For this month's T-SQL Tuesday, Bob challenges us to discuss how we came to love presenting. Here's my story.
I developed a love of presenting during my sophomore year at The Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina. I was a part of a group that existed pretty much just for that year, the Citadel Alcohol Drug / Resource Educators (C.A.D.R.E. for short). Our initial purpose was to do drug and alcohol education among our peers. However, there were a good number of us who volunteered, enough where it was envisioned that we would go into the schools in and around the Charleston area (Kindergarten through college) and do presentations not only on drugs and alcohol, but also on related topics such as resisting peer pressure and understanding how these products are marketed. The Citadel's C.A.D.R.E. was modeled after a similar program at Clemson University, and in fact we had one of the former organizers of that program leading the charge at The Citadel. What was envisioned came true. I often joke that I spend about a third of my classroom hours missing class because I was in the schools around Charleston, Dorchester, and Berkeley county second semester my sophomore year. While that's a joke, the truth isn't far from it. I had gotten hooked on presenting and making the difference.
When Things Got Real
The first time I went into a school was okay. I knew the material. However, I was extremely uncomfortable being up there in front, even if was to a class of fifth graders. As a result, my part of the presentation was weak. What woke me up to the importance of what we were doing was when we were discussing peer pressure and the phrase, "Everyone's doing it." The truth of the matter was at that time, less than 10% of 5th graders had tried or knew anyone who had tried any type of illegal drugs (this would naturally exclude alcohol and tobacco). The point we were making was that if one student turned to another and said, "Everyone's doing it," as a reason why to do drugs, it wasn't true. Most people *weren't* doing "it." And this is where statistics and specific examples collided.
One student indicated that he knew plenty of folks who did drugs. Figuring he was just talk, I and the other C.A.D.R.E. member who was in the room asked him why he stated that. That's when he let it slip that several members of his family were involved in the drug trade and started naming people he knew took drugs. One glance at the teacher's face and we know he wasn't just putting on a show. He got out five or six names before we were able to abruptly move on on, but not before the teacher made a note to have that particular student talk to a guidance counselor right away.
I went back to The Citadel and back to my barracks and our Spartan lifestyle and I knew then that what we were doing was extremely important. I knew I had to get over my discomfort if I got another change to go out. It would be a couple of months.
The next time I had a chance was when we were scheduled to do an evening presentation at Ashley Hall, a girls' prep school which includes among its famous alumae the former First Lady, Barbara Bush. Our audience were high schoolers, which are always a tough crowd. When Citadel cadets walk into an elementary school in uniform, kids tend to be in awe, much the same way as towards a fireman walking into the classroom clad in full gear. Teenagers? That's a different story. However, the topic was important, especially to a high school crowd. Tar Wars was a presentation on how Big Tobacco sells cigarettes based on idealized images of men and women. Think about the old Marlboro Man ads. They debuted in the 1960s and you had a rugged figure of a cowboy smoking a Marlboro cigarette. Considering this was the era when shows like Bonanza were extremely popular, Marlboro was effectively targetting the idealized male image of that era. What they were selling was, "If you're a male and you use our product, you'll be just like a real cowboy." If you watch the ad, you'll also see the point about the "flavor," which was a selling tactic as well. If cigarettes were advertised as having flavor, that must mean it had a good flavor, right? No, it doesn't, but that suggestion that it does is implanted into your brain. To wrap up the explanation, here's what Marlboro was selling: not only will smoking the cigarette make you like one of your heroes, but you'll enjoy it as well (because of the flavor).
I had a good portion of the presentation, especially the interactive part where we talked about the message. We went further and talked about how Big Tobacco actually targeted teens and the tactics they were using. The interaction went better than we can imagine. The young ladies jumped in. Nothing stirs up a bunch of teens more than finding out that they've been suckered. And that's what they were learning through our presentation: these companies were suckering them. What's worse was that as we did the presentation, they were able to see how it didn't just apply to cigarettes, but to alcohol, make up, clothes, and just about every consumable good they could think of. That just got them stirred up even more. We left that night with a room full of teens thinking and talking logically about out how marketing had sold and was selling them a bill of goods. That was the objective of that presentation. We had accomplished our goals. Needless to say, I was hooked. After that presentation, I became one of the "go to" presenters, which is why I missed so much of my actual classes.
Fighting Isn't Always the Answer
What cemented presenting was another encounter as part of C.A.D.R.E. I was in an elementary school in a rougher part of the Charleston area. We were talking about how to solve issues with others. One kid always wanted to fight. That was his answer to everything. I countered him with an example of how fighting could escalate to something terrible. My mind is fuzzy in the details now, as this was back in 1993 but if I remember right, just before going to the school I read a report about a Marine platoon coming under fire in Somalia (before Operation Gothic Serpent, which most folks know today only as Black Hawk Down). The reason I believe it stuck was the platoon commander was a Citadel grad. (I've since tried to do the research and can no longer find a news article talking about the firefight, so my recollection could be completely wrong about the details, but not of what happened in the classroom). I challenged him with this example, and talked about how we had troops in a country on the other side of the world because you had warlords who thought violence was the answer and they wielded their strength such that we had to send troops in so regular folks could get food and eat. That's why the Marines were there. And for that, one of the warlords wanted to challenge the US presence and our guys came under fire.
The room became really quiet. Everyone wanted to see what the kid would say. He didn't say anything more about how fighting was the right answer. Instead, he surprised everyone when he asked what he could do instead of fighting. We were able to have a very good discussion of about how to try and avoid situations which would lead to a fight. We were also able to talk about what to do when in a confrontation to try and defuse it. He became an active participant in the discussion and it was obvious that he was thinking through these other choices for the first time in his life. I believe it was the first time in his life when he actually realized he had choices other than fighting. We had another breakthrough.
It's Not About Drugs and Alcohol Anymore (Most of the Time)
While I'm not presenting regularly on alcohol and drug prevention, I still believe in the importance of presenting on topics of interest. I still get a thrill when I see someone "getting it." I am still just as passionate about the craft of presenting, about getting the information across, about getting the audience to think. While I primarily present on SQL Server and IT security now, I still have those same goals:
- Get the information across.
- Get the audience thinking about the information.
- Achieve a breakthrough on the topic with at least one attendee.
That's what drives me when I present. I may not be the best presenter out there, but I do care about the job that I do. It's more than having your name on a conference schedule. At least, it is for me.