By Becki White
It is commonly stated that people rank the fear of public speaking above the fear of death. There are many theories why people have a fear of public speaking. There are social anxiety disorders that are tied to public speaking. That anxiety is rooted in the fear of being ostracized or rejected by the social group. The ability to put yourself on the line and share your opinion publicly in front of a large group is a vulnerable position. You must be comfortable with your knowledge of the material you are presenting and be confident enough to command the room.
If you’re teaching a class on forcible entry, auto extrication, raising ladders, or other hands-on skills, aside from some diagrams and positive examples, there is little need to conduct those subjects in a classroom. They are best learned on the training ground. Those topics are best taught in a blended online/in-person structure or on the training ground with your hands on the tools.
If you have been tapped to share your experience as a leader or your knowledge on a subject that is best learned by listening rather than doing, you will be relegated to a classroom rather than the familiar training grounds. The first step of commanding the classroom is putting together a winning presentation. That doesn’t have to include a slide deck in PowerPoint®, Keynote, Prezi, or other presentation software. It might just be you, in front of the room talking. No matter what is behind you, the preparation process is the same.
Identify Your Audience
This may already be defined for you (for example, fire department personnel). If you are putting together your own presentation for something outside of your department training, you can be more specific for aspiring fire department officers, new chief officers, new drivers/engineers, etc.
Organize Your Thoughts
Start with the end in mind. This is usually referred to as stating your objectives. What do you want people to walk away from your presentation with? You can use the specific educational format of Bloom’s Taxonomy or you can simply state what you want the participants to know or be able to do when they walk out the doors. You should not start putting a slide deck or outline together until you have identified those key learning objectives.
Start with some sticky notes or a pad of paper, and write down key ideas. If you prefer to do your work on the computer, you can type an outline or you can open your presentation software and put headers on a variety of slides as your key points. You shouldn’t type anything into the text area of the slide until your skeleton is finished.
Once you have laid out your outline or created the headers in your presentation software, you can type the things you want to say into the notes section at the bottom of the screen. You should not put your initial thoughts into the text area. A trap that many people fall into is opening presentation software and writing their program slide by slide. This often leads to a multitude of slides with more words than white space. Presentations are not the place to provide a visual example of your immense vocabulary.
The human brain does not have the ability to focus on reading and listening at the same time. If there is a large screen flooded with words in front of someone, they will likely start reading those words. When your audience members are reading the words in front of them, they are no longer listening to you. As a presenter, even though you may be the very person who crafted all the words on the screen and have immense knowledge of the topic, you will likely revert to reading the text on the slide aloud to the audience as well. Adult learners do not appreciate being read to. If you know your material, you should be able to have fewer than 10 words on a slide, using pictures or key words to jog your memory. Most presentation software allows for presenter modes where you can see the notes section as you are presenting if you need to have the notes there.
Less Is More When It Comes to Words
When you have your presentation together, flip through your presentation software and make sure that you have limited words on each slide. If there are more than 10 words, you should consider breaking the concepts over multiple slides. Since there will be limited words on the slide, those words should be font size 36 or higher. You want the people in the back row, who should have gotten glasses years ago, to be able to read those things you felt HAD to be on the slides.
Your pictures should be as close to full screen as possible. If they get too grainy, you should find a better resolution image or a different picture altogether. There are several benefits of using pictures over words in your presentation. One is that people will remember the images and tie your message into those images they are storing in their brains. Another benefit is that, if you are in a time crunch, you can shorten the amount of time you spend on a topic without skipping content that is visible to the audience; they will never know that you shortened the material. They always know when you skip over bullet points or fly past full screens.
Provide Discussion Time
Most people learn tactilely—they will remember things they are able to get their hands on and manipulate. The material that is shared in a classroom setting is hard to give them tactilely. You can help people remember the concepts by giving them opportunities to talk about the material they are learning. Pause to do a “share with the person next to you,” or “tell me about a time when,” or, if you are time-limited and need to keep moving, ask for three “aha”s or “takeaways” that people have picked up so far. These short discussion breaks will help keep the audience engaged and will provide feedback on whether you are hitting your mark with the information.
Plan, Practice, and Execute
When you have your presentation together, you have reviewed it to make sure it’s visually engaging, and you have put thought into where you will insert discussion time, you are ready to practice your presentation. Give the slide deck to others to review and check for common spelling and grammatical errors. Ask them to check the size and readability of your choice of font. Practice giving your presentation a few times. There are recording options built into many of the presentation platforms; those can be used to practice your presentation timing.
You can go through and delete the audio files if you don’t have a need to keep the narrated copy. It might be a good idea to keep the narrated copy if you will not be giving your presentation again for a long while, as it will help remind you of what you said in your presentation.
If you have spent the time putting together a quality presentation and taken the time to practice, you will have prepared yourself to command the room, no matter what your topic.
Becki White is an assistant chief with the Eden Prairie (MN) Fire Department overseeing the training and fire prevention divisions. She was formerly a deputy state fire marshal/fire and life safety educator with the Minnesota State Fire Marshal Division. White completed the Executive Fire Officer program with the National Fire Academy. She serves as the Minnesota representative of the International Association of Fire Service Instructors, a fire safety messaging advisory board member for the UL Fire Safety Research Institute, and an advisory board member for FireRescue and FDIC International. White has a master’s degree in education and previously worked as an elementary school teacher.