Teaching Scouts Communication

Regarding a merit badge workshop given 10/29/2016 at the National Scouting Museum in Irving, TX

The week before, I conducted a workshop on Public Speaking. The Scouts who showed up would have been better served teaching me how to speak. One was doing theater regularly, another was in media, etc. No serious instruction was required. They knew how to be natural, collected, thoughtful, informative, interesting. They were better listeners than they were speakers, and they were incredible speakers.

Approaching the Communication merit badge requires assessing what your Scouts need. Since this is a required Eagle badge, as opposed to Public Speaking, one cannot and should not expect Scouts to be polished speakers, or even want to be polished speakers. (I shall remain silent on listening.) It may be the case that your Scouts need to be sold on the value of communicating well, on what being more attentive to how they speak and how they listen entails. While it is useful to say that the badge is about presenting oneself as a Scout, representing the standards of the BSA, I do not think this is rhetoric that should be overused.

No, your Scouts are young men who are trying to figure out where they fit in. Their ages vary, and their ends regarding Communication differ slightly. With those who are younger, you’re simply trying to get them to focus on how communicating well is relevant to them. You want them to hone in better on what stories or questions make others interested. They should see that speaking up about the problems they face and the pressures they feel is a serious goal. It’s easy for those in middle school to be neglected or bullied. It’s very easy for them to be overwhelmed and have no idea what’s happening to them. Only now, years later, do I understand how awfully I was treated, how much more I was owed. Obviously, not all of this can be fixed by a merit badge. But showing that communication has a personal value, that it is about presenting oneself, is something we as adults need to do more. Oftentimes, we’re glorifying social dysfunction because we want to wax mystical about utility. It doesn’t matter if someone doesn’t know how to talk, we say, if they are busy designing nuclear reactors. This sort of reasoning could be masking neglect with the rhetoric of sensitivity. What if someone genuinely doesn’t know how to express themselves, but would like to know how?

For those who are older, communication is less about the quality of their speaking and more about their assertion and leadership. It’s okay if they are a little unpolished as long as they’re polite, honest, trying to help the other scouts, asking questions, staying bold. It may sound cheesy, but some of them will be fighting in wars or becoming EMT’s shortly. They need to know that a large part of communication is accepting respect and showing skepticism in situations where it is not given.

That’s the spirit of the merit badge as I conceive it. To that end, I had Scouts talk and present as much as possible. Here’s what we discussed to wrap it all up:

  • Communication depends on expectations. Even in the worst case scenario, where you’re booed off stage as a public speaker, there are expectations. Only when we talk about the death of society do we talk about mobs attacking people. For the most part, people know that being organized as many means power, and give a lot of slack to one addressing them. You’ve got to use this expectation when speaking publicly and go further. What you do when communicating is model the person you want to talk to for the audience. You communicate an expectation. Obviously, this does and doesn’t hold for private conversation. It’s really surprising, though, how good conversation with friends involves listening well. How you’re communicating, ever so subtly, how you want to be treated and what friendship means to you.
  • Self-respect, energy, pride, interest. It seems like a random list, but these are things you want to convey. Bad communicators fail to show self-respect; they’re not interested in communicating well but complaining. This is most apparent in a communication class where the first task is “introduce yourself,” a golden opportunity to work on speaking skills and share something interesting. Good communicators see an opportunity to hear and be heard, and they convey energy. They don’t boast, but they show pride, whether it is pride in their accomplishments or efforts. They show they have interests and set the stage for showing interest in the audience itself. Self-respect heads the list because of all the times we have to communicate that are awful, whether the difficulty is because of miscommunication with people who care or because we’re dealing with bullies and enemies. In those cases, you have to stand up for yourself while being tactful and disciplined. Without self-respect, it’s very easy to lash out without realizing what you’re doing.
  • Value communication with people who value you. There are a lot of times people talk to us like it’s a formality, or include us in their group for the sake of not truly including us. Learn to find the people who matter and spend your resources talking to them.
  • Keep it positive; do no harm. Sometimes, complaints against a culture too obsessed with self-esteem and coddling are exactly right. But there’s a lot of abuse out there. Starting harsh is a bad idea: you can reinforce some of the worst abuse without realizing what you’re doing. Staying positive as a communicator is a general rule, but one that might be very valuable in this age where people brandish their anger as if it were a badge of honor.
  • Modulate your voice. There’s more than loud and soft: there’s a variety of volumes and ways to speak. Use them, knowing that doing this well alone can mitigate a number of other problems as a speaker.
  • Youtube, mirror. How you say things – posture, annoying habits, gestures – is not unimportant. There is no perfect approach, but you want to make sure you’re not doing anything terribly awkward or disgusting without realizing it. Recording yourself as if you would put yourself on the internet or practicing in front of a mirror go a long way. Again, these lessons hold for communicating publicly and privately.
  • Ask questions, listen carefully to the answers, ask more. The difference this makes is all the difference in the world. I’ve come to see that the times we actually listen to kids are very rare.

In sum, I can’t say that communicating well is a moral task. A lot of what I learned about communicating and setting expectations came from a person I consider one of the sleaziest people I ever encountered. But I can say that people with integrity have to take communication seriously. And I can say that we do an immense disservice to the next generation when we don’t even give them the possibility of articulation.

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