How to Get a Wow (Not a Scowl) from Kids (Part 1)

Speaking to a group of children is not the same as presenting to a group of adults. The Public Speaker gives 10  helpful tips to help you engage some of the most discerning listeners: children.

Lisa B. Marshall
4-minute read
Episode #239


I received this question from a listener recently:

“I am a motivational speaker. However, I am delivering my first speech to children ages 4-13. What are some suggestions to help me grab their attention and make my speech effective for this younger school-age audience?”

I was delighted to receive this question! 

One of my favorite scenes in the movie Mrs. Doubtfire is when Robin Williams’ character is pitching his ideas to the head of a local TV station. He advises when speaking to youngsters that you shouldn’t play down to them; just play to them. This is sage advice!;

Here are 10 ways to dazzle the smaller set; and next week, I’ll have 10 more tips for how you can engage children:

Tip #1: Get the Kids Involved

Your goal is to engage your audience, but unlike adults, kids feel left out if they are not included. So, involve as many kids as possible and as often as possible. This might mean that you are going to cover much less material than you would with an adult audience.

Tip #2: Absolutely No Slide Presentations!

Kids think formal presentations are "stupid and boring." To keep it interesting, help the kids experience your ideas first hand using props, skits, and other fun activities. (More on that shortly).

Tip #3: Make it Messy, Silly, Crazy, Funny, and Unexpected

Look online for interesting ways to present your topic. For example, use simple science experiments to demonstrate your points. Put an egg in water and let it sink, or put the egg in salty water and watch it float.

One great example came from my kids’ guidance counselor, Mr. Harrington. He was explaining that the more you struggle or force a relationship, the more it's going to run into trouble, but if you work through conflict gently you are more likely to have success. He showed this principle by using a metal puzzle that had two items stuck together. If you tried to untangle them with force, it didn't come apart, but if you gently aligned it a certain way, the two pieces easily came apart.

Tip #4: Use Food in Your Examples

In my daughter’s class, a financial services specialist came in and used candy in his presentation. He displayed a bag of Hershey's Kisses as an example of a corporation. He then told the kids that people can buy a part of the company, so he separated a few candies out and showed that someone could own a few or a lot of pieces of a company. His demonstration effectively explained an abstract idea, and best of all, the kids got to eat the company in the end!

Tip #5: Begin with an Attention-Grabber

Start with a story, a demonstration, a magic trick, or a question.

For example, a woman came in for Parents Day in my kids' school. She worked at a nursing home, so she had the kids look through dirty glasses and put cotton in their ears. She had the children use wheelchairs and walk with a cane. Anther activity had the children wearing gloves and trying to open a packet of sugar. The kids had a blast and yet at the same time were somewhat able to experience what it's like to be in a nursing home. It made the message very clear and real, and it was fun to feel and see it first-hand.

Tip #6: Make it a Game

Ring buzzers, score points, or give small prizes for participation. Even a simple Q & A session can be fun!

Tip #7: Create a Play or Act Out a Skit

Have the kids perform parts or simply be people from history. My kids saw a presentation of the history of our local cranberry bog. Important folks were named, and kids stood up with the name around their necks and small props to indicate something about them. Each participant stayed in front as the history progressed. It was comical and cute because some of the kids got "married" to or had a "child" with their classmates.

Tip #8: Simplify if Necessary 

Ask a teacher ahead of time to get a feel for what the kids would and would not understand. It’s always important to know your audience. Use analogies they can relate to in order to explain complex ideas.

Tip #9: Tell Stories…Lots of Them

Make sure they are stories that the age group can relate to. Personal, funny stories are always a good illustration and help to keep the attention of the listeners.

Tip #10: Use Examples from Popular Culture

Kids are aware of the world and what is going on around them far more than we give them credit for. Mentioning a popular singer or actor if it relates to your speech keeps your audience interested and gives you some “street cred” in convincing them you are on their level. Speaking to children can be a rewarding experience. If you know how to relate to them, they’ll pay attention and remember what you have to say. Next week, I’ll share 10 more tips for speaking to children. This is Lisa B. Marshall, Helping you maximize sales, manage perceptions, and enhance leadership through keynotes, workshops, books, and online courses. Passionate about communication; your success is my business.

I'm very excited because this week on my Smart Talk podcast you'll get to hear from Dr. Lois Frankel talking about the 10-year anniversary edition of Nice Girls Still Don't Get the Corner Office.  Also, you'll want to check on Smart Talk on Monday, when I interview our very own, Mignon Fogarty (aka Grammar Girl).  We had a great conversation that included her giving advice on how to handle criticism as well as talking about her newest endeavor, Peeve Wars, a card game she invented. 

School children image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Lisa B. Marshall

Lisa B. Marshall Lisa holds masters with duel degrees in interpersonal/intercultural communication and organizational communication. She’s the author of Smart Talk: The Public Speaker's Guide to Success in Every Situation, as well as Ace Your Interview, Powerful Presenter, and Expert Presenter. Her work has been featured in CBS Money Watch, Ragan.com, Woman's Day, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and many others. Her institutional clients include Johns Hopkins Medicine, Harvard University, NY Academy of Science, University of Pennsylvania, Genentech, and Roche.