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Law Enforcement Today | May 24, 2016

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Never Turn Your Back on the Audience

Never Turn Your Back on the Audience
Richard Neil

I was waiting for the firing squad to pull the trigger as I covered the ruling from Arizona v. Gant just released by the U.S. Supreme Court. You would have thought I kicked a puppy in front of a class of first graders. The impact of the ruling was blown out of proportion, but it did not matter on that day – the audience was mad.

My instincts were to plead, “Guys I’m one of you – don’t get mad at me. It’s not my fault!” I fought the urge. Instead, I walked into the center of the class squeezing between the tables. I paused for a moment as everyone looked my way and said, “Yeah, that’s better.”

A veteran officer gruffly asked “What in the hell are you doing?”  I replied back, “It feels much safer out here with you guys than it does up there.  I was waiting for one of you to blindfold me and give me a cigarette.”  They all started laughing and the rule of never turning your back on the audience was thrown out of my repertoire for good.

Violating the grand-daddy of all the don’ts in public speaking can be scary. I agree that it is best not to be up in front of the class with your back to everyone, but do not let any rule define how you present your topic. When I want a class to know “we are in this thing together,” I walk into the middle of the room among the students, and turn to look at the screen. Now as part of the audience, and with my back visible to a few, I point to the screen and assure them they are not alone in dealing with the topic at hand. I try not to stand right in front of anyone, but I do not want to be in the back of the room where no one can see me. Part of the secret is gaining physical and emotional distance from the information displayed on the screen and becoming part of the group again.

When the audience is mad at you (usually over the material you are covering), walking into the crowd and turning your back on them can work great. Teaching the legal requirements on Use of Force can turn heated when you cover controversial rulings.  They want a lawyer or judge to be mad at but you are the one in front of the class. Get your classes fired up and allow them to argue their point and show frustration with a decision, but you will need to move on at some point, and that is where this technique comes in.

Slowly walk out into the center of the group and turn. Remind them “I have the same frustrations guys. The people who hand down such decisions have no idea what it is like for us to carry them out. I know we don’t like this particular ruling but is everyone ready to move on?” There is a connection that comes from the technique that I cannot explain, and they always nod in appreciation for letting them vent. It is up to us to be engaging when the information we are presenting is not.

Just remember to be yourself and never let any rule define how you present your topic.

Richard Neil is LET’s Police Training Contributor. He is the author of “Police Instructor: Deliver Dynamic Presentations, Create Engaging Slides, & Increase Active Learning.” He is a retired city cop, and instructs for several of Ohio’s criminal justice training academies. He can be contacted through his website that is dedicated to law enforcement training resources –


  1. Richard, I may have missed the point here so please excuse me IF I did. To me “never turn your back on the audience” has always meant don’t read the PowerPoint to me. When a presenter puts all or most of what they have to say on their PP and then reads it to me I want to run away screaming….

    As far as interacting with your audience, I too enjoy being in the middle of them. I prefer a U-shaped training room where I’m at the bottom of the U. This way I’m part of the group as the facilitator versus the lecturer. When I’m stuck in the front I spend as much time as possible walking through my audience to engage them in the discussion. This lets them know I’m one of them, part of the discussion, and approachable versus the “it’s my way lecturer”.

  2. When I attended the basic instructor’s course over a decade ago there was a learning objective that said: “Never let the audience see your back – regardless of your location in the classroom.” While working with trainers across the country I have found the exact same objective is taught by several state level programs. When asked why it’s in their curriculum they usually respond “because it has always been there.” Not because it makes any sense, but because it’s always been that way. Never a good reason to keep a principle and then teach it to your new instructors.

    I agree that it is important to interact with your audience instead of placing yourself on a pedastal – of which you may fall from. It will create a greater connection and increase audience participation – even if you turn your back on them – it you do it for the right reasons.

    Stay safe and train well.

  3. Great article and reminder to those who train! I have another reason for getting out among the audience-
    Moving around the room can also help maintain audience attention. By speaking from different parts of the room, you are creating a different dynamic. This is a sort of state changer that forces them to readjust their ears, their head and maybe the way they are seated. Any kind of movement will help keep them alert and engaged!

    • I agree that there are some topicsa that need a didactic presentation style, these are all good points and goes to prove, no plan survives first contact with the enemy!

      Another thing to consider to keep the students focused on what you are teaching is while walking around try to use pose pause pounce. Pose a question pause and then pounce on a student and ask he/she directly for an answer.

      You need to be careful with this that you are not trying to prove how clever you are, but that you are trying to develope a safe learning enviroment for the students and want them to take an active part in the lesson.

      You can then show that unlike church you can’t hide at the back from the preacher.

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