Recently I had the unexpected privilege of sitting in on an annual orientation event for incoming students in the Master of Public Policy program at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. I watched 250 students walk up to a podium one at a time for their “15 seconds of fame”, during which they were free to introduce themselves to their new classmates in any way they chose until a bell rang. There were a few rules. A second year student instructed them not to say they were happy to be there (that was assumed), not to thank the admissions office, not to say something that had already been said by someone else and not to just say what could be learned about them from their resumes. She also warned them that they would be forcibly removed from the stage if they did not exit quickly after the fifteen second bell rang. Welcome to Harvard.
The class was intensely diverse, with students from every corner of the world and a range of experience rarely gathered in one room. I eagerly settled in for what I expected to be two hours of riveting messages delivered in rapid succession, each one entirely different from the ones previous. But it soon became evident that some form of perplexing group-speak had taken over. I was in awe of the number of people who, after stating where they were from and what they had done professionally since college (wasn’t that against the rules??), chose to focus on one or more of the following topics:
- sports teams (“I’m proud to say I’m a Red Sox fan!” or “I probably shouldn’t admit to being a Yankees fan here, but I am” or “I went to USC. Any other Trojans here?” Way to exclude most of the crowd.)
- eating and cooking (The first time someone said, “And I like eating” was kind of cute, but it got old really fast, along with, “Come find me if you want to try all the restaurants in Harvard Square” and “I’m not a good cook, so please invite me over for dinner.”)
- Latin culture (I think ten people said to let them know if anyone wanted to go salsa dancing, and five mentioned different Latin foods they were craving. I know that the Latino population is growing at a very fast rate, but doesn’t anyone in the class crave any other kinds of food or entertainment?)
I found this phenomenon fascinating. Was if that people had all actually thought about what to say in advance and happened to focus repeatedly on such similar topics, or was there some magnetic force of sameness pulling people toward repetition in spite of their innate uniqueness? Obviously, these were very intelligent, creative students to be in this school embarking on this academic experience. Were they nervous? Was it just too much pressure? Or was it some weird subconscious tendency to imitate people who had spoken before because they had not royally embarrassed themselves? I think it may have been a combination of the above.
Despite hearing several times that people liked tacos and football, I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know these inspiring students for fifteen seconds each. Who wouldn’t be amazed to listen to one person after another casually mention that he or she had done an internship with the office that was prosecuting the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, painted farms in Slovenia, been an investment banker in five countries, gotten a pilot’s license, written a book about homelessness in Alabama, done the Peace Corps in Mozambique or taught art in a mental hospital? But in the midst of my hearing these sometimes seemingly superhuman feats, one thing kept nagging at me: Weren’t they breaking the rule about not saying what was on your resume?
I’m not always a big fan of rules, but in some cases I do think they serve a purpose and can result in an experience actually being more enriching. I wonder what they all would have said if they had really not talked about anything on their resumes or said anything similar to the people who spoke before they did. To be honest, there are only two students whose remarks I distinctly remember. And I would like to submit them as examples of engaging (though perhaps not exactly worthy of emulation in their distinct raw form) public speaking.
One student got up and simply said something to this effect: “I’ve been in the air force since 2004, so I haven’t dated in six years, and I really want a girlfriend. My number is…” I’m not sure this was the best approach for the context, but he did two things: 1) he let his audience in on something personal, immediately gaining their interest and 2) he somehow involved them by indicating that perhaps his future girlfriend could be among them and they could take action to be considered to fulfill that role. I guarantee people will not forget him between now and graduation and quite possibly far beyond. And maybe one particular young lady will really not forget him. We shall see.
The other perhaps more appropriate and successful example was a young man who got up with energy and had clearly planned exactly what to say. In far under fifteen seconds, he gave the audience important information about his mission (something probably not on his resume though related to what he has done) and engaged them. He addressed them by their cohorts, smaller groups named by Greek letters, and said, “Alpha, Beta and Delta, please stand up. You represent the number of low-income students who do not graduate from high school every year. My mission is to change that.” Done. Pow. Who could argue with that?
Now, I know that some people may have thought he sounded overly ambitious or idealistic or wished that he had cracked a joke or mentioned that he liked salsa dancing. But they won’t be forgetting what he said any time soon. I would advocate a combination of the two approaches. A little humor with a touch of self-deprecation (without giving out the phone number) paired with a confident, strong message. But that’s asking a lot of fifteen seconds. What would you do with “fifteen seconds of fame”?