Earlier this week, our school had the pleasure of getting to hear Chris Herren speak. From the very first story he told, Herren captured the attention of everyone in the room.
High-school students, who typically bear a legacy of being rowdy, loud, and unfocused, were highly attentive, with no need of help from teachers or adults. They WANTED to listen. There was nothing to make fun of; nothing funny to comment on. Herren didn’t smile, joke, or act any less serious than the topic he was discussing, which made his audience’s attention span go beyond its natural limits.
Students, especially the ones he was trying to reach, hate being told that they are going to regret drinking in high school. Everyone does it, they think–it’s normal in our society, so why am I any different? Herren didn’t start with an overdosing story, but something that seemed unrelated. He talked about a girl in the back of an audience at one of his speeches with a question. He told her story instead of opening with his own. That gave perspective on how other people’s problems affect the ones closest to them, and this short anecdote helped him shape the rest of his point throughout the speech.
He didn’t talk about his horrible moments from drug abuse but rather about the ways alcohol affected him as a young kid, and how he affected others in the very early moments of drug use. That is one reason his story was effective. He was able to grab the attention of his audience, making them want to know what he was going to say next. There is a reason why the news reports horrific stories of teen suicides and natural disasters, and it’s because people want to hear these stories. As horrible as that sounds, it’s these stories that get the thoughts churning. This is how he grabbed students’ attention. He also connected his story to the audience in a way where they weren’t just statistics on a page—they were real statistics from his life that hit close to home in his audience.
One such statistic was the fact that 7 out of 15 kids on his basketball team became addicts. These were kids that thought, “I’ll never be that guy”–words that high-school students say to themselves all the time. This connection was very important because if you can’t find the words that make it real in the minds of teens, they will continue to think this will never happen to them. He knew that everyone in that assembly knew what drug addiction does to them. He knew his story of the loss of his career is not going to be anything they haven’t heard before. He knew he needed to reiterate the point that he started out just like everyone else–drinking in the basements of his friends. He also knew why some will rely on it.
High schools in America are a place of social rigidity and insecurity, and some feel the need to drink to do things they couldn’t normally do. Herren believes and speaks about how teenagers should be able to be themselves in front of other students they’ve known since they were in preschool. Yet they can’t, and most parents will look the other way but the best thing they could do is talk to their kids and tell them this, but they don’t. They are scared of it, so they ignore it, and Herren made that one of his biggest points. He felt that parents let their kids down when they ignore this. He gave them an alternative way to deal with it, one he felt would have benefited him, which is how he gets through to his adult audience. He relates to the kids by being real with them. All their friends will tell them how cool they are, but Herren brings the end of the night to light–the guilt and self-hate that comes afterwards. He brings out all the emotions that no one talks about and tells them that they are real and they won’t go away. It’s so close to what we know that it’s believable and transferable in our minds.
The reason why his speech is so effective is because of its deeper message. Sure he talks about drugs and alcohol, and how they can ruin your life as well as others around you. He does a great job with that. But the underlying reasons why it starts and why in high school is more important. He brings in the topics of self-esteem and confidence. The overall point is that being you is better than being a made-up version of yourself. I think this is the most effective speech that someone can be told. Throughout our lives in Manhasset we have been told drugs and alcohol are bad. From the beginning of elementary school to the end of high school, we will be given assemblies and shown videos about drug abuse. This speech is probably the only one I’ve heard that has the potential to actually make a difference.