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Picture this. I’m standing up front at the front of the class, an awkward high school freshman new to Arizona. I’m shy. Painfully shy. I don’t know anyone in my class. Every part of me wants to crawl up into a ball and hide. The paper rattles in my hand as I attempt to sputter out my first sentence. Nothing comes out. I stop and take a deep breath, but as I try again, my voice seizes up. No words. My pulse is pounding, heart hammering. I can feel the blood rushing to my face.

Nothing happens.

I try again. Still nothing.

A few students offer sympathetic glances. A few kids begin to whisper. Mostly, they just gawk at the train wreck of a speech I’m trying to deliver.

“I can’t,” I finally get out.

“We’ll reschedule,” the teacher says.

That night I practice the speech fifteen times in front of a mirror but even then my second attempt is nearly as bad. It bombs. I deliver it in this monotone flat whisper and the students offer a polite clap at the end.

For the rest of the quarter, I grow incrementally better. However, I never feel at ease. The speeches I deliver alone are five times better than the speeches I deliver in front of my classmates. The previous year, I had given a prerecorded slide presentation to a packed auditorium. But this was different. This was live. This time, there were no revisions and I had to stumble forward to get better. In the end, that public speaking class was the hardest B I’d ever earned – not because the workload was intense but because every single day pushed me outside of my comfort zone. Every single day.

Fast-forward twenty-five years and I speak on a regular basis. I’m a confident speaker. Back in college, I often had to speak in front of groups to fundraise for the non-profit where I worked. As a classroom teacher, I had to hone my craft at direct instruction, and soon I had opportunities to lead professional development on PBL. I’ve gotten to speak at the White House (different president, different times). This last week, I delivered a keynote to audiences of over 2,000 people. Although I’ve rehearsed keynotes privately, everything changes when there’s an audience. I grow more animated. My timing and humor improve. I become a better storyteller. In other words, I come alive when I’m speaking.

So, here’s the odd thing. In my freshman public speaking class, having an audience didn’t improve my performance. In fact, it made it drastically worse. However, when I deliver better keynotes when I am in front of an audience than when I am alone. So, why is it that sometimes an audience makes you better and sometimes worse?

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The Mixed Results of Launching Your Work

It turns out that social psychologists have studied this phenomenon in-depth. Novice pool players struggle when they’re being watched while expert pool players perform better. There are some fascinating experimental studies showing the pros and cons of performing in front of a group (including one that involved cockroaches) in the thought-provoking book Invisible Influence by Jonah Berger.

The critical role tends to be expertise. When you’ve achieved automaticity with a task, you can easily perform in front of others. The complex task is now a part of your muscle memory and an audience can create positive peer pressure so that you perform better. However, if a task is too new or too complex, the audience can create added pressure. Suddenly, you make ridiculous mistakes that you would never make alone. Think of the chefs on Chopped, who clearly know how to craft amazing dishes but suddenly burn their steak because they are in a new studio with cameras and judges. Or consider your first year of teaching. Chances are you taught worse when you were observed. Your voice cracked. Your lesson went too fast. You missed the two kids who were talking the whole time. But later in your career, you shine under pressure. You might get nervous when the principal shows up but you nail it.

Moreover, when you are a novice with a particular craft, you tend to have lower confidence which leads to decreased self-efficacy which in turn can result in risk-aversion. You’re more likely to play it safe. So, as a newer musician, you might be less likely to improvise in when you perform at a café. However, alone with trusted friends, you jam out on the fly. You improvise on the spot. Meanwhile, if you have mastered a craft, you might be more comfortable taking a creative risk. That seasoned band has no problem riffing in the middle of a concert in front of a packed crowd.

While my examples were all about performing at the moment under pressure, we experience the same phenomenon with asynchronous work. When you’re new, a launch can feel daunting. You overedit that blog post and bite your nails after pressing “send.” You agonize over what people will think of the website you crafted. I think it’s important that we remember this reality as we approach the concept of a launch within student design thinking projects.

Should Students Launch Their Work?

I believe in the power of the launch. I want to see students create projects that they share with an authentic audience. This was a key element of the LAUNCH Cycle that A.J. Juliani and I developed and eventually shared in-depth in our book Launch.

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As a dad, I’ve seen the positive side of public performances. My daughter grew more confident and worked harder than ever when she had her first recital. My boys, new to baseball, thrived under the pressure of hitting and pitching in front of a crowd. As a classroom teacher, I watched students grow more confident and learn how to communicate effectively when they had to pitch their ideas to a committee (Shark Tank style).

At the same time, I don’t believe that students should always launch their work to an authentic audience. I am a fan of having students do private journals:

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Seven Strategies for Reducing Fear within the Launch

Launches will always be scary because of the inherent vulnerability of sharing your work. However, there are some things we can do as teachers to reduce this fear.

  1. Create a significant revision time. The research is clear that people perform better when they are experts rather than novices. While our students cannot necessarily become experts, we can address this issue by providing significant time for practice. If it’s a speech, song, or any other public performance, they need the time and space to rehearse privately. But this is also true of asynchronous launches. If it’s a digital work, like a blog or a documentary, they need ample revision time before sharing it with a larger audience.
  2. Play to student strengths. There’s an interesting study demonstrating a correlation between self-efficacy, fear, and goal-orientation in high school students. In other words, when students don’t believe they can do something (low self-efficacy) and are afraid of a particular task, they often struggle to accomplish a goal. It’s unclear whether low self-efficacy causes fear or vice versa. However, when we tie student projects to passions, talents, and interests, we can potentially reduce the fear that they experience. This is one of the reasons I love Genius Hour projects. It’s a strengths-based approach to having students launch their work.
  3. Do a private or small group performance first. Back in 8th grade, when I did my National History Day Competition slideshow (back when a slide deck was actually a donut-shape piece of plastic and slides were small white reverse negative pictures), I practiced clicking through the slideshow individually first. Next, I practiced in front of my family. Then I moved to my classmates . . . and it tanked. I got so nervous, I clicked too early and too late. The beginning was a disaster. However, I moved on to another class, then another, until I had presented to at least ten different classes. By the time I did my public launch, I had gained confidence and solidified the muscle memory so well that it was nearly impossible to mess up. This is the value in doing a private or small group performance first. If the project is asynchronous, this is the idea of doing a small group writer’s workshop, a small group focus group, or a period of peer feedback.
  4. Be selective about when and where you launch. When I had students create blogs, they were strategic about which posts they kept private, which ones they shared with classmates, which ones went to specific passion/interest groups (a key feature of Write About) and which ones went on larger public blogs. Similarly, when they choose to engage in an empathy-driven design thinking project, we had in-depth discussions about how to clarify our audience. Not every project needs a larger audience. Sometimes, it works best to keep things smaller or more local.
  5. Promote student ownership. One of the best ways to reduce fear is to promote student agency. In the LAUNCH process, students are the ones who generate the questions, engage in the research, and create the concept for their project. They also create and revise their work. Ultimately, though, one of the most empowering aspects involves having students help determine their audience for the launch. As a teacher, you might need to do some encouragement to help them grow less risk-averse. In other words, if they suddenly decide they don’t want to do a launch, you might need to say, “I know you are capable of this and I want to help you get over this fear.” But, ultimately, there is power in having them define and clarify the audience throughout the project.
  6. Examine and explore emotions. Launches can feel terrifying. And, honestly, it never really goes away. I’ll be releasing a book in a few months and I’m definitely nervous and a little scared. There’s something vulnerable about spending weeks or even months on a project and then saying to the world, “I think you should check this out.” As educators, we can help students explore these emotions by asking reflective questions. We can also share the emotions we experience as we launch.
  7. Vary the type of launch. In other words, go with both synchronous and asynchronous approaches to your launch. In some cases, students might be able to get past their initial fears by being able to prepare more in advance (a video, a podcast, a STEM product) and later shift into a public performance (speech, song, conversation, etc.). In this sense, you can build up to the launch by practicing smaller asynchronous launches, where students have the time and space to improve their products and to have “do-overs” when they make mistakes.

Sometimes It Won’t Work

Even after reducing fear, there are times when projects fail and students are unable to launch them to an audience. This is actually a universal experience for makers. Sometimes projects won’t work out. In the last few years, I’ve interviewed painters, engineers, filmmakers, architects, and entrepreneurs. I’ve found that “failed launches” are a universal experience in creative work. To be productive, you have to be good at quitting. You need to know when a project isn’t working and cut it loose. I’ve come to realize that every maker has a cutting room floor with a ton of work that didn’t make the “final cut.” We iterate and revise and put things on hold. And that’s okay. It’s part of the creative journey.

I created the following sketch video exploring what to do when projects fail:

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But, ultimately, at some point, students should have the experience of sharing their work with an authentic audience. It won’t always work perfectly. Sometimes their voices will falter. Their work won’t be perfect. But every small stumble is a chance to get back up and try again. It’s a chance to iterate and improve. And, ultimately, when students succeed, they develop that creative confidence they will need for a lifetime.


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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me

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