PR for Student Hosts

Students can make excellent hosts and guides at school functions, but, if you are going to use them as image ambassador you need to train them in the social arts. They will be confident school representatives if they understand the role of the host and the basic social rules of mixing and mingling.

Meet ‘n’ Greet functions abound at schools. I attend many where I often observe students who lack the social skills to cope with the occasion. There they stand, clumped together for personal security, unsure of their role, unskilled at socialising with a group of strangers, holding plates of food that are going cold because they do not know how to break through the invisible screen that surrounds chatting adults. 

At one school function, prefects were simply told to show up for an orientation day for prospective scholarship holders. The only instruction they received was to “look smart”. When visiting parents started to ask questions about scholarships and the academic standards of the school, the students lacked factual information. They were unaware of the focus of the event or to whom to refer parents. One boy confided to me afterwards that he felt so inept he quietly slipped to the periphery of the group hoping nobody would engage him in further conversation. 

Social skills are learned. If your school claims it teaches life-skills, leadership skills and communication skills, a social function is an opportunity to demonstrate these skills in action. The following tips will help equip your students with the public relations tools needed for impressive social engagement.

Brief the school students

It’s not enough to draw up a list of gregarious students and tell them, “Just greet visitors and show them around”. Students will be more confident if they know who will be present, why the school is holding the function and the part they are expected to play.

Explain the job of the school student host

Students fortunate to grow up in a sociable family will see their parents acting as hosts and using interpersonal skills. Unfortunately, many young people miss out on this experience at home, but their school can teach them these valuable relationship skills. So what does a host do? A host makes others feel at ease. A host circulates amongst the group and chats in a friendly way. A host remembers names and introduces people to each other. A host looks out for peoples’ needs, such as giving directions, finding a seat, providing something to eat or drink or someone to talk to. A host supplies relevant information such as a fact sheet, a map, a program. . . .

Prepare a self-introduction

Most visitors suffer high levels of social anxiety when they enter a scene full of strangers and move out of their comfort zone. Tell your students to look out isolated couples and singles who greatly welcome conversation with a friendly member of the school. The art for your students is to know how to start the conversation. 

A sure fire approach is for a student to go up to visitors with a smile on his/her face and a ready introduction which can be followed by a question, such as: “Hello, I’m Peter Brown. Is this your first visit to our school?”

While this may sound simple, shy students need practice before the event so they feel secure about their method of approach, their voice and their body language. 

Penetrating large groups is more challenging. A huddle of adults engaged in a lively conversation is difficult to enter, but there are techniques that enable one to move into conversation with a group. For example, when the group is talking, a student can approach gently and position himself close to the edge. He should use facial contact to show that he is interested in the chat, and when he feels himself included, either by eye contact or verbal acknowledgement, he can make a comment and join in the conversation.

Initiate small talk

Conversation is a two way process and students need to learn how to pass the conversation back and forth. 

Small talk is a perfectly acceptable way of warming up a conversation. Common topics include the weather, comments on a speech just heard, observations about a new building, or the results of a sporting match. 

Students need to arrive at a function with a few conversation starters in mind. For example, “How did you enjoy the swimming carnival on Saturday, the jazz night, the . . .”

Other openers include non-intrusive questions such as: “Are you a former student of the school? What class is your son/daughter in? Do you live close to the school? 

These simple questions help people find common ground and reflect on similar experiences. 

Remind students that their negative comments or putdowns, even in jest, are not appropriate at such functions as they may be misinterpreted by visitors who do not understand the culture of the school or the humour of the student.

Be aware of body language

Students need a few pointers about body language so that they appear relaxed, yet confident. They may need to practice standing firmly on two feet with their legs slightly apart and their arms loosely at their side. Make sure students know that the pillars are there to hold up buildings, not nervous students! And no hiding behind the shrubbery or in the shadows. 

When in conversation, eye contact, nodding and smiling will aid the flow of casual talk.

Disengage gracefully

Many people feel uncomfortable ending a conversation and moving away. Give your students the license to do so by explaining that social occasions are designed for people to circulate. The idea is NOT to engage in deep conversation with one group for the duration of the event. Equip them with the conversational phrases to disengage politely. 

The simplest way is to finish a sentence and say, “It’s been nice talking to you.” Smile and move away. Another line is, “I see Mrs Jones over there and I must say hello”, or “I’d better keep moving and serve drinks to the other guests.” 

Remember names

Using a person’s name is an important social skill. 

Teach students to focus on name badges and give them some tips clues for remembering names. One way to do this is to say the name aloud a couple of times to reinforce the sound. “Hello Mr Howe.” And a little later, “What did you think of the netball match on the weekend Mr Howe?” 

Connecting a name with a physical characteristic helps link the name with the face. For example, Mrs Greenacre with the green colour of her dress. Or a personal characteristic; Mr Howe will show you Howe to get things done!

And after the function it’s a real bonus if students can remember the names of adults they met and use them next time they see the person.

Know the facts

School students who are guides, (for example on open days or tours) need factual information. A pre-function briefing should tell them the purpose of the function and the nature of the audience. 
Students should be familiar with the school’s history, the number of students enrolled, subjects offered, scholarships ,upcoming events, internet access etc. They need to know where to send parents for more detailed information. 

They also need practice at introducing parents to staff using eye contact and correct protocol. For example, “Mr and Mrs Jones, this is our principal, Ms Jackson.”

Know how to respond to rejection

Most social situations at schools are pleasant functions because guests are supportive of young people, but youngsters or teenagers who are extending themselves to others are vulnerable to rudeness, mockery, disinterest or humour that hurts. Your students should be prepared for this. The best advice to give your students is to say nothing and move away. 

Similarly, students, particularly girls, need to know how to act and what to say if they find themselves in an uncomfortable situation with a stranger.

Serve food confidently

Serving food is an art in itself, somewhat different from the role of a general host or tour guide. 

Often a platter-bearer needs to push into and withdraw from a socially tight group. Assertiveness is linked with the job and students need to know that they can interrupt to deliver refreshments.

Hovering in the background waiting for an opening can be ineffectual. Equally, they need to gauge when people have had enough to eat and withdraw.

Students serving food should be polite but not get caught up in conversation. Their job is to circulate widely and to distribute the food evenly and quickly. 

Short simple words are sufficient “Would you like a drink?” said with a smile. 

Serving students should not be eating or drinking themselves or touching the food.(If possible, it’s a good idea to feed the students a sample of the food before the event). Their fingernails and hands should be clean, uniforms spotless and long hair tied back.

A school student briefing before a function is a valuable investment of time for an image conscious school and also a practical learning experience for a student.

About the author
Dr Linda Vining was the Director of the Centre for Marketing Schools (CMS).  For other marketing strategies see Linda’s book PURPLE POWER for memorable school marketing.
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