Presentation Skills for Firefighters – Part II

Part two of a three part series on presentation skills for firefighters:

In Part One, the fear of presenting before an audience and things you can do to lessen that fear were discussed. In part II, I will focus on personal qualities that will help to make your presentation more palatable to your audience, no matter who they are.

The theater of presenting (as some call it) is very important to making or breaking a presentation. Most of us have had experiences with teachers or instructors who were lacking in their personal presentation skills. I can recall back in college attending a chemistry class. The instructor spoke in a monotone voice and had no personality at all. Consequently, I had no interest in learning (as my final grade showed). The only good thing about that class was I caught up on a lot of sleep. That summer when I had to make up the chemistry class in order to graduate, I had a different instructor - one who cared about his subject and students. He made chemistry fun and his manner of presenting to the class was exemplary. He was animated and knew how to keep his class involved and awake. The results: I not only passed, but received an A. Because of the professor, I had a complete turn-around. He didn't teach anything different, he just taught differently.

So, what makes a presentation interesting? The answer in part is: the person who is presenting it. One of a presenter's most valuable tools is his voice. An oddity of speech is that it's easy for listeners to discern if someone is speaking poorly. For example, if someone is speaking too fast, too slow, too loud or too soft. This overall subject is called modulation and how you use it adds life to your presentation, stirs emotions and motivates people to action. Lack of modulation can give the impression that you have no real interest in your subject or the people who are listening to you. So, this is where the three "P's" come into effect: power, pitch, and pace.

First, lets talk about the volume of your voice - its loudness and softness. This is also referred to as "power." By varying your power, you change the expression of your voice. You want to speak just loud enough to be heard comfortably. You need to be heard in the back of the room, but not overpower the front.

The size of your audience is a factor you need to take into account. When speaking before a large crowd you need to be louder to be heard. This is usually due to the larger area of the room as well as more people. If you use a very loud voice with a small group or in a small room, you could overpower your listeners, which will surely have a negative effect.

The opposite effect is also true. If you speak too softly, then the audience will tune you out or become distracted or frustrated. The challenge of a large audience or a soft speaking voice can usually be offset by the use of a microphone and sound system. Amplification allows the speaker better volume control.

As a speaker, you also need to take into account any sudden or unplanned sounds. These could be things like a passing train, a crying child or a host of other noises that can disrupt your presentation. Such interference calls for an adjustment in the power of your voice. If you don't compensate for distractions, your audience may miss an important part of your presentation.

How can you determine if the power of your voice is adequate? Look at your audience. What is their reaction? You can usually tell by the expressions on their faces or the way they are holding their bodies, if they can hear you or not.

Another ingredient of power is also varying the power of your voice to help keep things interesting. This is a great way of building climaxes, and stressing main points. This also helps you show warmth and feeling in your presentation. When you want to make a point, you increase the power of your voice. If you want to draw your audience in, you lower the power of your voice. You can also use the power of your voice to stir anticipation in you audience. All these help to keep your audience involved and paying attention.

The next aspect is "pace." Pace has to do with how fast or slow we speak. It also has to do with how long the sound lasts that we are expressing. In everyday speech, we vary our pace without realizing it. If we are excited we speak rapidly. When we want others to remember what we say, we speak more deliberately. Pace just happens spontaneously. However, pace is something many new presenters have problems with because they prepare their wording too carefully and usually read it right from a manuscript. This is where a lesson plan or outline comes in handy. Usually an outline has only the main points that you want to express written down on it. The bulk of your presentation comes from your head. This is one of the reasons that preparation is so important. If you aren't prepared you may have problems speaking from an outline.

The main content of your presentation should be at a moderate pace. Illustrations and excitement can be put forth with a quicker pace. Weightier arguments, climaxes, and main points usually call for a slower more deliberate pace. Pace is also affected by nervousness. The more nervous we are, the faster we speak. Be aware of this, especially at the beginning of any presentation. An offshoot of pace is pausing. Pausing can be used to add emphasis or to clarify a thought. It can also be used to highlight related ideas. Pausing also gives the audience a chance to reflect on what has been said. When pausing for emphasis, it creates anticipation for what is to come. However this should only be used for highly significant statements. If used too often, it will lose some of its punch.

The last aspect of modulation is "pitch." Pitch is how high or low we speak. Imagine trying to listen to an hour presentation by someone with a nasal, whiny voice who doesn't change tone at all. (This sends shivers down my spine just thinking about it.) Usually when we are nervous, the muscles contract in our throat and this will usually cause our pitch to be elevated.

Tips to help you with your pitch: first, relax (see Presentation Skills, part one), and then try to purposely speak lower and slower at the beginning of your presentation. This helps you to overcompensate for the nervousness. What may seem low and slow to you is actually at a normal pitch and pace for your audience.

Vary the pitch during a presentation. Imagine someone playing a musical instrument for an hour or so. During all that time, he sounds just one note, first loudly, then softly, at times quickly, then slowly. There is variation in volume and in pace, but with no variation of pitch. Does this sound appealing? Probably not! The same holds true for our voice. Varying the pitch helps put emotion into your presentation. Think back to that monotone instructor you had. No emotion at all and usually it put you right to sleep. By varying your pitch you can show excitement, happiness, sadness, and a host of other emotions. This also helps to keep your audience awake and involved.

Another important feature in make or breaking a presentation is body language. Do you know what your body is saying when you are presenting? Statistics show that most of our conversations are interpreted through our body language. One theory is that most people will decide if they trust you and what you are saying within the first 60 seconds of your presentation because of what you convey with your body position and gestures.

Things to think about: Are you slouching? Slouching usually tells your audience that you are indifferent or unsure of your material. On the other hand, good posture tells your audience that you know what you are doing and you care deeply about it.

How about your eyes? Are they shifting back and forth rapidly or are you failing to make eye contact by staring blankly at the audience? Are you constantly looking down at your notes? This causes your audience to distrust what you are saying or question your knowledge. Eye contact is extremely important when you are making a presentation. It has been said, "the eyes are windows to the soul." This makes them an important ally when trying to convince your audience of your honesty, openness, and confidence in what you are saying.

At the beginning, when you are nervous, eye contact with a friendly face will help to calm and relax you. Throughout your presentation eye contact signals your interest in others, increases your credibility with your audience and builds rapport with them. You can also use eye contact as a barometer of how your presentation is going. By making eye contact you will be able to see if your audience is happy, excited or possibly bored. This will help you to fine-tune your presentation while it is ongoing.

Smiling is also a key to how an audience interprets what you are saying. Think about a salesperson who asks, "May I help you?" with a frown on his face. Is he saying he really wants to help you? Smiling transmits friendliness, warmth and caring - all things you want to portray when you are presenting before an audience.

Gestures are another important part of any presentation. When talking, most people gesture freely. This should also be true for presenting. A person who fails to gesture when presenting is perceived as boring and stiff. Gestures fall into two categories: descriptive and emphatic. Descriptive gestures express action or show dimension and location. (How big was that fish?) Emphatic gestures express feeling and conviction. (It was THAT big!) They usually punctuate, vitalize and reinforce ideas. The more relaxed you are, the easier it will be to gesture freely.

Another tip: At the beginning of your presentation, keep your hands lightly in front of you. This avoids nervous acts or gestures like jingling change in your pocket or clicking or twirling a pen. Remember, gestures add visual and emotional emphasis to your presentation and keep it lively.

So here we have seen how power, pitch, and pace as well as body language and gestures are an integral part of any presentation. The way you use (or not use) them is very important to keeping your presentation lively and well received by your audience.

There are many books, magazines, and internet sites out there to help you polish your presentation skills. So whether you are a chief of department, training officer, public educator or line firefighter helping out your group or company, it's important to make your presentations exciting to keep your audience involved.

In part three, actual content of the program will be discussed.