There are many common mistakes teachers make. HVACR and other trade instructors need to be particularly careful, since many were in the trade first by vocation, and became teachers afterwards.

If an instructor can get these 10 mistakes under control, he or she is home free.

1. Don’t Poll Too Much.

When I hear a presenter incessantly polling the audience, I know the speaker is immature as a presenter. These questions include, “How many of you know how a capacitor works? How many of you work on Trane equipment? How many of you …?”

There is no end to the potential number of polling questions, and usually they are pointless. One or two such questions may be useful once in a while, but too many tire the audience and rob professionalism from the presentation.

2. Don’t Speak To The Blackboard.

Blackboard, whiteboard, projection screen, or a projection on the wall, it makes no difference. Speak facing the audience.

If you need to point something out on the screen or whiteboard, do so. But when speaking, turn your head toward the audience as much as is practical, and raise your voice. Don’t turn away from the audience for any more time than is absolutely necessary.

3. No War Stories.

It is common practice for many teachers to tell stories about some job they once went on. Usually these stories are told in such a way that they are either used to tell the audience how great the teacher was, or how he saved the day.

Don’t do it.

Another form of war story is to tell the audience how stupid someone else was or is. This is highly unprofessional and only serves to make the instructor look like a braggart.

There is no problem giving examples, illustrations, or even telling stories, provided they meet two criteria:

  • The story, example, or illustration does not make you look like the hero, nor does it make someone else look bad.

  • The story, example, or illustration must serve the purpose of clarifying a point or concept that needs clarification. If the point is already obvious, let it stand on its own. No story or example is necessary to illustrate the point.

    4. Don’t Try To Impress The Audience.

    There is only one acceptable method of impressing the audience. Remember, no war stories about how good you are, no making yourself look good by beating up others, or making fun of someone else. If you want to impress your audience, simply do three things well.

  • Have a highly organized presentation. Know where you are going, how you are going to get there, and all the little steps in between. Be prepared with all of your overhead transparencies, slides, or whatever else you will use, and have it all in order. No fumbling in front of the audience, looking for what you need.

  • Have a great deal of content. If there is only one thing you do well, make this it!

    Prepare good, solid content, enough of it, and know it very, very well. Even if your presentation skills are not exactly up to par, your audience will appreciate that you taught them something they didn’t know before.

    Some of the best information I have learned was from a poor communicator. After I learned it, I reorganized it, polished it, and turned that information into a great presentation. Having solid content, useful information that your audience does not already know, is a top priority.

  • Impress your audience by learning the basics of making a good presentation. Once you have a well-organized presentation with solid content and good visuals, you need to be able to present the material in a professional manner.

    Just do these three things (that’s enough to occupy you for a while) and you will impress your audience.

    You don’t have to tell war stories, deprecate others, or talk about yourself. In fact, those things will destroy all the work you did gathering content, organizing it, and working on your presentation.

    5. Stick With Your Content.

    No matter what happens, no matter what questions you are asked — unless they directly pertain to your presentation — don’t allow anyone to cause you to deviate from your planned presentation.

    If a comment or question from the audience attempts to lead you astray, just state that the question is one that better fits another topic, to be covered by another speaker or at another time. Then simply go right back to your presentation without giving it another thought.

    Never, ever let an audience member lead you off where you are not prepared to go. If you just happen to be an absolute expert on that question as well, then and only then should you take the opportunity to quickly give a definitive, concise answer and then move on with your presentation. But unless you are an expert, don’t go there.

    6. Use Visual Aids Wisely.

    Well-developed visual aids that illustrate your content are essential to an effective technical presentation. They certainly make it easier for your audience to follow your topic and understand what you want them to learn.

  • The most common mistake here is to use visual aids that contain too much information on a single overhead transparency, slide, or computer-projected presentation.

  • A second common mistake is to use a visual that cannot be read by the audience because it is too small, or it’s a copy of something that was not easy to see in the first place.

    7. Don’t Read To The Class.

    One of the worst things presenters do is read to the audience. If they wanted to read, they could stay home and do it themselves. (It is OK to read a quote that fits the presentation and then comment on it.) Please, don’t read from your visual aids!

    Your visual aids may contain a script or a list of bulleted items that you will talk about; it’s fine to use those to speak from. In fact, that is an effective way to keep your outline in front of you and your audience. Both you and your audience will know where you are going with the presentation. But don’t read to your audience; refer to the items on the overhead transparencies or projected visual aid.

    8. Don’t Fake It.

    One of the most powerful sentences a speaker can use is, “I don’t know.” Don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t know something. You will gain credibility with your audience if you admit that you don’t have the answer.

    However, it is essential that you know the rest of your material so well that admitting you don’t know something about your topic is a rare event. Offer to find the answer and get back to the individual who asked the question. Then do so.

    9. Failing To Check The Equipment.

    We have all been in an audience where the speaker begins by having to check the microphone, get it adjusted, get it turned on, find his notes, shuffle his notes and organize them, or locate an electrical outlet for the overhead projector. Arrive early and take care of these tasks (and others) before you teach.

    10. Don’t Try To Be A Comedian.

    For some reason, many speakers think it is a requirement that his or her speech begins with a joke. Many times the joke is not appropriate or worse, it’s not even that funny. The use of humor can be an effective method of keeping the audience’s attention. However, it’s not mandatory.

    One effective way of making sure that a joke works is to make sure that it supports a point, concept, or some content in your presentation. That way, even if the joke fails, it still illustrates something you wanted to share with the audience. It is attached to something meaningful and is not left hanging there by itself.

    There are many more mistakes a teacher can make. In fact, there is no end to the mistakes anyone can make. Work on these points, however, and you will be a much more effective HVACR teacher. Your students will appreciate it.

    Christopherson teaches the Joint Apprenticeship Training Program (JATC Local 66) with the Western Washington Sheet Metal JATC, which is affiliated with the Sheet Metal Workers International Association and SMACNA.

    Publication date: 01/27/2003