Setting the Room on Fire

We’ve all been there.

You find an opportunity to attend a presentation you really look forward to, made by a person hyped as “the best in the business,” on a skill or topic you see as essential for you. You can’t wait to go and sit in, absorb everything you can, and bring it back to your department ””or just go soak it up and have some new skills in your personal toolbox. And then the presentation starts.


Oh no. Another PowerPoint®. You try not to move your lips as you start praying you won’t be subjected to death-by-PowerPoint again. Can anyone do a presentation anymore without a 90-slide PowerPoint deck?  After introductions, the present

er clicks to the first slide, and you get that sinking feeling. It’s going to be a long day. There are so many words on the screen. He should’ve mailed a book rather than signed people up for a presentation. “Why are you reading to me?” you’re screaming inwardly.

After a half hour, your brain hurts. You become preoccupied with your phone or any other distraction you can think of because you’re tired of reading slides, and even more tired of having them read to you. The day is a wash. The presenter might have some great information, but it’s not making its way to your brain, and you can tell that others aren’t taking it in either. As early as the first break, no one is discussing the value of this new information. They’re murmuring about the poor presentation style and asking each other, “Do you think anyone would notice if we pretended to go to the bathroom and never came back?”

Most great presenters can’t fight a fire,
and great firefighters
may need to admit
they’re not good public speakers.

Now, imagine being the person up front.
You’re a professional who has spent a career gaining the knowledge and credibility to be the one chosen for this job. You’ve invested a lot of time putting your presentation together, painstakingly sorting through and prioritizing all the knowledge you have on the topic–remembering this piece or that to include, wanting to get it all in. The day arrives and you nervously wait as people find the room, chatting with those filing in, hoping the seats will fill up. You’re feeling the energy in the room–excitement from some and the skeptical attitude of others. The audience quiets down, and it’s time to start. So here we go.

You nervously stumble over the intro you practiced a thousand times, but you finally get into a groove and take off.  After a half-hour, you notice that some of the audience members are looking at their phones. How irritating! It never occurs to you that it’s not the “younger generation” being disrespectful. It could be you and your inability to connect with the audience.

As you can imagine, things get worse from there.

This is a place you never want to be because once you’re there, it’s hard to recover. You need to invest as much time in how to present as you do in your topic, your content, your visual aids and handouts.

Most of us got into the business of firefighting to be the best firefighters we could be–to provide a service to the community and to help people in trouble. We were trained on forcible entry, fire behavior, basic or advanced medical response, and lots of other skills. Little time, if any, was spent learning how to present to groups of strangers. Some people get certifications in instruction and public education, but few of those classes teach best practices on how to make an effective presentation. They rarely cover how non-verbal communication, including your stance and facial expression, sends as loud a message to your audience as the words you choose. Something as simple as folding your arms or using the wrong pronoun can turn audience members off so much that you never get them back. Unfortunately, lack of training doesn’t stop fire departments from turning training sessions over to newly appointed officers or assigning rookies the important task of going out in public to give presentations in the community.

If you’re asked to take your ill-prepared self out there and present something, you want to put your best foot forward, so you turn to the Internet–that endless source of wisdom. Someone out there, somewhere, will have the tips you need to put a good presentation together, right?

Google! The answer to all of life’s problems!  Do a Google search on “PowerPoint Tips” and it will yield nearly 40 million results. That search doesn’t even touch non-verbal communication, projecting confidence, room arrangement, and the myriad of other things that go into an effective presentation. (Although one tip might be: “Don’t use words like myriad. Just say countless.” Inserting big words just to sound smart usually backfires and discounts your credibility.)

There are better places to start.

Step one is to acknowledge that most great presenters can’t fight a fire, and even great firefighters may need to admit they’re not good public speakers.

There aren’t many classes in the fire service that focus on effective presentations, so you may need to bypass the traditional, tactical classes when you have the opportunity to attend one on presentations instead.

Seek out people you view as master communicators, those people who have a knack for getting their message across in meetings, articles, or training sessions.  Seek advice from others, and connect with people who have a passion for training and education.  It’s amazing what you can learn in an e-mail exchange or a quick phone call.

You also need to observe other presenters, attend classroom sessions–lots of them. Find any topic that interests you and some that don’t. During and after each class, write some notes.  Did you feel motivated or encouraged?  Why? If you weren’t fascinated at the beginning, did the presenter capture your interest? How?  How did the speaker present the material?  Was PowerPoint used the way it should be–to expand on the main points–or was it a speech outline, or worse?  Did the presenter seem approachable and genuine?  How was that accomplished?

You can learn from a presentation that’s terrible, too. Sadly, the bad examples are more readily available than good ones. Why was it bad?  Too much jargon? Too many slides? Too much arrogance?   Were there too many war stories?  These are some things you can avoid when it’s your turn up on the stage; even if you think that will never be you, your chance to shine could be right around the corner.

You are only a tap on the shoulder away from being thrust in front of a crowd you’re not ready for–or one invitation from a chance to leave an audience asking each other, “Do you think anyone would notice if we came back to this session tomorrow?”

As you invest in your technical skills and gain the credibility to be that presenter, invest in yourself, too, by learning how to communicate your knowledge effectively.

Originally posted on the FDIC’s website.

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