An Army Officer’s Guide to Public Speaking

Right. So I’m just going to put this out here right off: if I have to listen to yet another stumbling, rambling, mispronounced, mumbled, dry, and generally boring as hell briefing from one of my peers, I’m going to find a way to beat someone over the head with their own PowerPoint slides. Seriously, we’ve all been there, right? There’s far little that is worse than a terrible briefing. It adds insult to the already existing injury of the mandatory nature of the briefings. Not only that, but when there’s an officer up there delivering a terrible briefing – no matter the rank – that reflects poorly on all of us. And let’s face it, we already have the deck stacked against us because at one point we were all second lieutenants, and some people don’t forget that.

But really, public speaking is an incredibly important part of our jobs. We’re often in front of large groups of people and so we need to develop the confidence necessary to be an excellent speaker. Your Soldiers expect it of you and if you can execute top-notch brief, it can make you stand out among your peers. Hell, I’m still riding the coattails of a 5-minute brief I gave back in 2011. Plus, how are you going to give that great motivational speech that you’ve had in your back pocket for years if you’re not prepared ahead of time?

Which brings me to my first point:

Prepare

I don’t care if you’re presenting with visual aids or not, you need to have something prepared in case your brain suddenly turns off. Whether it is your talk verbatim or just some bullet points, have a cheat sheet prepared. And then make sure that there is a copy of your presentation on your computer, the presentation computer, a hard copy, and a copy on a disc. Because Murphy’s Law is always in effect: if something can go wrong, it will.

Rehearse

Next step: rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. It’s just like a battle drill, only with less shooting – hopefully. Inflict the pain on all your friends. Make them listen to you. More importantly, make them critique you. You’d rather have those criticisms coming at you before the actual brief.

Enunciate

When you’re rehearsing and when you’re speaking, please remember that you don’t have a mouth full of marbles nor have you just eaten half a jar of peanut butter at one go. E-nun-see-ate. If you have to break words down by syllable, do that. Do some voice warm-up drills, courtesy of NPR. Do whatever it takes, because a well enunciated talk can make the difference between your audience dozing gently or actually listening to the shifts in the tone of your voice.

Project

Project your voice. What does that mean? Aim at the back of the room and pitch your voice to that spot. If for no other reason than this, I feel like officers should be required to take at least one theater class. Plus, we act like we know what we’re talking about all the time anyways, so we should at least have some semi-professional training in it. Also, projecting your voice gives you more energy, which you can then communicate to your audience through your tone. And it tends to keep people awake if you’re not whispering into a mic as if you were telling it your deepest secrets.

Eye Contact

Okay, so we’re all familiar with the people who brief either to their notes or to the actual slide deck itself. Nothing loses people faster than watching your back as you meticulously read off your slides. Please, for the love of Flying Spaghetti Monster, do not read your slides off. We can read. Well, most of us. And those who can’t don’t really care about your briefing anyways. So don’t read the slides and keep eye contact with your audience. It helps build trust and lets us know that you’re not a cyborg.

Pronounce

Rule of thumb: if you’re not sure how a word is pronounced, or what it means, GTS (That’s “Google That Shit” for those of you that didn’t know). We live in an era with unlimited knowledge at our very fingertips and yet I still have to listen to fellow officers misuse “caveat” almost every day. Sure, you can go on mispronouncing words and using the incorrect terms, but you will run the risk of making everyone aware of how little you care about your job. Probably not the best course of action if you’re briefing your boss, who has the power to free you from your horrible staff position or keep you there forever.

Own It

Know your subject matter, in and out. Be the expert in the room. One, this fulfills the primary reason for the briefing which is to convey information. I know, shocker, we all thought the purpose of a brief was the brief itself. Second, it makes it easier for you to speak naturally which allows for you to connect with your audience. And you really want to develop that.

Be Funny

Don’t be afraid to throw in some jokes or asides. No one actually wants to be there, so some well-placed levity can carry a briefing or speaking event for a long time and keep people engaged. Humor covers a multitude of sins. Of course, on the flip side…

Don’t be TOO Funny

If you spend your whole brief cracking jokes or trying to make terrible jokes land, then you’re going to give the impression that you a) don’t care and that b) you have no real idea of what you’re talking about. It’s a fine line to walk, but once you can hit the happy medium between humor and information, you’ll have an audience that is ready to eat out of your hand. If that’s really what you want; sounds unsanitary to me.

Know your Audience

Lastly, gauge your audience for the kind of effect that you want to have. If jokes don’t seem to work with them, maybe they really do just want to hear dry data as quickly as possible. Younger audiences and enlisted members would probably prefer more humor than general officers would. Remember, you are taking their time. Make it valuable. And make it something that they can come away from going, “Huh, I actually learned something” versus the usual “I’m going to go eat glass now, because that will be less painful than what I just sat through.”


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Cover photo: Participants of U.S. Army Africa Training Center Capabilities Seminar 2015 receive capability briefing at 7th Army Joint Multinational Training Command in Grafenwoehr, Germany, November 3, 2015 (U.S. Army/Gertrud Zach)


About the Author: Angry Staff Officer is an Army engineer officer who is adrift in a sea of doctrine and staff operations and uses writing as a means to retain his sanity. He also collaborates on a podcast with Adin Dobkin entitled War Stories, which examines key moments in the history of warfare.

 

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