8 Lessons from an Army Instructor

Three big things happened for me in 2005. I finished my second tour in Iraq, I turned 21, and I was assigned as an instructor at Fort Dix, NJ. In all, I spent almost ten years as an instructor at Fort Dix. Learning to instruct was truly an experience I appreciate.

I was very lucky to be surrounded by some of the smartest people the Army had in its ranks, and I got to learn from all of their mistakes. There are a few of those lessons that I still use when I teach college courses or in professional settings. I still think about those lessons even as I write on topics in this blog.

I’m definitely not saying that I have the best presentation style you would ever see. I’m not sure there’s such a thing as a quantifiable ‘best’ style. The lessons below may offer you some insight as to why I write the way that I do. I will most likely link people to this page when they accuse me of gross oversimplification. If that’s why you’re here: I apologize and I promise that offending you was unintentional, but the simplification was totally on purpose. It’s true, I am often guilty of being a crude reductionist.

1. Start by making a deal.

For presentations that last more than an hour, I always start with a proposition. I offer them a ten-minute break. Every hour, on the hour. I tell them that this is my promise to them, that they will never have to wait more than fifty minutes to check their Instagram or update their Twitter so all their friends know how awesome the presentation is. But I ask them to please save those updates, and any other business on electronic devices, until designated break times. Approaching this as a deal rather than dictated terms has led to people being far more likely to display proper etiquette.

2. Lying is the quickest way to lose credibility.

Admit that you have gaps in your knowledge. Admit if you have a forgetful moment. Admit it if you are stumped, but you’ll check on a break. Heck, you can even admit that you are a human being. You can feel the temperature in the room change when a presenter makes up an answer and people know it. Disengagement follows. Conversely, if you acknowledge the difficulty of a question and ask if anyone knows an answer or if they’d be willing to help you find it, you create a collaborative environment. Oh, and see #1 again – they didn’t forget that promise about the break.

3. It is literally impossible to win a fight during a presentation.

If you are presenting and someone is disruptive or makes a joke at your expense, the best response is to laugh along with them and move right along. Maybe even making a quip such ‘okay, more about how lousy my [ presentation / hair / height / etc. ] is later, but let’s get through this presentation right now.’ William Irvine wrote a book on Stoicism and how to effectively handle situations exactly like this. I’m a big fan of redirection. It works great with my kids and works great during a presentation. You determine your level of control, don’t cede it through a lack of self-control.

4. People learn best with stories.

If you bore adults in a classroom, it’s amazing how fast etiquette goes out the window and cell phones come out of pockets. Paul Smith wrote an awesome book called Lead with a Story. His book is more about stories and their use in sales, but I believe that there are a lot of areas of crossover. People often disregard sales and negotiation skills, but if you’re conducting a presentation you want it to be interesting so as to captivate their attention and then transfer your knowledge. This is best done with a mix of hot and cold cognitions, with one example being where I’d start telling a great story and right before the climax send everyone on a break – it’s amazing how everyone comes back on time!

5. They can read, too.

PowerPoint Presentation. Everyone has strong opinions about PowerPoint. Mine? I love it. It guides the presentation. It gives everyone something to look at other than staring into my eyes as I scan the room. But PowerPoint doesn’t actually present – that’s my job. When I use a PowerPoint presentation, I will occasionally reference it, maybe point to a word or two on there, and maybe even look at it on occasion. I have never met anyone who appreciates having slides read to them, verbatim, by a presenter.

6. The most powerful communication is powerless.

Adam Grant wrote about powerless communication in his book Give and Take, but it turns out I had been doing it unintentionally for years. I often found myself surrounded by people with vastly more experience and a far greater depth of subject matter expertise. By approaching topics in a deferential manner and often soliciting examples from their experience, I was almost always able to maintain an environment conducive to learning.

7. Anyone can have the knowledge, you need to be able to convey it.

Noone cares how many books you have read or how many articles you have written. I stopped being impressed with big words when I realized that most people using them had a word calendar on their desk or a thesaurus close by. Can you take the thoughts in your mind, put them into words, turn those words into sentences, speak them aloud and have them interpreted by someone else, as you had originally intended? Did you successfully convey a thought? Often this means breaking down a topic to a sometimes gross oversimplification. That’s okay though! Being understandable makes you more important than verbosity could.

8. You should not teach to the smartest person in the room, you should teach to the most inexperienced.

How perfect a presentation is when everyone comes in already possessing a depth of knowledge on every topic that we’ll be discussing. This, of course, would never happen. Typically there are multiple levels of knowledge in the room, and while it is tempting to teach to the highest skill level, you run the risk of losing the lowest. This is why I swear by deliberate reductionism. People would swear I’m obsessed with Mashed Potatoes.

The planned work is contained within the lowest level of WBS components, which are called work packages. A work package can be used to group the acitivites where work is scheduled and estimated, monitored, and controlled. In the context of the WBS, work refers to work products or deliverables that are the result of activity and not to the activity itself.

This definition is from the PMBOK® Guide, 5th Edition. This is a great definition if you already know what the WBS and work packages are and how we arrive at them. When I discuss these concepts with someone who has never seen them before, I ask them to picture a nice Thanksgiving dinner and start categorizing the food on the table. We may have ‘meat’, ‘vegetables’, ‘appetizers’, ‘desserts’, ‘sides’, etc.. Under the category for ‘vegetables’, we may put ‘mashed potatoes’, ‘candied yams’, ‘green bean casserole’, etc.. But then, I ask, let’s look at the mashed potatoes. Can we further subdivide this dish into anything else and still have a ‘thing’ that we eat, without getting into the activities or ingredients needed to create them? No.

When you hit mashed potatoes, you’re at the bottom of your WBS.

Karl Cheney
Castlebar Solutions

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