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PHIL HARDWICK: How to speak to a college class

PHIL HARDWICK

The fall academic semester approaches. If you are successful in business there’s a good chance that sooner or later you will be asked to speak to a college class about your company or a current business issue. The experience can be personally rewarding or a flop.

I’ve been teaching as an adjunct professor/instructor at the college level since the late 1970’s. Over the years, I’ve taught real estate, management, business strategy and communications. At the end of each course, I ask my students what they liked best about the course. The number one answer has almost always been “the guest speakers.” I don’t take that personally because that’s the response I always gave when I was a student.

I’ll never forget the first guest speaker I invited.

In 1976, more than 40 savings and loan associations in Mississippi became insolvent that resulted in a crisis for thousands of depositors. In 1977, Robert Warren, a well-respected retired mortgage banking executive was appointed conservator of the Bankers Trust Savings and Loan case. The case was in the daily business news for months. It was ultimately resolved, and Warren was hailed by many as a hero. A year or so later, I contacted Warren and asked if he would speak to my real estate class about the case. He agreed to do so. The result was one of the best classes I’ve ever had. He was candid about the events and gave students advice about the industry and their interest in pursuing a real estate career. There was no student question he refused to address.

Since then I’ve invited dozens of speakers to my classes. They have provided unique insights into their companies, offered students great career advice and given students a connection to the so-called real world. So here are some thoughts about your invitation to speak to a college class.

First, have an in-depth discussion with the professor about your presentation and the make-up of the class. Talk with the professor and find out what they really want. Some professors merely want a guest speaker. Others are looking for a specific guest speaker to talk about a certain topic. If the professor says that any topic you want to talk about is fine, then have a deeper conversation. You don’t want to go to a marketing class and talk about the latest activities of the Financial Standards Accounting Board.

Next, discuss the technology available in the classroom and how or if it will be used. Many guest speakers nowadays have a PowerPoint presentation. Will you email to the professor and rely on them to set it up in advance or will you bring your own flash drive or computer? Always have a backup. Even if it’s a printed copy.

How will you be introduced? I was in a classroom once when the professor simply turned the class over to the speaker by simply nodding to the speaker and saying, “It’s all yours.” Not very professional. One of the best ways to be introduced to your class is to have the instructor send an article written about you or your company in a publication such as the Mississippi Business Journal. It gives instant credibility to the students. However, if the students have read it in advance of class then it’s all for naught. Another method is to have the professor email your bio to the class ahead of time. Yet another way to be introduced is to have the professor read your short bio to the class.
Probably the worst thing you can do is nothing and then allow the professor to introduce you with whatever he or she ay know about you.
The best advice I can give any speaker, regardless of their main topic, is to tell their story. Students want to know about your experience and how you got from where they are – the college classroom – to your present position. Similarly, tell the story of your company.

Now that all that’s out of the way, let’s discuss your presentation. Most importantly, be yourself. Use the method you are most comfortable with. I’ve had guest speakers had each student an index card at the beginning of class and ask, “What do you want to walk away with from my presentation?” I’ve also had speakers who used the Q & A approach by asking a question and then having a discussion about the answer.

Then there is “The List.” You know, the five secrets to success or the seven habits of leaders. I’ve seen the list be used in one of the best presentations ever witnessed and one of the worst. In the worst case, the guest speaker sounded like a lecturer who had read a management article and merely regurgitated the list. No examples. No personal cases. And then there was Dave Boyer and his list of 11 management principles.

Dave Boyer was the leader that Nissan selected to help plan and design the massive state-of-the-art Nissan manufacturing facility in Canton, Mississippi, and then be its first manager. Every year since then he graciously agreed to appear in the management class and share his wisdom. He begins by sitting and telling the class that he wants to have a dialogue as much as a lecture. He then tells his personal story and what he learned along the way. The students sit mesmerized. He then discusses the management and 11 leadership principles that he has found that served him best.

Now that’s how to speak to a college class.

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Phil Hardwick is a regular Mississippi Business Journal columnist. His email address is phil@philhardwick.com.

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