What we can learn from a great speaker

A few minutes into Meredith Cochie’s presentation at the national student journalism conference in Orlando Saturday, a high school student behind me whispered to her friend: “I just want to bottle her up and bring her home.”

Me too. I want to bottle her up and use her to train teachers.

Cochie, a journalism professor at Full Sail University in Florida, is a gifted speaker. One of the best at the conference, according to Carson Borbely, a high school student from Ann Arbor, Michigan, who was seated next to me.

Cochie had 200+ high school students (and a few adults) hanging on every word she said. As I listened to her presentation on “Mental preparedness and body tactics,” I tried to pin down what it was that made her so engaging.

Some of it was her personality, an unusual combination of bubbly and edgy, which can’t necessarily be taught. We aren’t all raging extroverts; nor are we all natural comedians.

But Cochie used engagement strategies that can be replicated in all of our classrooms. Here is what I noticed.

#1 She was genuine. Too many high school teachers spend so much time trying to be professional and adult and a role model that they forget to be human. Teenagers appreciate teachers who are real with them.

Cochie mocked how she would introduce herself in an interview: “I’m Meredith Cochie; I’m a new media journalism professor; and I eat coffee beans. And I have a two year old who was up at 5 a.m.”

Carson liked this and said she appreciates when teachers talk about their hobbies, their family, or the dog they obsess over.

“My physics teacher is one of the weirdest people I’ve ever met, but I really like him,” she said. He shares different pictures of his family every day, she said, and it helps her connect with him. “When I am doing uniformly accelerated motion problems at 1 in the morning, it helps me to remember that he’s a person too.”

#2 She was personal. In a sectioned ballroom packed with people, it felt like Cochie was having a one-on-one conversation with every one of us. “There was an energy going toward everybody,” Carson observed.

Cochie created relationships by cruising all over the room, addressing a dozen different participants face-to-face, drawing a volunteer up to demonstrate hand-shaking, and stopping mid-sentence to compliment a student’s unusual shoes or glasses.

It was funny, and it was very effective. When one student was sharing a story about a phone interview, Cochie interrupted to tease her about teenagers’ lack of phone skills: “You talked on the phone? Was that hard for you?”

#3 She was awkward. Rather than trying to impress us with her knowledge and accomplishments, Cochie made fun of herself a lot. She showed us the sign language her mom used to shush her in public. She laughed about her lack of athletic ability.

She told an embarrassing story about asking a coworker if the young woman next to him at a bar – who turned out to be his daughter – was his wife or a girlfriend. “I’m a screw-up,” she said. “But I’m not a screw-up 100% of the time.”

Carson enjoyed the awkwardness too. “[Teachers] have to be willing to decide the ways in which you are comfortable embarrassing yourself, because we really like that,” she said. “We really really like that.”

#4 She was unpredictable. It was hard to stop listening to Cochie, even for a moment, because you had no idea what she would say or do next.

She talked about using silence to get sources to talk: “Don’t awkward silence me,” she said. “I am trained in awkward silence.”

She announced that we were going to have a breakout session, but misspoke and called it a “breakup session.” She laughed at herself, then said, “That’s right, I called you all here today so I could break up with you.”

Then she announced that we should talk to our neighbor: “And if you’re sitting there by yourself on your phone, I will rip it out of your mouth… I mean, hand.”

Cochie had an audience that was completely glued to her message, which was: How you present yourself matters. How you talk to people matters. Being an effective reporter isn’t just about what you ask but how you ask.

I don’t know how well she could write a test, provide formative feedback or manage the hundreds of other details that define a high school teacher’s existence, but Meredith Cochie is a master of student engagement. We could all learn a lot from her.