For two years of my life, I had the best job in the world.
I was a trainer for young people; mostly between the ages of 18 – 24. But I also spent a bit of time with teenagers aged 15 – 17.
My job was to help develop them for the adult world, and if it came down to purely emotional fulfilment — I’d probably have done it forever. But in work and life, of course, other factors come into play: like career growth, sustainability and impact.
So I eventually moved on. But not before learning all I could about young people. I share those learnings here.
How would you use this info? Maybe you have some sort of job that requires you to speak to uni students, and you don’t want them to fall asleep. Maybe you’re frustrated by why only old people buy your products. Or maybe you just wanna understand why your bitchy cousin is on her phone all the time.
Whatever it is, I hope you’ll find this useful. Here’s what I’ve learned about how to talk to young people.
1. Don't Be A Parent
Rule number #1: Don’t be a parent. You can be a friend, counsellor, teacher, guru, even big brother/sister. Whatever. But don’t be a parent.
(Disclaimer: I’m not saying that parents aren’t important. They are. I have absolute respect for what parents do. But this article isn’t written from a parental perspective; it’s for people outside of the family.)
What’s the fastest way to make young people not wanna do something? Right, get their parents to nag them to do it.
You’ll see this weird dynamic play out in a variety of other ways too. Like the husband who won’t ever eat vitamins, though his wife has been nagging him to do it forever. But then buys a jumbo pack of Activlife MutiVitamin 500 (With Spirulina Plus!) after talking to a random salesman for five minutes.
There’s something about close “authority figures” that makes people — especially younger ones — wanna rebel.
And assuming that the young people you’re trying to reach already have authority figures in their lives — you don’t need to become another one.
So don’t talk to them as if you’re a know-it-all and they have to listen to you. No nagging or preaching. No “you musts” or “you shoulds.” (Unless of course, they’re asking you for advice.)
If they feel like you’re judging them, they won’t open up to you.
2. Earn Their Respect
“Old people” often use things like job title and position to measure status. So say, if you’re the boss of a small organisation, you might be used to people listening to you and paying you respect.
Young people don’t care about that shit.
Instead, they have their own measures of “success.” Maybe Instagram followers are their way of measuring who’s successful or not. How many did you gain yesterday?
My point is, just because you’re older, wiser and richer — don’t expect young people to automatically listen to you. You have to prove your credibility, and you often have to do it much faster than with adults. Because they grew up with mobile phones and the Internet — their brains probably work way faster than ours.
How do you earn their respect then? (Because you’re probably never gonna have as many Social Media followers, and you don’t wear NMDs.)
Show them how you managed to get the things they want. And then show them how to get it too.
This doesn’t mean you teach them stupid pranks to gain Likes and Follows. But you can start by telling them, that just like them, you were once socially anxious and craved for affirmation too. That you used to write silly 600-word testimonials for your friends on a weird website called Friendster — so they would like you back.
Along the way you discovered that seeking approval is an endless journey; that never really gets satisfied. And even though you only have 813 Facebook friends today, you’re happy and confident — and you know that the people you love absolutely love you back.
Young people may look like they want stupid things. But look deeper — we’re all human; we all share common desires.
3. Play With Them
To connect with young people, you’ve gotta be fun. I know this both from personal experience, and observing the best trainers I know:
The best cross-generation connectors are all playful people.
“But I’m not a fun person,” you say. “And I’m not gonna act silly just to get some teenagers’ attention!”
Glad you raised that up. Because neither am I. By default, I’m very much a quiet, introverted, read-books-alone kinda person. But if I can learn how to play with young people — then maybe you can too.
The key here isn’t to be silly. You could act like a clown, but people would get bored after a while. (BTW this applies to dating too.) Instead, the key is to have fun two-way interactions.
Most young people have enough deathly-boring people in their lives. Prime example: lecturers who don’t care about whether their students enjoy learning or not. (This really bugs me BTW: Why TF don’t academicians put more effort into making learning fun?
Instead, be that breath of fresh air: the older person who still knows how to live young. You’ll have to find a common area of fun — what both you and your audience enjoy. It might be difficult to find, but I guarantee you there will be things you’ll love doing together.
Inside each one of us, there is a child who never got to play as much as he/she wanted. If you let your child out to meet theirs, maybe you’ll have a good time together.
Maybe you’ll have a connection
4. Master Their Language
As anyone who’s ever tried to dive into a foreign culture knows, speaking someone else’s language is immensely powerful. (It’s useful in bars too.)
And yes, I know you already speak the same language as your target audience. But drop you among a group of 20-year-olds, and you might not understand 50% of what they’re saying. Why?
Because they have their own ways of saying and doing things. They have slang words and code words that outsiders don’t understand. And they use communication channels (anyone here uses Snapchat?) that might make no sense to older people.
But learning young people’s language doesn’t mean you stop at using Snapchat filters and throwing around slang words like “AF.” It also means you empathize with them. Immerse yourself. Put yourself in their shoes, and try to feel what it means to be young in today’s scary world.
What problems do they face today that didn’t exist when you were adulting? What are their fears, and how can you help them?
“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” – Dr Stephen Covey
That’s what real communicators do.
5. Be Authentic
When you were a kid, you blurted out whatever was on the top of your mind, with #nofilter.
But somewhere along the way of growing up, we start getting used to filters and masks. We become politically correct. And hide behind social appearances we think will protect us from the world, and sometimes the world from us. (This isn’t always a bad thing; social grace has probably stopped countless wars.)
But I also think most of us are tired of hiding.
You can see evidence of this everywhere. Like if you go to a university forum, there’ll always be that one student who will make everyone laugh and clap by asking a daring question that no older person would.
You can also see how people love characters like Gary Vee and Mark Manson. They might be brutally honest and say f*ck all the time. But people see them as “telling it as it is,” — saying things that everyone knows and feels, but don’t have the guts to say.
And consider the case of Leonard Kim, who went from being suicidal, broke and homeless to being featured on Forbes magazine. His path to fame? Paved by his no-holds-barred failure stories on Quora.
When you’re authentic, you open yourself to genuine connections. So don’t put on appearances or try to “fake it.” Don’t think you need to be someone else. Young people have some of the best bullshit detectors in the world.
It’s okay to show your weaknesses. It’s okay to tell them that you’re not an expert, but you can share personal experiences. And it’s okay to say you don’t know. It’s only human.
Maybe they’ll love you or they won’t. But at least they won’t ignore you cause you’re fake.
I was 32 when I started my work with young people. I think I did okay, but hopefully, they will still listen to me when I'm 40.
Thankfully, I still know a few 40-year-olds who can command the attention of both adult audiences and 18-year-olds. I observe them and try to figure out what makes them so charismatic.
They’re all practitioners of the five points above to some degree. But another common thing among them is they’re all curious and open-minded people. They’re always looking to learn new things.
Maybe that’s the real difference between an old and a young person; the valley between the dying and the growing; and what makes people really come alive. It’s the desire to learn and grow.
If you have that, you’ll always be young.