Instructional Command Presence

In my August column, we talked about the introductory aspects of teaching a class. In this installment, we’ll share some thoughts on presentation skills—the do’s and don’ts of successfully instructing on a particular topic. To do this, we focus on the mechanics of getting the message across to your students.

The importance of a trainer knowing the subject matter is probably the best starting point. There is a definite connection between this and a greater degree of technical competence in front of the class. It can be a tremendous help to an instructor who is relatively new to teaching a specific topic to know the subject inside out. Especially when you’re teaching cops, don’t expect to go well if you try to “wing it” or “BS” the class when you don’t know the material well.

The Right Stuff

An embarrassing moment that continues to haunt me occurred in one of my first classes. I committed a major instructional sin: I read from my notes. Even worse, I also read, literally, straight from a book on the subject. I wasn’t teaching. I was verbally regurgitating.

The evaluations on my performance were justifiably terrible, including comments about the class being a waste of time. Since then, I’ve recognized that a positive byproduct of knowing the subject is that you won’t come anywhere near my dismal performance. If you’re dependant on your printed material rather than your own brainpower, you may feel the same trainer’s trauma.

But it’s something you can correct by knowing your stuff. A good indication of reaching instructional nirvana is when you can coherently talk to the students and think ahead to the next topic. That’s when you know you’re really in the groove as a knowledgeable and skilled instructor.

Crank Up the Paddles—Stat!

It’s a given: There will be times when you lose a thought and need to jump-start your presentation. If you’re dependant upon notes—especially if they’re in a font similar in size to this article—it’s almost guaranteed you’ll experience difficulty as you search to find your place while the students watch. This will take too much time and the students’ eyes will be on you as they wait for the learning to continue. (In some cases, this pause drags on to the point where students may want to grab the paddles of an “instructional defibrillator,” yell “CLEEAARR!” and zap their instructor back into action.) That effect will only add to the pressure and the stress you’ll feel to get going again.

Here’s a suggestion that may help, especially if you’re first developing your command of a topic. Each time I tackle a new class, I make a “teaching book.” Generally I use a three-ring binder so I can change pages as I add updated information. Each page is labeled and contains relevant information printed in a large font. If I’m using PowerPoint, I may print out the presentation’s slides and put those in the binder. Additionally, I will use a red or blue pen in large print to make important notations. Should I forget something while speaking, I find my place in the teaching book and quickly reorient so that I’m back on track with minimal delay. You can do the same by using a well-prepared lesson plan. However, for a quick recovery from the illness I call CRS (Can’t Remember Sh*t), I rely on my teaching book.

Um & Ah

Another issue that plagues instructors is the use of “ums,” “ahs” and other filler words. A command of the topic, including the relevant details, will help prevent this. Here’s why: Trainers often use filler words as a verbal crutch. Their conscious and subconscious brains try to maintain a logical and correct flow of information. A limited reliance on filler words is a natural part of the sharing process.

But if the teaching brain is searching for the correct info rather than delivering it in a seamless fashion, it’s a good bet that words such as “um” will creep into your sentence structure and become an unwelcomed part of the delivery.

To address this, one development technique that works well is the teach-back exercise. In this, trainers develop their skill on an assigned subject in front of other instructors. If the trainer starts injecting unnecessary words into their presentation, then it’s a good bet that they’re doing so because they’re lacking in confidence and command of the subject matter.

I’m often involved as an evaluator in such exercises with my students. Sometimes the use of these repetitive words is so bad that I start keeping score. When a speaker’s “ums” gets into the 20s and beyond in a 5­–10 minute presentation, they become a roadblock to getting the message across. Often, the student has realized this during the presentation. Along with my critique, this realization helps get the new instructor on the right track.

The Instructor Speaks

Beyond a command of the subject, technical competence includes a lot of different aspects that blend together into one’s teaching persona. One of the most important is how you use and project your thoughts into words. Through their voice, a good trainer communicates with the students at a level that delivers a certainty about the learning process. In essence, we’re having an important conversation with the class. Using a clear voice and employing a conversational tone as your baseline helps create a relaxed learning environment. 

However, like many things in life, too much of this type of delivery can be a bad thing. To avoid monotony, try changing your volume or tone to emphasize an important point. By putting some bass in your voice and amping up the volume, you can break the students—and you—out of a potentially boring training session. This vocal variation should be used as a means to forcefully emphasize or draw attention to an important fact.

Example: To make an attention-grabbing and relevant point about emergency medical triage, I’ll sometimes ask students if there are any communists (loud emphasis on the word) in the class who haven’t seen at least the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan. (Mega bonus points go to those who have seen this movie and Band of Brothers.) Although my intention is humor, this trick also serves to capture the student’s attention. Clearly, students won’t retain information if they don’t have their brains focused.

Instead of increasing volume, it can be just as effective to drop it down a few notches. This can cause your class to perk up as they zero in on what you’re saying. I suggest this technique be used sparingly. Otherwise, students in the class may think you’re vocally challenged—or weird!

A final verbal technique: occasionally repeat an important fact after first stating it. Repetition can help solidify a specific message. Used wisely, and in combination with the above options, your delivery will be better received.

He Can’t Get Any Respect

Maybe you’ve seen the old Rodney Dangerfield movie Back to School. In one scene, Rodney sits in on a class with his son. The professor begins his discourse and his imperial, superior attitude toward the students is almost instantly identifiable. It’s clear they should be eternally grateful he has chosen to bestow his wisdom on them. In his eyes, they are insignificant. This is an exaggerated—or is it?—caricature of a pompous and self-centered trainer. Suffice it to say, body language, tone and word choice all send cues about an instructor.

Don’t be this professor! When appropriate, share and demonstrate your enthusiasm for the topic. Don’t fake it. Faking it is about as obvious as a suspect caught burglarizing a liquor store who claims, “I didn’t do it. I just barely got here right now!” Verbalize your honest commitment to the topic. A genuine approach is almost always appreciated, and enthusiasm is contagious. Remember: Good instructors reflect through their communication that the students are the most important people in the classroom. That kind of attitude fosters a level of respect for the instructor’s efforts to share worthwhile knowledge.

Body Language

Body language is an equally important instructional skill. First, it’s a good idea to avoid unnatural—or, worse yet, just plain wacky—habits in front of your students. One classic guaranteed to distract is playing with objects, such as coins and keys, in your pants’ pocket. Don’t go there. It can negate your efforts to communicate and lead to all kinds of speculation by your students about what you’re really doing (!). Behaviors—such as repeatedly running a hand through the hair—may damage communication efforts. Bottom line: Keep your manual dexterity under control.

On the positive side, using the hands to emphasize key issues is an effective method. Pointing, chopping the air, slamming your fist into the palm of your other hand or a good old-fashioned high-five with a student who made a great or humorous point will all work in the classroom.

One hand movement to avoid is the crossing of arms as you talk to the students. Used sparingly, you might get away with it. But if you use this gesture repeatedly, the body language gurus will point out this is a negative. The crossed arms create a subliminal barrier between you and the audience.

A parallel to this behavior is the instructor who turns their back to the class while writing on the white board or reading a PowerPoint slide projected onto the screen. In the latter case, I can personally testify that this is another “sin,” not only because of the negative body language message it sends, but also because the students may be blinded as the beam of light bounces off my little, bald head and hits them in the eyes. 

Getting your feet moving also serves to draw the students’ attention. Rather than just staying in one spot, walking around is an effective technique to integrate your presence with that of your students. It engages the students’ minds on another level beyond just the listening. This might be because, over centuries of human evolution, we’ve become hardwired as hunters who key in on movement. Somewhere in the class cerebellums, a trainer moving about stimulates the “this might be interesting” response of our Cro-Magnon DNA heritage.

By way of comparison, I’m sure you’ve probably experienced instructors who are the opposite: They stay rooted behind a podium so much that you begin to wonder if they’re afraid of a surprise attack from the audience. Sometimes it almost seems as though the trainer regards that piece of furniture as the only available cover.

Here’s Looking at You, Kid

One of the best nonverbal techniques you can use with your classes is good eye contact. Street cops key off of this important aspect. They often equate a failure to “look me in the eyes” with deceptive or guilty behavior. In our business, we call this a clue. A skilled police trainer knows the importance of this trait. It should be a natural part of your delivery.

In some cases, however, I’ve seen instructors who mechanically cast their gaze to their right, move to the center and then on to the left before returning to the starting point. In my wacky thought patterns, I’ve marveled at such automatic behavior, wondering if they have an instructional version of Dr. Evil’s Mini-Me embedded at the base of the skull. This tiny teacher’s assistant cranks the head to a certain angle, waits 15 seconds, cranks again to a midline orientation and then over to the opposite flank before backtracking.

Instead, the experts tell us that eye contact should be effortless progression from one student’s face to another, holding their gaze and then moving on in a random but genuine fashion.  


It’s now time for you to take your eyes off this article and move on to some of our other dedicated authors. Before you leave, I hope that this exploration into the mechanics of effective training will be something that benefits your efforts and, therefore, your students. The better you become at teaching, the more likely officers in your class will take the message to heart, and use it wisely on the streets. Train safe.

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