The Contagion Of Enthusiasm

Mr. Crenshaw was the worst teacher in the high school. For students, finding his name on the Fall schedule was like losing the lottery: he was a terrible teacher, but made up for it by never giving good grades. Mr. Crenshaw was in his early 70s, well past retirement age, and clinically cranky since 1962. Though universally disliked by both students and fellow teachers, no one on the School Board had the courage to ask him to retire because, rumor had it, his son was connected to local organized crime, allegedly part of its senior management.

In his prime, Mr. Crenshaw was perhaps a decent History teacher, cared about what he did, and didn’t mind getting up every day to face high school sophomores. But he had been teaching from the same History text that he used when my mother took his class, and it appeared that he was now quite bored with the limited sliver of world goings-on between 1066 AD and the Renaissance he was assigned to teach. Unlike Physics teachers who can be rejuvenated cerebrally by the discovery of new sub-particles or English teachers who can add emerging writers to their curriculum, there is not much more to say about the Norman Invasion today than was said in 1940 when he started teaching, and probably not too more than was said in, say, 1067. So, he lost his enthusiasm for his content and in doing so, lost his ability to make World History anything but a mind-numbing experience for the rest of us.

Each day, he droned on about the reign of King Philip or an otherwise pivotal moment from the past as if it were some worldwide inconvenience, and he even made the Black Death—which in gore-value alone should have been a very cool topic for 10th graders— sound bland. Mr. Crenshaw just read word-for-word, without inflection, from the text book pages we were assigned to read the night before, stopping when the bell rang, often in mid-sentence.

While it was sad for us, having the very life sucked out of a subject that students having anyone but Mr. Crenshaw enjoyed, it was perhaps more tragic for Mr. Crenshaw, who lived in abject boredom for the past thirty years and felt the 45 minute class crawled even more slowly for him than us. He was unable to find ways to keep his own enthusiasm kindled, which in turn prevented him for igniting ours. As a result, few of his students ever went on to pursue any field that needed to acknowledge anything happened prior to 1690.

I have encountered many Mr. Crenshaws in my professional life: people who have delivered the same information day after day, and have lost the ability or even common courtesy to portray it enthusiastically. Or people who present ideas that might not be their own, and fail because they seem not to be convinced themselves. Or people whose insecurity or lack of confidence surfaces as apathy or dispassion.

An audience will never buy a concept that a presenter does not appear to be sold on. Whether languor is a product of boredom, weariness from a busy schedule, or uncertainty, the end result will be the same: the audience will see the topic as unimportant to them as it appears to be to the presenter.

Enthusiasm is contagious. That which seemed unimportant can take on urgency if the messenger is committed. Low priorities can be elevated by excitement.

Embedded in every topic is that thing that will makes it appealing to you and to your audience. Find it. If you can’t immediately, look again or try harder. If the spark has gone out, rekindle it. Keep in interesting for you and chances are you make it interesting for your them. Tap your passion. Show it in your voice. Portray it in your visuals. Convince people of it when you look them in the eye. Make your enthusiasm the catalyst for theirs.

You owe it to your audience and your content. And don’t read from the text book.

© Copyright 2014. Chuck Goldstone. All Rights Reserved