What I’ve learnt from explaining stuff to young audiences.
I’m currently researching ways to connect young people to data, and it’s making me think a lot about the way I’ve tried to communicate with younger audiences in my career. I know it’s some people’s worst nightmare to have a room full of 6 year olds waiting to hear what you have to say, but knowing how to keep the attention of people who can’t hide boredom has, I really hope, made me a better communicator.
Here are a few things I’ve learnt along the way, which could help when you’re designing a message to deliver to younger service users…
Don’t be fake
I really learnt this one the hard way. I’ve done comedy shows for children where I’ve definitely tried too hard to be what I thought they wanted (see also: my 20s). Even if your message is being delivered in a character, there are still characters who are faker than others. If you’re delivering a message which you don’t believe in, stop for a moment and check if you should be telling it a different way or, yikes, if you should be telling it at all.
‘Child’ is not a category
4 year olds and 17 years olds clearly don’t communicate in the same way…but neither do all 4 year olds. Lots of people assume they know what all kids are like, either based on their own experiences of childhood, or the young folk they know. But, honestly, just because your loud nephew really loves trucks, doesn’t mean that all children his age do. Try and think of ways of communicating which could appeal to the shy kids, the loud kids, the worried kids and the super-confident-oh-man-she’ll-be-my-boss-one-day kids. Hint: basing your message on kindness, on humour and on friendship means it’s likely to be closer to universally understood.
Simple, not stupid
Keeping your message simple doesn’t mean talking down to the audience. Nobody likes being patronised, even when you’re very small and don’t know much about the world…you know when someone’s not respecting you. You don’t need to shy away from complicated words, if they’re the right ones, but just make sure you put an explanation in there somewhere.
So, for example:
I’m here to talk about my job, which is working in data analysis. That means it’s my job to look at information, or data, and work out what we can learn from it.
Assume the worst
I know, I know. This seems like rogue advice, when we’re generally told to believe in ourselves. I’ve written before about what I learnt from trying stand-up comedy, and the ‘assume the worst’ rules work for trying to make people laugh, and for communication with young people. Hear me out.
If you assume that nobody reading cares about your message, and understand that you are a random person shouting a random message into a storm of ideas, it’ll strip your ego right back. Brutal. But then it’ll also strip away assumptions of engagement, and help make you reassess what you actually want to say, and how.
How would you deliver your message if you only had three minutes before someone needed a wee?
These aren’t hard and fast rules, of course. There are so many variables, including adaptations for neurodivergence, to make your message accessible, for cultural understanding…
Getting a good grip on the needs of your audience, before you think about the needs of your message, is probably a good way round to do it, to ensure you can be understood by as many young folk as possible.
It’s not, of course, always possible but if there are two ways of doing something, and one way — for example — is dyslexia friendly…maybe that’s the way it should be done.
One final thing which, again, I’ve learnt by making mistakes…
There are lots of people, from different backgrounds, cultures, socio-economic positions, who are brilliant at talking to younger people. It’s great to develop your own skills, for lots of reasons, but the end product doesn’t always have to be from you, even if it was originally your idea. Sometimes you need to pass the mic (or the pen and definitely some of the budget).
I’m not always the one who should be telling the story. And that’s ok.
This isn’t exhaustive, and is just based on my own 20 years of working with children and young people, but let me know in the comments if there are any top tips you’d like to pass on, or anything you’d like to know.