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Tips for the First-Time Presenter: How to Plan and Deliver an Inspiring Session

If you’ve ever asked yourself, Could I do that?, when attending a conference presentation, you’ll be pleased to hear that the answer is yes. The same traits of selflessness and intellectual curiosity you possess as a caring EMS provider will translate into success as a speaker. By tapping into your passion, experience and the strong desire to communicate a message, you can land on the conference stage, perhaps with some nerves, but ready to inspire nonetheless.

I experienced those first-time nerves when I recently presented two sessions at the 37th annual Virginia Symposium in Norfolk, VA. Described by long-time attendees and faculty as one of the most robust and well-organized state EMS conferences in the nation, the Virginia Symposium is a five-day event that offers hands-on, multi-day workshops, hundreds of short daily sessions, nationally-recognized speakers and a vendor exhibition hall. I was encouraged to submit by my supervisors, who may have grown tired of hearing me complain about the misidentification of SVT and the frequency of “death by PowerPoint” in our EMS lectures.

The online submission procedure is relatively straightforward, and proposals are due many months ahead of time. To prepare during these months, I discussed presentation ideas with my colleagues, researched the latest ideas and data on the topics, visualized myself on stage and created multiple versions of my slideshows.

I was grateful for colleagues who were experienced speakers, as they gave me tips about font and slide colors, building in planned pauses, how to slow down and how to handle inevitable no-shows for my 8:30 a.m. Saturday session.

Ultimately, it seemed as if I tweaked the finished products every hour leading up to the presentation days. While I found solace in other first-time presenters who admitted to a similar obsession with perfectionism, I may have been less stressed if I just clicked save for the final time a few days before I was due to speak.

Below, five other first-time state EMS conference speakers share their trials, successes and tips for getting that topic you care so much about submitted, accepted and delivered at your local EMS conference. 

Lucian Mirra, NRP, MEd, Lead Instructor for Albemarle County Fire Rescue

Title of presentation: “From the Classroom to the Front Seat: Increasing Student Engagement in EMS Classrooms"

Reason for submitting: Virginia’s symposium is one of the preeminent conferences in the U.S. Any opportunity for a young instructor to speak at a conference is huge. I’m trying to build myself as an instructor and build my resume.

Why this topic: I am fortunate to have had a lot of effective instructors, so I wanted to take the things I’ve learned from them and from graduate school and pass on that knowledge. From a nerdy perspective, studying effective teaching is a personal interest of mine. Plus, there is very little research on teaching effectiveness in public safety classes.

Preparation time: I probably spent 40–50 hours working on this. When I submitted, I had to give my objectives, so about a year ago I mostly knew where I wanted to guide the presentation. More recently, I spent time looking at literature, textbooks, etc. to outline the messages I wanted to convey. This is the first time I’ve stood in front of a mirror to prepare, because I was very concerned with everything going well.

Evaluation of presentation: I had requested round tables and small groups for more interaction, but I might build in more opportunities for student response next time.

Advice for new presenters: I would prepare early. I was still adding stuff to the lecture the night before. Know your material, and submit something that you are passionate about. Also, I would not recommend speaking at a conference you have never attended before.

Lessons learned: It was a confidence boost to know the session was well-received. I was nervous to talk to the audience who probably have more teaching experience than I do, but being validated was rewarding. Plus, I gained a lot from networking and talking to peers.

Final thoughts: Attend other lectures while you are at the conference as it is beneficial to see how other instructors handle the lectures. Also, try to know your audience. It is pretty hard coming in cold to a room, but you should have a general idea who is in your audience, and you can tailor your presentation to them.

Joseph Sposa, Deputy Fire Chief, Spotsylvania County of Fire, Rescue and Emergency Management; M.A., HR; NRP

Title of presentation: “Time to Assess the Situation: Developing, Writing and Presenting Performance Evaluations"

Reason for submitting: In my current job function, I have noticed that there is a gap in some of the skills of the department members. This symposium is a great forum to present to a variety of public safety personnel on something that will benefit their system.

Why this topic: I noticed deficiencies in how to write feedback to our members in a useful manner. I think there is a need to pick topics that are relevant and not as repetitive as other classes that are available.

Preparation time: It takes a few weeks of work to make sure the material flows. I did three or four practice sessions for people who were interested in the topic so I could see what types of questions might be asked.

Evaluation of presentation: I was very pleased with the amount of participation that I had, and I had no issues with the materials.

Advice for new presenters: Make sure you have duplicates of everything in case something doesn’t work. Enjoy what you’re doing, and make sure that you are prepared to answer questions.

Lessons learned: We’re not the only ones that have issues with a particular skill, so network with other people to get information and solutions. If you’re a subject matter expert, give out your information so your audience can ask further questions or network with you.

Final thoughts: Meet the staff you are working with to make sure that you know where to find your room and the equipment. If you are using handouts, create them prior to the conference.

Blake Byrd, Firefighter/Paramedic, York County Department of Fire and Life Safety;

B.S., EMS Administration; EMS Lieutenant, Tappahannock-Essex Volunteer Fire Department

Titles of presentations: “Fear No Deere! Farming Mishaps”; “New Provider’s Guide to the ‘Real World’”; “BLS Hands on Airway Program”

Reason for submitting: There is an immense educational opportunity for both the presenter and the students. I wanted to test my skills in time management, incorporating student participation into a lecture and overall class development.

Why this topic: I own my own farming operation and grew up around farm equipment. I didn’t realize until a conversation arose at the firehouse how little our industry knows about the hazards of farming. The second program was based on “old school” concepts with a new school delivery. I was raised in a rescue squad building and played a patient a lot, and the ideas and philosophies are largely still applicable today.

Evaluation of presentation: Including students into class discussion proved to be very beneficial for overall class outcome. “Fear No Deere!” has a hands-on component, so if I do this class again outside of my home area, I’ll arrange to have machines on site.

Advice for new presenters: Once you have a program designed, find a smaller venue to test it and get feedback. Not everyone is going to love your program. The worst part for any instructor is receiving negative feedback. Take these comments and transpose them into something that is positive for you as an instructor.

Preparation time: I spent about a year with each program from its inception to its delivery. Inevitably, there will always be a hitch the day of the presentation. Prepare for this and expect it to happen.

Lessons learned: Every time I deliver a program I learn something from the audience. Without a doubt, someone in the audience will have a great understanding of your material.

Final thoughts: You learn a lot about the industry each time you design and deliver a program and this enhances all the concepts that you already know. I always try to deliver a program to others that I have a special connection to.

Dean Thompson, Sergeant, Master Technician Stafford Fire Rescue, NRP, CCP

Title of presentation: “Driving the AIC Up the Wall”

Reason for submitting: The topic of safe driving goes back a long time for our agency. We lost a couple of members in the county due to vehicle accidents. The AIC feels the forces and fights them, and this reflects back to the driver.

Why this topic: I wanted to spread what I’ve learned and see if I can make a difference.

Preparation time: I like to write down all the topics on my first two slides, and then develop the rest of the slides from there, because sometimes I don’t think of all the topics at first. In all, it was about three months prep time.

Evaluation of presentation: No one fell asleep, so that’s good. I felt like I was rushing a bit to meet the time frame, when in fact I had plenty of time. I encourage students to ask questions when they have them, then make sure that I’m able to stop the presentation, answer the questions, and then be able to pick back up where I left off.  

Advice for new presenters: Preparation is paramount. I like to have my own laptop and a USB drive so if something happens to the equipment, I have a backup. Also, it’s good to look at the class layout, check on how well the sound travels in the room and see if there are any visual obstructions before you present.

Lessons learned: I learned about time management. I developed my presentation to stretch out for an hour and a half, and I actually finished in about an hour. I learned I can spend more time on things that are important, and I don’t have to worry about running out of time.

Final thoughts: Involve the crowd by walking around and asking questions. You can direct a question to one person so there is participation.

Justin Adams, Captain, NRP, Chesterfield, VA Fire and EMS

Title of presentation: “Creating a Positive Culture in Your Station: Why People Want to Work for You”

Why this topic: We need to worry about what I call the circle of influence rather than the circle of concern. We need to put time into our shift and our families and the things we can immediately control, instead of falling victim to those we can’t influence or those who complain.  

Evaluation of your presentation: I tried to use video clips from Saving Private Ryan and We Were Soldiers to talk about concepts. I also used some sports events to show how athletes respond to team successes and tragedies. I generated good discussion and didn’t just read my slides. Next time, I would add in some ideas about conflict resolution to show times where you must exercise leadership.

Advice for new presenters: Pick something that you are passionate about, and the ability to communicate that will show. Be prepared and rehearse. Don’t show up and just read the slides. Vet the presentation with your friends who will critique you and help you with feedback you may not want to hear.

Lessons learned: I learned about how to engage the audience. You can go to a class and hope it will be a group- facilitated discussion, but they may not want to talk. You have to facilitate that discussion, because people are hesitant to talk when they don’t know each other.

Final thoughts: After landing the plane in the Hudson, Captain “Sully” Sullenberger said that he had spent his entire professional life preparing for this day. He said that every day he went to work he made continuous “deposits” of training, education and experience. I hope students continue to make similar deposits, so when they have to make a big withdrawal, they have the funds.

Hilary Gates, MEd, NRP, is a paramedic in Alexandria, VA. She is an EMT instructor and teaches in the School of Education at American University. She began her career as a volunteer with the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad. Gates has experience as an EMS educator and symposium presenter and is involved in quality management and training for the fire department. 

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