10 months ago

How to Present Like a TOPGUN Instructor

How to Present Like a TOPGUN Instructor

Vincent “Jell-O” Aiello
U.S. Navy (Retired)

Everyone knows TOPGUN instructors are the proverbial “best of the best.” Their legendary capabilities in the air are unmatched anywhere in the world—from Vietnam to Hollywood to the Middle East.

Perhaps less-well appreciated, however, is their expertise on the ground—during flight briefs and debriefs, sure, but specifically in academic settings. TOPGUN instructors dominate a classroom just as they do the skies largely due to a culture of excellence that has persisted since the organization’s founding over five decades ago. The gold standard is twofold: extensive understanding of the subject matter and a flawless presentation to students.

This level of expertise is not obtained by happenstance. A comprehensive and lengthy system of peer reviews, aptly-named the murderboard process, ensures each candidate is sufficiently knowledgeable and polished to wear the coveted title of TOPGUN Instructor. Arguably, no better presentation exists in academia or elsewhere.

The good news is, the rest of us need not endure an arduous murderboard-equivalent process to be our best when presenting to others. Whether at the front of the classroom or the front of the boardroom, we need only borrow a page from TOPGUN’s playbook to maximize our effectiveness and wow our audience.

But how?

These ten suggestions will set you well on your way to presenting like a TOPGUN instructor:

  1. Master the Subject

TOPGUN instructors are the Navy’s SMEs—or subject matter experts—on their assigned topics, and for good reason. Whether enemy hardware, friendly tactics, hardware capabilities, or a host of other categories, TOPGUN instructors research their topics exhaustively.

To gain hands-on experience and a deeper understanding it is not uncommon for TOPGUN instructors to travel to civilian manufacturing facilities, foreign military bases, wherever. The result is a nuanced understanding of the subject that allows instructors to present with both conviction and credibility. And the learning does not end with the completion of the murderboard process. Far from it, instructors stay abreast of new developments throughout their tours and sometimes beyond, even after leaving the staff.

The rest of us may not be able to achieve quite the same level of expertise on everything we present, but more than a passing familiarity with a topic is certainly vital to a confident, effective presentation. Take the time to peel back more than just the top layer on your next subject. Better yet, if your situation permits, say “yes” to a couple of key subjects and “no” to everything else, then become as knowledgeable on those subjects as possible. You may be surprised what such an approach does for your confidence, and your reputation.

  1. Teach Only Relevant Information

One pitfall of mastering a particular subject is the mistaken belief that you should share everything you know about the subject with your audience. Ugh. How many of us have at some point languished as a presenter covered every. conceivable. point. in. excruciating. detail?!

Many aspiring TOPGUN instructors fall victim to this fallacy early in the murderboard process and it’s easy to see why—after all, more is better, right?


The solution is to flip the paradigm. Instead of verbally vomiting everything you know, present only what your audience needs to know. The additional information is not wasted but comes in handy either when questions are raised or a deeper (or tangential) discussion ensues. That is, save the minutiae for a rainy day.

  1. Remember: You are the Teacher, not the Slides

Apart from the classroom setting itself, a TOPGUN lecture is comprised of two primary components: the instructor and the visual aids. The former is self-explanatory; the latter is typically either PowerPoint slides, a whiteboard, or airplane models on sticks which are used to demonstrate aerial maneuvers in three dimensions. In some cases a combination of the three is employed.

The problem with PowerPoint is that novice presenters become slaves to the slides and thus forfeit all value in and of themselves. How many of us have sat in presentations and listened to presenters simply read the slides to us? (Just give me the slides and I’ll read them myself!)

Humans learn best from other humans—we’re hardwired that way from birth. And on the flip side, a human does a much better job than a PowerPoint slide in assessing whether the intended learning objective is occurring in the recipient. So, you be the teacher. Use slides or a whiteboard or whatever you feel necessary to get the point across, but keep the focus on you.

  1. Eliminate Distractions

…Perhaps the human race has changed in the past 20 years because my kids will argue this next point vehemently—they can’t seem to study without distractions. Be it music, TV, a YouTube video playing, or what have you, evidently a quiet environment is passé for today’s youth, at least in my home.

For the rest of us, our attention is best focused—and we are most likely to achieve the desired performance—when few distractions compete for our attention. At TOPGUN this means plain classrooms without pictures and uniforms not adorned with ribbons or medals (I wonder how he got that?). Not even wristwatches.

Humans have short attention spans and eagerly seem to drift away for the latest shiny thing. Remove as many distractions as possible to set the conditions for a truly effective presentation. You don’t have to take pictures off the wall, but you can wear neutral clothing, draw the curtains, and ask the audience to not simply silence their electronic devices but to temporarily surrender them to avoid temptation. Admittedly, this is much more easily said than done.

  1. Correct Mistakes and Move On

You’ve mastered the material, you’ve honed the presentation so that you’re the primary conduit for learning, you’ve minimized distractions… well, guess what? You are still going to make an occasional mistake: a misspeak, double slide click, dropped pointer, etc. Something.

Everyone makes mistakes (well, almost everyone—see #8 below). The trick is not to make a huge issue out of a mistake and thus compound it into a distraction.

Calmly restate the incorrect word or phrase. Click back a slide without fanfare. Pick up the pointer with as much dignity as you can muster. Repress your inner monologue. And in each of these cases, as with so many others, simply continue. Carry on with what the audience needs to hear. It’s really that simple but most presenters repeatedly screw this up and draw unnecessary attention to their minor blunders.

  1. Teach for no More than 60 Minutes at a Time, but also not Less than 30

People can only handle so much of anything in one sitting, even things they enjoy. For lectures and presentations, the magic upper limit seems to be just under an hour—any more than that and people need to use a restroom, check on side matters, or simply pause to let the material sink in. If you blow past the hour mark, don’t be surprised if your audience begins to excuse themselves.

On the other hand, segments less than 30 minutes feel choppy. You just get into a rhythm and before you know it it’s time for a break again. This is also no good, but less bad than running long.

The overall goal is a presentation length that allows your audience to settle in, get in the zone, and stay there until you release them before they realize they need to be released. This strategy helps you to keep control of the audience and your agenda.

  1. Keep Breaks Short

…Speaking of keeping control, keep breaks short or you’ll most certainly lose control. Depending on the facilities and venue, five to seven minutes seems to be optimal break length permitting your audience time to use the restroom, grab a snack, say hello to Fred, and quickly check messages. You want to provide just barely enough time for all this so people don’t end up lost in their 300 new emails or a deep conversation with Fred about Heaven-only-knows-what.

The alternative? My guess is I’m not the only one who has attended presentations with 15-minute breaks where time loses meaning and everyone scatters. Trying to get everyone back in their seats is worse than herding cats. Keep breaks short.

  1. Don’t be Too Good

When I attended TOPGUN in the spring of 2000 as a student, I had already been selected by the staff to remain after graduation as an instructor. In the first week of the course, on the second or third day of academics, we received a ‘Threat Air-to-Air Missiles’ lecture by a Marine TOPGUN instructor who had passed his murderboard just the day prior.

This instructor was so polished, his lecture so flawless, that it actually had the opposite effect on me: I sat mesmerized, waiting for him to make even the slightest mistake or slip. Nothing. He was a machine.

Then I started with the self-doubt—what had I gotten myself into?! There was no way I could do this. Either way, I didn’t learn much about bad-guy missiles that day. Sure, it was mostly my fault but then, hey, I’m only human—just like everyone else.

This is the one suggestion I struggle to summarize succinctly. Don’t be too good. Okay, how? Frankly, most of us need not worry about this as we will never come even remotely close to the proficiency demonstrated in the aforementioned presentation, but we still must be mindful of how our audience perceives our presentation.

  1. Answer Definitively Only if You are 100% Certain

Subject mastery is vital to an effective presentation but so is credibility, and nothing destroys credibility faster than BS’ing the audience. If a subject comes up or you are asked a question that you do not 100% know the answer to without doubt, don’t dance around the subject, misdirect, redirect, or anything else. This isn’t politics. This is your reputation as a presenter and if you want to be the best, then answer only when you are absolutely certain. This is the TOPGUN standard and it works.

If you are not 100% sure, kindly ask for an opportunity to conduct further research and get back to the asker later that day or as soon as possible. He or she will be amazed not just at your transparency but that you care enough about the question to circle back around once you are assured of the correct answer. This builds trust.

Does this matter in other subjects like, say… life insurance? I don’t know, I’ve never worked in life insurance. But it matters in aerial combat, and the common thread is both involve people. Ascribe to this standard and your life insurance peers will be duly impressed.

  1. Leverage other Subjects

If, like TOPGUN, you are part of a team that collectively presents on various topics related to each other and a logical relation exists between subjects, don’t miss the opportunity to establish connections between topics in the minds of your audience. This not only improves the overall credibility of your team but benefits the audience by establishing mental connections between different events, resulting in better overall comprehension and retention.

For example, when I was the TOPGUN Threat Aircraft SME in the early 2000’s, I used to describe a certain feature of the primary threat back then (the MiG-29 FULCRUM) and then point out that was the reason my buddy ‘Bull’ recommended a certain tactic in his Air-to-Air Employment lecture. You could almost see the room brighten by the proverbial lightbulbs coming on amongst the students.

So there you have it: ten challenging but worthwhile suggestions for how to elevate your presentation skills. Want to be the “best of the best” in your field? You don’t have to be a TOPGUN instructor, but if you’re looking to strengthen your reputation while improving the experience for those who invest their time listening to you, then these techniques are sure to get you to that win-win. And that’s always a good thing.

Special thanks to retired US Navy Commander Dave “Bio” Baranek, author of the book Top Gun Days, for the featured image accompanying this article.