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5 steps to improving your demonstrations

If you are a trainer tasked with introducing a new skill, a competent demonstration isn’t just a good idea, it is a crucial component of your delivery

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If you went to an eight-hour handgun class and you did not see your trainer fire one single live round, would you begin to question their competence?

Photo/Leon Reha

Whether you are training a recruit or introducing a new skill to seasoned veterans, a demonstration is absolutely required. New skills must be competently modeled. It has been known for decades, and repeatedly proven in peer-reviewed studies, physical demonstrations lead to rapid skill acquisition. Demonstrations also promote long-term retention of skills.

In addition to the learning value for the end user, there is also a tremendous credibility factor involved for you as the instructor. People want to be reassured that you are capable of performing the task you are asking them to complete.

Consider this, if you went to an eight-hour handgun class and you did not see your trainer fire one single live round, would you begin to question their competence? If your arrest and control tactics instructor talked for 25 minutes about an armbar takedown but you never saw them place their hands on someone, are you convinced that they have performed that move?

You don’t need to read dozens of journal articles and research papers to know that a demonstration is the way to go. So why does it need to be said? If the real-world example of a skill is universally understood to be valuable, why are demonstrations not the default from our instructors? Why do trainers intentionally find ways to avoid demonstrating what it is they are supposed to be teaching?

Bridging the gap

Just a few weeks ago I was listening to a highly experienced and skilled swat team member talking about demonstrations. He openly owned the fact that he does not demonstrate anything live fire when teaching new recruits how to shoot handguns. He was candid enough to admit his reasoning for avoidance is a fear of failure.

How do we find ourselves surrounded by instructors who are unwilling or incapable of performing a basic skill to the standard of a recruit? Is it a lack of competence? Is it a lack of confidence? Is it because no one ever taught them how to do a demonstration?

If your instructor training did not involve opportunities to put into practice the art of demonstrating, I am going to question the validity of the “instructor” component of the course you attended. If all your course(s) content involved repeating end-user skills, you were not learning how to teach. You were possibly learning what to teach. What to teach, and how to teach are dance partners. You need to be versed in both in order to be truly effective.

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When it comes to demonstrations, start with something you do well, and understand deeply.

Photo/Leon Reha

So how do we start to bridge the gap? Blunt as it sounds, get out there and start doing those demonstrations. Start with something you do well, and understand deeply. It doesn’t have to be complex. For a firearms trainer perhaps it’s how to efficiently draw. If arrest and control tactics are your assignment, what about simply the safe removal of handcuffs from a restrained person? Once we carve out the core principles for how to get up in front of people and demonstrate, the list of skills we can show grows quickly. Once we get comfortable in front of the group it will seem natural to be back there.

You need honest people around you that you can trust to help you build your skills effectively. Demonstrate for them, be open and expectant of feedback. The person who says, “looks good’” in response to everything you do is polite, but useless for this task. Invite them over for dinner, but don’t enlist them as a mentor. Find someone who is willing to offer you feedback candidly for the good, the bad and the ugly.

five tips for effective demonstrations

Here are my top five tips to get you started with effective demonstrations:

  1. Make sure your audience can see what is relevant. Position yourself and your audience so that the crucial part(s) of the equipment and/or your body is easily viewed. If someone needs to stare into the sun, or bright lights or there is some other type of uncomfortable position, that’s your spot. The students get the first-class seats, you are in economy. It’s about them paying attention, your comfort is secondary.
  2. Tell your audience exactly where to look and when to look there. For example, if you are demonstrating the process for reloading a handgun, staring at the target won’t help. Get rid of the target. Tell people why you are shooting into the berm and give them nothing to look at except the gun or your hands.
  3. Show the skill at the speed you expect it to be performed. Break it down into chunks as required, then reassemble it to the whole movement as a final reminder. What seems like a simple seamless motion to you as an experienced end user, is potentially an overwhelming blur to your trainee.
  4. Speak plainly. No one wants to admit they don’t know “the lingo.” Your students will probably not break your flow to ask what a phalange is. They will start thinking about that word and by the time they realized it’s not real, they’ve missed the rest of your demonstration.
  5. If you’re stepping out into the demonstrating realm for the first time, teach with a co-presenter whenever you can. One of you performs the skill. One of you uses the words required to explain what, why and when. Sharing the task can relieve a lot of pressure for both of you. Though a word of advice – rehearse together. Don’t just talk it over or figure it out on the fly. People will spot the BS.

No more excuses. Do the demo.

Leon Reha’s police career began more than two decades ago in London. He served as a patrol officer, a trainer and as a member of the elite Metropolitan Police Specialist Firearms Command. Now residing in the U.S., he oversees the firearms training division of a police academy. He is an advanced Force Science analyst, a SIG SAUER academy instructor, and a regular training conference attendee and presenter.

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