13 December 2014

Eight Simple Tips for Better Army Presentations

Why is it so funny to watch people fall asleep when they are trying to stay awake? I have a video of my then-two-year-old sitting upright and falling asleep. His head bobs down, wakes him up, and his eyelids smoothly lower again. Hilarious!

Adults are even funnier, though the motions are the same. It happened yesterday during what the Army calls "briefings." To form, the presenter wasn't particularly skilled at gaining attention, keeping it, or getting us "gazers" involved in learning.

Now I'll admit, having congressionally mandated classes with attendance enforced by the Uniform Code of Military Justice isn't a recipe for classroom innovation. But for those of you who want to be effective at dispensing knowledge that your students will actually take away from a class they might appreciate and remember in a good way, here are eight super easy tips to incorporate into your military presentations. If you're Army, you might even say they're "too easy."

1. Don't Apologize
I hear this all the time-- instructors say they're sorry the students have to sit through this. They wish they didn't have to, but those darn bureaucrats have insisted this class be given, and that it last six hours. They are admitting defeat up front, and if the presenter doesn't believe in the material, then students probably won't either. If you apologize for the course material or for having to teach it, you've lost an opportunity to make an impact. Sell your material!

2. Move Around
"The sage on the stage," is how we refer to it in the civilian world, and derisively so. No human wants to watch you talk in front of them for hours on end. Most people can barely handle a concert for more than two hours, and Taylor Swift puts on a quite a show, I'm told. What's her secret? She moves! So should you, it makes a big difference. Try pacing up and down the aisles. You can talk just as easily from the back of the room as from the front, so mix it up.

3. Follow the 20-minute Rule
Also mix it up by shutting up. Just as we don't want to see you in the same spot the entire class time, we don't want to listen to you the whole time, either. Don't do the same thing for more than 20 minutes. There are various rules of thumb for how long different age groups can pay attention, but 20 minutes has been a good limit in my experience teaching. It's not that you aren't a subject matter expert, it's just that you don't need to prove it. Remember, your objective is for your students to learn something. After 20 minutes, most people are just going to stop listening. Unless you're Taylor Swift.

4. Track your Teacher-Student Talk Ratio
But if other people are talking, your clock resets, so get others involved. If a student can say the same thing you would have said, let her. And other people can read, so let them. And there are quite a few experts among these classes. You're not teaching calculus, so get over yourself and let others do some of the teaching. I like to keep the student participation level at about half the time, and I can tell if I'm hogging it because attention starts to wane. So track and adjust.

5. Ask Questions
One way to get students involved is to ask questions. It sounds simple, because it is! But I'm always amazed at how seldom presenters do it. One teaching model demands that teachers ask questions about five times a minute! That's hard, and it might be excessive. But generally more is better. And your questions can be leading, so make them part of your teaching, as in, "What are some things you can do to improve communication with your kids?" I'll bet that all the answers in the textbook will be identified by the audience.

6. Trigger Various Learning Styles
The reason people fall asleep in these classes is because they are just sitting there! It's harder to fall asleep if they are doing something. And, crazy thing, doing is a better way to learn. Just ask Taylor Swift. (Okay, going a little long on the TS references.) Learning styles are probably arbitrary constructs, but they help good teachers vary their instruction. Have students talk to one another. Have them write. Have them read. Have them watch. Have them move. You'll activate various strengths with each activity, and your students won't have the opportunity to fall asleep.

7. Use Examples
Knowledge has to be generalized. I get it. But people don't think in generalities. They think in terms of specific, unique circumstances. Use those examples to make your point. Most people do this, but some instructors need a reminder. So here's an example: the guy giving a financial management class today talked about "when a company was overvalued, the stock did such and such..." Which company? How about telling us what happened to the value of Apple stock in 1997? Or, since you're taking my suggesting to heart (#6) ask a participant to share his example of a particular stock purchase and describe what it meant. Taylor Swift would approve (alright, that's enough!)

8. Give an Assessment
Instruction is one of those things that should be measured. Administer a quiz or survey, or some other tool that will help students evaluate whether they got something value from it.

Most people will have to present at some point. Please, for the sake of our vets who have served, let's get these post-deployment presentations on track. Something about Taylor Swift should emphasize my point. 


  1. Good tips! Next time I'm giving an army presentation I'll just ask myself, "What would Taylor do?"