Mark Twain was the most renowned speaker of his time and delivered hundreds, if not thousands, of speeches throughout his life. Back in his time people came out in large numbers to be entertained by the great traveling orators, but that is not what people are looking for today when they attend a training class or presentation. They want good relevant content, new knowledge to work with, and brevity. They want Trainers who are great communicators, and not a public speaker.

The problem I found was that most of the presentation resources available to an educator or trainer are books and workshops on public speaking. They focus on becoming a polished orator that can entertain a group of people for a relatively short period of time. They are all about impressing people, and it can be easy for anyone wanting to deliver a successful presentation to follow them. We need our educators and trainers to become communicators instead. A Trainer has a different focus than a public speaker. They want to teach, impact, and change their audience in a meaningful way that will help them fulfill their daily duties.

I read dozens of books on public speaking while researching materials for the book “Police Instructor,” and I was surprised how consistent they were with each other. It was like someone photo copied the same book and placed a variety of different covers on them, and then found a sucker (turns out that includes me), to buy each one. Very few new ideas came out of that block of research – very few. The books usually start by focusing on the message. The speaker’s message, that is. Public speaking focuses on what the speaker has to offer, but the Trainer puts the people they want to impact before the message. They find out what the people need before offering them something that they don’t. Only then can a Trainer know what message should be presented.

Public speaking programs focus on changing the way you gesture with your hands, walk across the stage, and instruct you on facial expressions you have never used or needed. They offer unique (but mostly irrelevant) catch-phrases that grab the attention of your audience – temporarily – allowing you to complete the message you have chosen for them.  The process can be as conceited as the cast of Jersey Shore.

Trainer vs. Public Speaker

I attended an academy graduation last year where I heard two prepared speeches, and another impromptu talk. The results may surprise you. One of the prepared speeches was delivered by a school administrator and the other by a federal law enforcement officer – both had me looking for items to stick in my ears. They were doing their best impersonation of a public speaker instead of being a Trainer.

They surely meant well as they thanked everyone in the room, and I mean everyone. They each read their speech word for word which forced them into a monotone state that would put anyone to sleep. The educator looked up from his speech several times but always stared at the same point on the wall. He never scanned the crowd or made eye contact with anyone. He repeated the same motion with his right hand, as if conducting a symphony orchestra.  There was no emotion in his voice that might connect him to the graduating cadets or audience, and every line in his speech was an old cliché.

My fellow law enforcer was even worse. He looked up once during his speech and lost his place momentarily. I could see the frantic look on his face as he searched for the correct spot.  That was the last time I saw his face until he was done with his eight minute recitation. He grabbed the lectern with both hands as if it was going to fall down without his help. I am positive he put great effort into his speech, but the sentiment was completely lost as he rambled through without ever pausing between sentences, paragraphs, or points. There was no indication when one point ended and the next began. His big mistake was leaving his experiences and beliefs out of his speech.  He never talked about anything he had intimate experience with – and it showed.

After the first minute the audience started leaning their heads back and rolling their eyes. The cadets managed to keep their composure with the educator, but even they started to grimace with their law enforcement counterpart. Why do people chain themselves to a speech by reading it word for word or attempting to memorize it? I asked the officer. He said he used a system for his speech that he ordered on a public speaking web site. I hope he got a good bargain. It was an ineffective method of delivery and boring to boot.

The best speech of the graduation came from one of the academy commanders. He was there to introduce the speakers and hand out certificates, but something popped into his head that he wanted to share. He walked away from the lectern and approached the cadets in the front row. You could see in their faces that they were completely engaged as he talked to them. He walked back and forth across the stage, and looked at each cadet as he gave them heartfelt advice from decades of police experience.

Within one minute, the commander brought laughter to the entire audience and nearly made the graduates cry. He did not wing it, he knew his material well. How? He spoke about his experiences as a law enforcer and gave advice that had been etched into his conscience. The commander was having a conversation. He focused on an idea and let the words come naturally – he did not need a speech. He was passionate about his message and wanted to share his lesson with the audience. He was a Trainer – not a public speaker.

While he did not have formal training or credentials qualifying him as a great speaker, he had confidence in his experience.  His knowledge came from real life encounters, and reality is what interests people most.

Guiding Principles of a Trainer

Trainers don’t picture people naked, or stare at a spot on the wall, or follow any other dumb advice from a public speaking book that fails to focus on the audience. They make natural eye contact and the audience connects with them. The Trainer won’t concentrate their energy on techniques that make them appear polished and better than their audience; they will instead concentrate on impacting their listeners by creating an atmosphere of change through learning. They are more concerned with providing wisdom and value to their students and less worried about how awesome they are as an orator. The find and follow the guiding principles that will make them a great law enforcement Trainer:

Cops & Cadets learn better when they are given the opportunity to talk and not forced to only listen.

Cops & Cadets learn better when you present information as if you were having a conversation with a friend instead of lecturing a class.

Cops & Cadets learn better when you use pictures and images on your slides and not just text and bullet points.

Cops & Cadets learn better when they write down information instead of just hearing it.

Cops & Cadets learn better when they are given small chunks of wisdom instead of an iceberg of information.

Cops & Cadets learn better when they are moving around and not constantly sitting.

Cops & Cadets learn better when they are shown how the knowledge being taught will be of value to them.

Cops & Cadets learn better when they are challenged to think critically, be creative, and communicate with others.

Cops & Cadets learn better when you incorporate a variety of techniques and create an atmosphere of active learning.

As a police instructor, you must be eager to share your wisdom with the audience you serve.  To be effective there is no getting around this principle.  Training is not simply transferring your knowledge—it’s about your students being able to apply their new knowledge and skills to get better results as a cop. You must look deep into the topic and make it your personal desire to help each student see the value in your presentation.

You don’t need to look polished and perfect to be a great Trainer, but you do need to be passionate about improving your craft. Passion is far more important, in my opinion, than perfection. The focus of our law enforcement educators and trainers should not be public speaking, it should be preparing worthy protectors to watch over our society.

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 –