Young People: quantity vs. quality vs. cookies

I always forget how valuable (or selfishly fulfilling) it is to work with people under 18… until the next time that I do it. Yesterday I returned to my first alma matter to speak and participate in their first environmental symposium. It was great, and I was proud to be a part of a day that opened with a talk by Dr. Devra Davis. For a school that sits beside an estuary—Long Island Sound—and a salt marsh, there are few places that could make a better setting.I was asked to do two things, and I’m trying to figure out which had a greater impact on the lives of these students: (a) Lead two seminars on environmental activism(b) Close the symposium with a talk before the entire middle and upper schools, drawing from my personal experiencesThis question of ” overall impact” is interesting to me because it’s one we’re forced to address all the time, at some level, in any sort of organizing or activism work. With limited time and resources, which activity or action will have the greatest impact on our goal?If you judge on quantity in my scenario, the closing talk wins: 400 students in the audience vs. 20 in the two seminar.However, if you judge on quality, I lean toward the seminars. Consider the big talk: I was the only thing standing in the way of free cookies and juice for a few hundred kids at the end of the day. Were they listening to anything I had to say? Will they remember any of the stories i shared—regardless of how personal I made them? Maybe at the time, but will they stop and think about the importance of their personal decisions every day and adjust behavior?Contrast my broadcast talk with two small-room seminars on environmental activism. During these seminars, I did only half of the talking. The rest was driven by the students, who I pushed to figure out all the ways that their school community was impacting the environment. The ultimate goal was to see how many personal and community-wide decisions we actually make each day and to investigate the alternatives/options available to us. The exercise was quite powerful, and the students are more likely to remember it because they got their hands dirty doing it. If I had to do the big talk all over again, I’d try to make it more like the small-room discussions. Motivational speakers excel, I think, in making big talks seem like intimate conversations. It’s essentially the advice that Jeffrey Hollender gave to me on Tuesday, but I’m not sure how well I followed it. If you give an audience some sense of ownership over the direction of the talk and get them to participate in it, I bet you have an exponentially greater chance of success. Or take the shortcut and take credit for providing the cookies.

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