for beach reading!

Non-fiction: “A Walk in the Woods” by Bill Bryson. This is another book about a failed attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail, start to finish, is definitely not a drive-by. It is also being produced on the big screen (starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte) and will be released this fall. You need to read this book before watching the movie.



Susan K. Maciak

Susan K. Maciak

Fiction: Wonder” by R.J. Palacio is an eye-opening, must-read for all educators and other people who work with children. It’s a fictional tale told from the perspective of a 10-year-old boy born with multiple birth defects that left his face (even after many surgeries) extremely odd-looking and ugly to others. His loving family decides to send him to school for the first time in fifth grade, where he meets stares, glares and other negative reactions from most of his classmates, but he survives it all to excel and earn the admiration of educators and peers.

Nonfiction: “Add to Your Edge: 12 Ways to Excel in the 21st Century” by Susan K. Maciak touches on several important ways that business practices, education and career paths have been turned upside down in recent years. Readers get an edge on how to cope with change at work and in the job market in today’s challenging times. Critical information for anyone who wants to be on the cutting-edge of their career.

Sue, who has written several job coaching books, shared tips for school communicators in this article.


Ron Koehler

Ron Koehler, Assistant Superintendent, Kent Intermediate School District (MI)

Fiction: “The Hunger Games Trilogy.”  I’ve recently completed this trilogy (The Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Mockingjay) hoping to better understand the attitudes of today’s youth and the total sense of disengagement many have in our political system.

New Nonfiction: “Student Voice: The Instrument of Change” by Russell J. Quaglia and Michael J. Corso. This book describes the power of the student voice and engagement in the education process. Our own student research at Kent ISD tells me that student engagement is the single most powerful tool left unused in our toolbox. It can drive student achievement and massive change in the system if we were to correctly harness it. If we allow students to remain actively disengaged, as many are, according to the annual Gallup Student Poll, we’ll continue to suffer poor test scores, behavioral issues and outside intervention seeking to improve school and student performance. If we inspire students, their voice will drive the change we need within our schools and silence those outside our system through their enthusiasm for learning.

Old Nonfiction: “Words that Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear” by Dr. Frank Luntz. Researcher, political strategist and advisor Luntz for years has been advising politicians and consultants, primarily Republicans, on the words they use to describe issues and policies they’d like to change. Research shows most people in this country support a woman’s right to choose, but the Pro-Life movement continues to limit choice in state after state. The nation’s founders fought for inheritance taxes to thwart the aristocracy that so dominated the politics of European nations. Yet, this populist tool intended to create a meritocracy, a society in which those who earn their way to the top, was dubbed the “death tax” by Luntz and is being struck down in state after state. We in the public schools use language that few people understand and most believe is intended to establish an air of authority to deflect or deny their questions and concerns for their children’s education. We’d all do well to better understand what people actually hear, and how they react to it, when we craft our messages.

You’ll remember Ron Koehler from this SCN story.


Kate Snyder

Kate Snyder, Principal Strategist, Piper & Gold Public Relations

Fiction: “The Thief,” the first book in The Queen’s Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner.  I have a signed card from the author sitting on my nightstand with a (well-worn) stack of the books. The Thief is one of those books that sneaks up on you — you have no idea why everyone raves about it until you finish it. Smart, layered, likable characters with lots of political intrigue and a bit of fantasy mixed in. Books two and three in the series are even better, and the audiobook narrated by Jeff Woodman is to-die-for.

Nonfiction: “Content Rules: How to Create Killer Blogs, Podcasts, Videos, Ebooks, Webinars (and More) That Engage Customers and Ignite Your Business”  by Ann Handley & C.C. Chapman. It’s super relevant, super practical and easy to read — great for communicators looking to work smarter not harder. I actually use it in my Writing for PR Class at Michigan State University.

If Kate looks familiar, you probably read this SCN story.


Zac Rantz, chief information officer at Nixa Public Schools in Missouri, which was selected by the National School Public Relations Association as the best school communications program in North America!

Zac Rantz, Chief Communication Officer, Nixa Public Schools (MO)

Fiction: ”Chronicles of Narnia” by C.S. Lewis. This has always been a favorite book of mine, but each time I read it I see something new and different that I didn’t catch before because of where I am in life and what experiences I have had.

Nonfiction: “Think Like A Freak: The Authors of Freakonomics Offer to Retrain Your Brain” by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. This is a book  that really caused me to look outside of how I think or what I think to be true on issues. It really encouraged me to look for the root cause of the issue, and not just the symptoms of the problem.

Remember Zac? Here’s when SCN first met him.



Kym Reinstadler, SCN feature writer

Kym Reinstadler, SCN feature writer

Fiction: “The Art of Fielding” by Chad Harbach. Full disclosure: I love the game of baseball and believe it can be a metaphor for the human condition. This is literary baseball fiction at its best, which means that it is about more than the game on the field. A savant of the shortstop position, on the brink of setting a record for errorless games, has a throw to first base go awry, injuring a teammate in the dugout. He completely loses his edge, causing others connected to his college team to question and refocus their own talents and ambitions.

Nonfiction: “The Death and Live of the Great American School System” by Diane Ravitch. Sometimes a book resonates because it puts together something you’ve been puzzling over. This book did that for me in 2010. By that point I had been in the trenches for 20 years covering various attempts to “reform” public education for a daily newspaper. Accountability for progress and school choice seemed like decent avenues for improving schools initially, but by 2010 serious shortcomings were heartbreakingly obvious. Ravitch, who helped develop No Child Left Behind, deconstructs why these reform efforts haven’t worked. She contends that they are, in fact, undermining public education. And she offers some alternative ideas for preserving and improving schools.

Thank you, friends! Happy summer reading!

Cornerstones of a rock-solid graduation speech

Some treat.

For reporters on the education beat, the reward for sitting through a year’s worth board of education meetings that contain a lot of back-patting — but not much news — is covering graduation.

Screen Shot 2015-06-03 at 8.40.55 PMDuring the decades I was writing for a newspaper, I routinely covered five or six high school and college graduations each spring. One year, I heard Dr. Seuss’s “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” read from the podium five times — including twice during the same ceremony.

I hereby declare myself an ex officio expert on commencement addresses.

Graduation speeches are secular sermons. The chosen speaker gets a golden ticket to impart timeless guidance and inspiration to voracious minds and open hearts on the precipice of the “real world.”

Hard to imagine a greater honor.

Yet — if I were appointed to coach a speaker on how to write and deliver an effective commencement address — I might struggle to disaggregate the things that add up to a home run of a speech.

That’s why I reached out to Rob.

Rob to the rescue

Rob Pocock

Rob Pocock

Rob Pocock is an SCN contributor who also teaches public speaking at Hope College in Holland, Mich. Graduation speeches are part of his repertoire.

He himself was selected to give the commencement address to Hope’s Class of 2010.

Rob says he prepares according to findings of a study conducted by researcher Marcus Buckingham when he worked for the Gallup Organization.

Buckingham — also an author, motivational speaker and business consultant — found that audiences rate speakers this way (in priority order):

  1. Length of time
  2. Personal appearance
  3. Content

(This will be disconcerting to speakers spend hours polishing their pearls of advice to a high gloss. Fact is, how long they speak, and what they look like when they talk, will be more important to the majority of the audience than what they say.)

The “sock you between the eyes” message is:

Be brief. Pocock said he kept his graduation remarks to 17 minutes. (He said he was trying not to exceed 15 minutes. Alas, there was so much he wanted to say and that his audience needed to hear!)

“Think about it this way,” Rob said. “When you’ve heard a GREAT presentation, did you wish that speaker had gone on for 10 more minutes? Of course not. You might hope to hear them again, but audiences never wish the speaker had spoken longer. So, be brief.”

Leave the lectern. Personal appearance ranked high in Buckingham’s survey. Convention dictates that most commencement speakers wear cap and gown, but they still have some control over how they look.

“Leave the podium. Add descriptive gestures. Incorporate sustained eye contact. Have a purposeful walk,” Rob said. “All these behaviors effect how the speaker looks.”

Be audience centered. Buckingham called this “content.” It means knowing your audience — the graduates — and focusing your remarks to them.

Screen Shot 2015-06-03 at 8.48.32 PMWhile audiences primarily judge a speaker by how they look, tone and words are also important.

Speakers need to mix it up — vary the rate of delivery, punch key words and incorporate purposeful pauses.  Silence can be the best way to make a point.

Each speech should have a clear objective that completes the sentence “By the end of my presentation, the audience will…” The objective may even be stated in the speech.

A speech is properly focused if the speaker can clearly state what it’s about in 12 words or fewer.

Organize material into concise key points that support the message. State the points in parallel structure.

Remember the power of stories engage audiences. Storytelling is an art unto itself and speakers who are good story tellers have an upper hand.

Always be a good steward of your audience’s time. It is a privilege to stand before an audience. Speakers who don’t adequately prepare or who don’t honor the time constraints are stealing the audience’s time.

“In my book,” Rob said, “stealing is a sin. Be a good steward of your audience’s time.”

Want more inspiration?

Probably because I am a writer, my favorite commencement addresses are usually by authors or English teachers.

Or, maybe writers have just got this speechwriting craft down pat.

I love an collection of graduation speeches given by author Kurt Vonnegut that’s titled “If This Isn’t Nice, What Is? Advice to the Young.”

Another favorite, “A Short Guide to a Happy Life” by author and journalist Anna Quindlen, wasn’t even delivered as planned in 2000. A group of conservative students protested her selection as speaker because of her liberal views, so Villanova University canceled commencement. But the copy of the speech, once shared, went viral.

The gold standard of all commencement addresses is probably author David Foster Wallace’s “This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, About Living a Compassionate Life,” given to the Kenyon College Class of 2005.

Wallace is a tragic literary figure, but there’s no doubt that he nailed that speech.

Quotes from many stellar commencement addresses are archived at brainpickings.org. Audio and video files are posted for many of the speeches.

Share brain pickings, and this column, to inspire and instruct graduation speakers so they’ll shine bright during their moment in the sun.

“Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” is fantastic, but they can’t all read Dr. Seuss.

29 steps to a better school

Screen Shot 2015-05-27 at 9.08.58 PMSolid ground.

Teaching and learning is the terra firma of what happens in schools.

But the topsoil – the nutrient-dense surface layer – is found in the growth-stimulating relationships that develop between educators and students.

That’s why I wanted to devote a follow-up blog post to Kelly Middleton and Elizabeth Petitt’s second book, “Simply the Best: 29 Things Students Say the Best Teachers Do Around Relationships.”

Cover of “Simply the Best"(Middleton jokes that because he’s a guy — and maybe a little ADHD — he needs check-off lists to focus on what’s important.)

This book teases out specific things that educators can do to nurture strong relationships that inspire emotional, social, moral, spiritual and even physical growth.

What surprises me most is that these tips are all common sense. It’s the same behaviors we’d use to make a friend, or demonstrate good manners.

What the best teachers do (according to students): 

  1. Know us personally.
  2. Let us know who they are as individuals or people.
  3. Smile at us.
  4. Remember our names and use them.
  5. Speak to us. They say “hello” and “goodbye.”
  6. Argue, banter, tease and joke with us in a fun way in informal situations.
  7. Visit us at our homes before school starts.
  8. Check on us when we are sick or even when we have sickness in our family.
  9. Remind us about school events and activities. They encourage us to participate.
  10. Come see us perform in activities beyond the school day.
  11. Establish rules for everyone, including themselves.
  12. Show no favoritism or perception of favoritism.
  13. Are consistent.
  14. Cook (or do something special) for us.
  15. Know we are always watching. We observe their behavior before, during and after school.
  16. Tell us why.
  17. Tell us how we will use what we are learning in the real world.
  18. Help us learn about our future and our role in making it better (e.g. “going green”).
  19. Use effective practices, like hands-on projects. They keep up with the latest ideas.
  20. Use technology and find ways we can use our own technology at school in appropriate ways.
  21. Give meaningful work. They know we do not like word searches, worksheets or busy work.
  22. Are energetic, enthusiastic, and enjoy their job.
  23. Help us beyond the school day, or on their own time, with our work.
  24. Are in control of the class.
  25. Tell us how we did on our work (timely and specific).
  26. Value our work and effort.
  27. Tell us they believe in us and work with us to be successful.
  28. Admit it when they mess up or make mistakes.
  29. Stick up for us. They have the courage to stand up for us when we are treated unfairly.

My take on the 29

Middleton and Pettit elaborate on each of the 29 tips – and I could, too.

The list certainly “nails” characteristics of the top performers in the estimation of this veteran of 19 years of formal education (kindergarten through master’s degree).

Even in grad school – where students tap wellsprings of intrinsic motivation – I found it disappointing when instructors didn’t give feedback on major assignments.

And, if an instructor promised to respond to email within 72 hours – but didn’t – somehow it felt that a contract had been breeched. If I needed a little extra time to upload an assignment, I felt those instructors had no right to mark me down.

But what resonated most with me was the quote that Middleton and Petitt used to set the tone for their book.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou

Screen Shot 2015-05-27 at 9.16.02 PMThe quote reminded me of the night I graduated from high school, when a teacher made me feel special with the anonymous gift of a Ticonderoga No. 2 yellow pencil with a red eraser.

I know the pencil was from my English teacher, Peter Lefevre. Our class had read Ray Bradbury’s “Dandelion Wine” and a Ticonderoga No. 2 pencil is a symbol of savoring memories of childhood in the novel.

I found the pencil in the white envelope that held my diploma – which graduates were not allowed to collect until after the ceremony, when we turned in the loaner gowns.

None of my friends found Ticonderoga No. 2 pencils with their diplomas, although I imagine other members of Lefervre’s senior English class did.

I walked out of my high school for the last time, clutching my diploma and Ticonderoga pencil, eager to write the chapters of my life.

I thank LeFevre for that buoyant moment.

It’s this kind of beyond-teaching-and-learning magic that Middleton and Petitt hope their 29 tips help inspire in all schools.

The making of Middleton

Kelly Middleton

Kelly Middleton

 Of course, Middleton has a special educator story of his own, even beyond his service as a successful school superintendent in Kentucky which I profiled last week.

In fact, he said he was inspired to become a teacher because of the relationship that Marvin Stringfellow, a health and wellness instructor at Georgetown College, forged with him during his undergraduate years.

Middleton was attending the small Baptist college on a basketball scholarship. But he was taking mostly business and economics classes because growing up poor made him think he’d like to be a stockbroker.

Stringfellow routinely ate with students in the cafeteria in an effort to get to know students he didn’t have in class. He playfully goaded Middleton into taking one of his fitness classes.

Stringfellow attended basketball games and began joking with Middleton about his performance on the court in class.

“He built relationships with students beginning from where they were,” Middleton said. “He wasn’t afraid to joke around with students, or to allow students to know him as a human being.”

By the time Middleton graduated, he said Stringfellow’s mentoring had revolutionized his career goals. Middleton not only wanted to be a teacher, he wanted to teach health, too.

During his first four years teaching high school, Middleton describes himself as equal parts teacher and student. He studied  teachers like Stringfellow, who had the best rapport with students, and emulated them.

Finally, in one class filled with students who showed no desire to connect with him, he mentioned the back-breaking labor of harvesting tobacco — an experience several boys in class shared.

As impossible as it sounds, tobacco turned the tide, Middleton said. Students began engaging with him and the curriculum he taught. When a student misbehaved, peer pressure set him straight.

Magic, indeed.

Is there anything you would add to Middleton and Petitt’s list of 29? Which things are most important, in your experience. Share your thoughts in SCN’s Forum.

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