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Digital guest lectures for high school students: ‘It is an art to appeal to them properly’

How do you make lobbying and rhetoric both challenging and understandable for high school students? Professor Jaap de Jong found the answer in climate activist Greta Thunberg. Together with his colleague Arco Timmermans, he developed a digital guest lecture on how to present a convincing story.

'I asked myself who the most famous speaker of our time is in that age group. The only one I could think of was Greta Thunberg,' explains De Jong, professor of Journalism and New Media. ‘Simply just showing her to students, so to speak, gets you their attention - whether they agree with it or not. You can also use a beautiful, classical speech by Max Havelaar, but that is a bit further removed from their personal lives.'

Coffeehouse or public speech?

During the digital guest lecture De lobby van retorica (The lobby of rhetoric, ed.), De Jong and Timmermans engage students in the language and rhetoric of lobbying using Greta Thunberg as an example. 'Arco explains what lobbying is and where it happens. I talk about the role that rhetoric plays when you actually start lobbying,' says De Jong. 'Lobbying can be done in the open, when you try to influence politics through public opinion. But lobbying also occurs behind closed doors; meeting up with a politician in a coffeehouse. Sometimes this does not work and a lobby group has to find another way to promote their position. Then you opt for another route and ask Greta Thunberg to give a speech, for example.'

And the way in which Thunberg does that is special, according to De Jong. 'She goes against the grain; when she speaks to powerful politicians, she does not please them but pushes back hard. She upsets them and shows that she is angry, just like many of her peers,' he says. 'She knows how to shape her message in a way that has an impact and the effect is that everyone remembers her. That is special for a girl her age.'

Not easily swayed

But simply using a well-known example is not enough. According to De Jong, it is an art to properly appeal to the young target audience. 'It should not be too long and it should contain enough starting points for lecturers to continue discussions. Children of that age are very eager to learn and are not easily swayed, so you have to offer them good content, otherwise they will not be interested.'

But not only the story has to make sense: the visual presentation was also carefully thought out. 'We used banners as visual props, just as in demonstrations that are in the open. When people think of rhetoric, they usually think of a platform and a serious-looking speaker, but we used that cliché and also debunked it a bit.’

A great opportunity

De Jong looks back with pleasure on the development process of the guest lecture and wholeheartedly recommends it. 'It is a great opportunity to get to know nice colleagues from other parts of the university. I know a lot of colleagues but often from within my own circle,' he says. 'Additionally, it takes creativity to simplify the stories you normally tell at a higher level while not making them childish. I think that is a good exercise as well.'

It is an investment that takes time and attention. 'You tell two stories in one and there exists tension between those, because after three minutes you really need to move on to the other story. A big story is made very small. That takes quite a bit of craftsmanship.' The script had to be fine-tuned several times, but that was not the difficult part, according to the professor. ‘Writing a good text is one thing, but then you have to tell it in that order so that the other person can respond to it. I found that to be more difficult than I thought, so I had to redo some scenes three or four times. When I finally got it right, a moped screeched past along the Rapenburg and I had to do it all over again. We had a lot of laughs that day.'

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