What’s your story? 5 ways to make your start of term keynotes memorable

In June 2011 Steve Jobs gave his last keynote. He looked frail, gaunt, his voice breaking into a barely concealed cough as he introduced the world to iCloud. Yet he still managed to tell a compelling story, outlining the growing problem of syncing content across devices before showing how iCloud was the solution. It was what Jobs had been doing since taking back the reins of Apple in 1997: crafting compelling narratives to explain why the products Apple were creating were the answers to problems we didn’t know existed until they were highlighted to us.

Telling stories lies at the heart of selling a vision. How many times have you been in staff meetings where a senior leader has given a death by Powerpoint presentation, devoid of warmth and lacking any ‘hook’ to carry the audience through to the end? The worst crime that any presenter can commit is talking through the slide deck, and yet so many school leaders are guilty of this crime. What makes this doubly sinful is that as teachers we should know how important this hook is, and yet when we move into leadership positions this can get lost.

One reason for this is because we feel we should be serious when we are addressing our teams as a senior leader. That somehow being human will make them take us less seriously. And yet the opposite is true: the more human we are, the more we aim to connect with our audience on a personal level, the more likely we are to be able to sell our vision and get people on board.

So here are five ways in which you can create that connection and carry your team with you. Because if you can do that, you can sell almost anything.

  1. Make sure you understand your team’s needs

We spend a lot of time in senior positions considering what is best for the students, and with good reason. We are under huge pressure to deliver results, and so all we do needs to have student progress and wellbeing at its heart. Yet how many times do we stop and think about the impact our vision or a new idea might have on the very people who have to deliver it on the front line? Consider for a moment what your teachers want. What might be stopping them from doing the best job they can and what can you do to help that? Will this ‘innovation’ make their lives better or be one more headache? If you craft stories around the problems teachers experience and design strategies to help solve them, you will go a long way to getting them totally on side.

  1.  Be authentic

This is easier if you experience the same problems your team faces on a daily basis. When I was a teaching deputy it was far easier than when I moved into a Vice Principal’s position and no longer spent time in the classroom. However, even if you are no longer experiencing the sorts of front-line stresses that your team are experiencing, take the time to find out what they are. Get into lessons, talk to your staff, listen to what they are saying. Short, punchy 3-2-1 surveys are a great way to tune in to your teams: get them to write down 3 things that make them proud to work at the school, 2 things that stop them doing their job as well as they might like, and 1 thing they’d change overnight if they could. Taking these ideas and crafting them into your school’s vision will give your presentation an authenticity it’s hard to fake.

  1. Remember how great stories are told

There’s a reason why certain films stay with us: they answer a basic human need to make sense of the world. Every memorable story begins with a problem, an inciting incident, something going wrong. The story arc is generated through characters trying to work out how to solve this problem, and going on an inner journey as they do so. Think Star Wars, Casablanca, The Matrix: stories stay with us because they answer some of life’s great questions. Our presentations don’t need to be quite so epic in scope, but they do need to give the audience clarity on the problems before suggesting solutions. One of the benefits of being in a senior position is that you are more likely to have a 360 view of a problem: make sure then that you present it in such a way that your audience recognise that as being relevant to them. Take your audience on a journey through this problem towards a solution, using vivid, concrete language and more images than text on your slides (if you need to use slides at all). Consider the art of the cliffhanger, teasing your audience with a question you’ll come back to later. It works for the Netflix shows we binge watch, and it can work for our presentations.

  1. Focus on values

We all go into teaching for the same reasons, even if for many of us they become lost in a weight of marking and box ticking. If we can tap back into those primary motivations, making our presentations values-based, ensuring the stories we tell have at their centre why we all do the job in the first place, we are more likely to connect with our audience’s emotional core, which is exactly where we want to be.

  1. Practice makes perfect

No one in their right mind would go into an important presentation without at least practising it in a mirror, recording it, or (better still) trying it out on a small audience first. Yet so many of us do just that. This is probably because we have spent so many years in the classroom, where we seldom if ever rehearse our lessons. Yet the best presentations are often the ones that are the most rehearsed: Steve Jobs would spend days rehearsing every moment of his keynote speeches – this is why they look so effortless. If we are moving away from talking through our slide decks towards telling a story supported by well-chosen words and images, we will want to practise this. No longer having the text on the screen to refer to can be daunting at first, but with experience can be liberating, and will certainly make your presentations more interesting.

So before the new term starts, take the time to look at how you intend to present the year to your team during staff training. If you think carefully about how to connect with your team’s needs, show your authenticity, use a tried and tested narrative structure, focus on values and ensure you practise, you will go a long way towards making your start of term speech one to remember. We may not all be Steve Jobs, but we can certainly learn a thing or two from him.

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One thought on “What’s your story? 5 ways to make your start of term keynotes memorable

  1. Great summary Darren. We know that confident vulnerability inspires others to see and share a vision. It takes courage to share our story and our struggles but as you so clearly show, it is the most effective and authentic way to communicate.

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