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How to Present Like a TOPGUN Instructor

This Musing was originally published on January 22, 2020, at the end of what we now affectionately remember as the pre-COVID good ol’ days. While much has changed in the world since then, including the eventual two-year delay of the much-anticipated Top Gun: Maverick, the concepts of this article are timeless. It is revisited here with minor grammatical and style changes as part of ‘Top Gun Month.’

 

Everyone knows TOPGUN instructors are the proverbial “best of the best.” Their legendary capabilities in flight 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 flourish in classrooms 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.


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. 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 of their SME areas, TOPGUN instructors travel to civilian manufacturing facilities, foreign military bases, wherever it takes, in pursuit of a nuanced understanding of the subject that allows them 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 oftentimes 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 vital for a confident, effective presentation. Take the time to peel back more than just the top layer on your next subject. Better yet, situation permitting, say “yes” to a couple 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.


2. 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. How many of us have at some point languished as a presenter covered every conceivable point in excruciating detail? Ugh.


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?


Wrong.


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.


3. 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 chalkboard back in the day), 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 their value as the SME. How many of us have listened to presenters simply read from the presentation? (Hey man, 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 a human does a much better job than PowerPoint in assessing whether the intended learning objective is occurring in the recipient. So, you be the teacher. Use slides or a whiteboard or whatever is necessary to get the point across, but keep the focus on you.


4. Eliminate Distractions


…Perhaps the human race has changed in the past 25 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, what have you, evidently a quiet environment is passé for today’s youth. At least in my home.


For everyone else, 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 (this has changed since Mr. Pedersen’s time in the photo above), and uniforms not adorned with ribbons or medals lest we find ourselves wondering, I wonder how he got that? Not even wristwatches are worn.


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


5. 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. 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 others, simply continue. Carry on with what the audience needs to hear. It really is that simple but most presenters screw this up and draw unnecessary attention to their minor blunders.


6. 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 suddenly 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.


7. Keep Breaks Short


…Speaking of keeping control, keep breaks short or you will most certainly lose control. Depending on the facilities and venue, five- to seven-minute breaks seem to be optimal, 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 100 new emails or a deep conversation with Fred about who-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. Again, keep breaks short.


8. Don’t be Too Good


When I attended TOPGUN as a student in the spring of 2000, 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 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. Amidst the self-doubt I learned little 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, great, how? Frankly, most of us need not worry about this as we will never come remotely close to the proficiency demonstrated by the Marine above, but we still must be mindful of how our audience perceives our presentation.


9. 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 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.


10. Leverage other Subjects


If, like TOPGUN, you are part of a team that collectively presents various topics related to each other and a logical relation exists between them, nab every opportunity to establish connections between subjects 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 concepts, resulting in better overall comprehension and retention.


For example, when I was the TOPGUN Threat Aircraft SME in the early 2000’s, I described a certain feature of the primary air threat at the time, the MiG-29 FULCRUM, and then pointed 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 on 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 spend their time listening to you, then these techniques are sure to get you to that win-win.


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

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