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JD Schramm: My MBA Students Taught Me (Another) Valuable Lesson

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By JD Schramm

We'd done everything correctly. Four of my Stanford MBA students were selected to deliver their LOWKeynote presentations about how they hoped to "change lives, change organizations, and change the world," the school's tagline. The students worked for nearly four months, invested hours with professional coaches, delivered initial presentations to faculty and alumni for feedback, and completed a final dress rehearsal two days. But when the day finally came, it was a presenter's worst nightmare.

We were on stage at Stanford's new CEMEX auditorium with hundreds of students and alumni streaming in for a lunchtime program during reunion weekend. I'd arrived at 11:45, directly from another class, turned on the lectern computer, brought down the huge screen, and pulled up the slides and video. No image came to the screen. Technicians scrambled, no image. We tried a back-up projector and then an external laptop. They also failed.

The clock ticked; we had a 58-minute program to deliver in a one-hour slot. It was now ten minutes past noon and we had no projected visuals. My partner, Mike Hochleutner, who leads the Center for Leadership Development and Research, worked with me to jettison our own content so we would have as much time as possible for students to speak. Two had slides and two did not. I briefly considered changing the order to begin with Maile, a student using no slides, while we continued to work on the projector malfunction. That could buy us another twelve minutes, but her talk is on the challenge and benefit of living with ADHD. While I believed she could probably handle the disruption of three of us continuing to work feverishly behind her while she spoke, I wasn't as confident that the audience could block us out as effectively.

Instead I went to the two students with slides and said, "So, can you pull this off without your slides?" They looked at each other, looked back at me, and said with grins, "You bet." We told the technicians we would go "low-tech" and they left the stage. We began the event 12 minutes late, without slides, without video support, but with a crowd ready and waiting.

The students stepped up one by one. No prep time nor slides. Prital kicked us off telling of his start-up, lendandsave.com, which he believes will revolutionize microfinance. Maile followed with a vulnerably told story of her own struggle with ADHD and how she copes with it, providing tips for employers on harnessing the gifts of ADHD employees. Next up was James, who spoke from the heart about serving at-risk youth, moving from the community action of fighting teen suicide through a "railway watch" program to the simple actions of a shopkeeper giving a troubled teen a second chance. Finally we heard from Mary Ellen, a white southern Christian woman, on her experiences "crossing the lines" of racism in her own life before and at the Graduate School of Business.

As each student spoke, I didn't just watch them up on stage. I watched the audience and saw the impact they had on the crowd. They engaged this lunchtime audience through their humor, vulnerability, and passion. These four students showed me the value of what we teach. It's not about the slides or the technology--it's about the relationship with the audience. Although I say that in my classes over and over again, it's a lesson I'd lost sight of in the moments before the event began. These students, particularly the two who went on without slides, vividly reminded me of the need to focus primarily on the conversation. The slides are simply support for a conversation but not a replacement for it.

Moments after the students finished, the crowd applauded at length and then began to file out. Another technician stepped on stage, changed one setting, and the slides appeared on the screen. Upon reflection I can now see that this technical glitch was actually a learning moment for my students and, mostly, for their professor.

JD Schramm teaches communication at Stanford's Graduate School of Business, where he created and leads the Mastery in Communication Initiative. These student videos can be seen at www.gsb.stanford.edu/lowkeynotes where the visual aids have now been inserted. Read his blog on Red Room.