5, Like, Totally Awesome Public Speaking Lessons From College Admissions Guides To Use At Work

The author recently returned from a whirlwind seven-campus, three-state college tour with his oldest son. Between the quads and the dining halls, he learned a lot about how to stay in the moment, make connections, and be authentic.

5, Like, Totally Awesome Public Speaking Lessons From College Admissions Guides To Use At Work

Having recently visited seven college campuses in three states with my oldest son, I’ve spent hours on the receiving end of presentations by admissions office staff and student tour guides. If I ever doubted that the word awesome is being overused in today’s lexicon, I have put that doubt behind me.


All of the schools we visited followed the same drill. First, we met in a large room with approximately 100 other parents and prospective students. An admissions officer then conducted a 45- to 60-minute presentation about the nuts and bolts: majors, admission requirements, calendar, financial aid, and so on. This was always presented with a slick slide and sound show or with professionally developed videos created to impress. Next, a number of student guides came to the front of the room, introduced themselves, then divided us into our tour groups. Based on the reactions of my son, who tended to glaze over during the group presentations, the smaller tour is where the real impact occurred.

Of course there are some factors the colleges can’t control. When we visited the University of South Carolina, it was a beautiful spring day and the students relaxed in the mid-70s sunshine. Twenty-four hours and 130 miles later, we huddled under umbrellas at Clemson as freezing rain blew sideways and soaked us to the skin. The only students we saw were trundling to class in raincoats, hunched over Quasimodo-style.

The student guides have the tough job of delivering a good tour no matter what the weather, without PowerPoints or other high-tech crutches. It’s just them, the visitors, and their ability to cover an aggressive amount of real estate–while, at the same time, presenting facts and figures, answering any sort of question, relating to both students and parents–and doing this while walking backwards. The student guides ranged from inadequate to superb, and the good ones seemed to have some specific skills in common that anyone in a leadership position, at any age, should have:

1. Make connections.

Our guide at William and Mary made a point of gathering everyone around her when we stopped. (Other guides did not and would start talking when some of us were trailing, single file, 30 yards behind). She made good eye contact even when talking facts and figures. She drew out the prospective students throughout the tour, asked them questions, then used their names later in the tour. “John, you said you were interested in biology. This is where you would have all of your classes and labs.” When the tour ended, she thanked each student for coming and patiently answered parent questions long after most of the crowd departed.

At work, how do you make connections in your presentations? Do you get there early, engage by name, and stick around until everyone is gone?


2. Use stories, and use them early.

If you think back to the best presentation you ever heard, chances are you remember the stories much more clearly than the message of the presentation. Carol Richmond, associate director of admissions at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, manages approximately 100 student guides. When asked to identify what makes a good guide, she quickly described the ability to use succinct, personal stories to make a point, and to do it as early in their tour as possible. “The first thing they say is critical. That first impression stays with the group for the rest of the tour.” When a parent asks about the student-teacher ratio, effective guides offered both a number and a story about how it impacted them. According to Richmond, “The difference between the good and great guides is the ability to offer a personal story to answer a question. The best tour guides are great storytellers that we can coach.”

Are you using stories to emphasize your most important points and to help people remember? Can you tell a story in a succinct way?

3. Be authentic.

Despite the rain, our guide at Clemson University, a senior, communicated his love of the school and the importance it has played in his life. He managed to do so in a quiet, thoughtful way that prevented me from taking his comments as propaganda. When asked by one parent about the other schools he considered, instead of just naming the others or putting them down, he described (as we walked) how hard his decision was and how, in retrospect, Clemson ended up being the right choice because of specific opportunities he has had there.

Would the people who know you well say that you are one person during presentations and another person face-to-face? Do you feel people can tell what you are passionate about? What are the ways you are quietly convincing?


4. Be in the moment.

The kind of students who get involved as admissions guides tend to be active in many things on campus and probably have a lot of things going through their minds. Couple this with giving multiple tours and making the same presentation over and over, and I could understand how guides could lose focus. When we visited the University of South Carolina, our guide was a senior double-majoring in biomedical engineering and English. She also had a job working on a research project studying Alzheimer’s disease. Yet while we were on the tour, she gave the impression, through her ability to connect with us, that the tour was the most important thing in her life at that moment.

When you are doing presentations, how do you stay in the moment? What is it that helps you concentrate on the audience and keep focus?

5. Be in charge.

Admissions guides have to provide direction and structure for the group. When tours felt disorganized or too plodding, I felt like it wasn’t worth the time we were spending. The guides need to encourage questions, politely manage the parent who is dominating the tour with their personal questions, and make decisions in the moment. On our tour at the College of Charleston, I noticed that our guide diverted our group through an alley instead of continuing down the central street. Once inside the quadrangle, he admitted that he diverted us to avoid what looked like an off-campus afternoon keg party. He confessed, “It looked peaceful but I was afraid I would lose too many dads to the party.” I was impressed by his willingness to change the tour based on his instinct and appreciated his honesty and humor.

In your presentations, are you in charge? Can you combine structure with flexibility and audience engagement? What are your secrets?


Of course you can save on gas money by taking tours virtually, but you definitely miss out on getting a feel for the school. Your daughter or son might not know how to describe to you what they are looking for in a college, but chances are they will know it when they see it–and that’s why student guides are critical. And if the rest of us can learn something from these guides about being better presenters, that would be awesome.

[Image: Flickr user Sodanie Chea]

About the author

Craig Chappelow, a senior faculty member at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, is a leading authority in the development and use of leadership assessment products. He has worked for two decades with senior executives in Asia, Europe, the Middle East and North America.