Promotional Prep: Improving Your Speaking and Interview Skills

By Katherine T. Ridenhour

Did you know that public speaking is Americans’ greatest fear? That is what most studies reveal. Since death is generally second or third on those lists, that means most people would rather die than speak in public.

Comedian Jerry Seinfield says this about those stats, “Does that seem right? That means to the average person, if you have to go to a funeral, you’d rather be in the casket than doing the eulogy!”

Public speaking in any form can be intimidating; however, there are ways to combat those nerves and set yourself up for better success–whether speaking at work, home, or any time in public. Let’s look at some information about public speaking and ways you can improve your verbal dialogue and focus on improving your interview skills—which, by the way, every day, in a way, you are being “interviewed” or “presenting.”

Fear of public speaking has the official name of glossophobia, but that applies to a diagnosis of a social anxiety disorder that causes uncontrollable trembling, sweating, and a racing heartbeat. Glossophobia is not occasional jitters or worrying that we almost all have when it comes to public speaking, but glossophobia may affect up to four out of every ten Americans.

Experts and psychologists usually cite fear of public speaking as being based on childhood experiences such as freezing up in front of an audience or something similar.

So, what is the best solution to help us overcome our public speaking fear? Fear is energy, and we can learn to harness that energy into different forms such as excitement, anticipation, and feelings of accomplishment by doing something simple: practice our speaking skills!

It’s estimated one in four Americans have anxiety over public speaking, and we in the fire service probably have similar numbers. Yet, public speaking is done by most of us every day. We are in the public every single day, and even at the firehouse or headquarters we have an audience. What tips can we gain to help us promote ourselves better by practicing our “public speeches”?

First, taking small steps can help our poise and confidence. Knowing in advance when you are going to be talking to an audience, like, say, during a station tour or during a fire inspection is a great place to hone speaking skills. Having a greeting and canned speech ready can help us improve our presentation. Assisting another firefighter with learning or reviewing skills is also an excellent place to sharpen our verbal skills. We all have areas of expertise in the job, so use yours to help you improve your verbal skills.

Taking small steps such as these during familiar and regular opportunities at work and at home is a great place to start. Just being aware that you are working on practicing your public speaking is an important first step to gain confidence on improving speaking skills.

We normally associate interview skills with initial entry interviews or when promoting. But isn’t every day we are on duty (or off duty, for that matter), whether it be in the public eye, in the fire station, or at HQ, an opportunity to answer “interview” questions?

Public speaking and interview skills are just that–skills!  Skills must be practiced and drilled and exercised before any mastery and confidence occur.

Interview preparation is critical if you are preparing for a promotion, even if there is no “formal” interview exercise scheduled. Almost all portions of an assessment center assess basic interview skills anytime you open your mouth.

If a formal interview is required, you can best prepare by practice. Creating your own set of questions; getting questions from others and asking trusted sources for help are easy tips to start. But to get good, you also must prepare for questions you are not prepared for? Huh? Thinking outside the box of what you would normally expect can further help your ability to handle any question. 

Other formal interview tips are basic, but again need practice. For instance, take a breath before you answer each question. It’s OK to have that pause. It can be a little uncomfortable to sit on the other side from a candidate as an evaluator when they immediately begin talking as soon as the question is asked. It usually signals nervousness. And speaking immediately when asked any question usually does not help you fully formulate your answer, appear confident, or create a calming cadence. So, take that breath, pause, then answer. You will only appear more at ease and in control. Try speaking in front of the mirror and try the pause technique in regular conversation, as it will help improve communication and understanding between you and another.

Next, having a plan or template for answering is important. We have all heard the adage, “Tell them what you’re gonna tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them.”  There is a lot of wisdom in that statement.  When asked a question, begin by using the question itself to answer, not necessarily verbatim, but restating the question reinforces to you and the interviewer what you are going to talk about.

Example:

Question: “What characteristics do you admire most in a leader?” 

Possible initial answers: “The characteristics I admire most in a leader are…” or “There are several leadership characteristics I admire. The top ones are….”

So, begin with introducing what you are going to tell them, then state the important details, ideas, and main points. Now, how to end? Using the question above, you could say, “To conclude, the leadership characteristics I admire most are …” or “All the characteristics I listed are the ones that I believe are the most important to be a good leader.”

I have found that once you have an organized beginning to any interview question (or any somewhat formal question), it’s much easier to formulate a great answer.  And using the “Tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them” truly clarifies your message and can improve the most important part of communication–understanding. So, experiment with this tip and try it out when appropriate to see how it can work for you.

Another time-tested template or format I’ve used since learning it in Mrs. Jacob’s high school English class is this: Introduction, Main Points, and Conclusion. It’s a very simple template used to write a paper, but it also applies well to public speaking and interviews.

Let’s apply my high school English template to another interview question.  

Question: “If you are promoted to this position, how will your crew describe you in one year?” 

Possible Answer:

Introduction: “When I am promoted, I will work hard each and every day to be the best leader I can be. In one year’s time, my crew will be able to say that I am trustworthy, competent, and that I created a great working environment.”

Main Points: “I will demonstrate my trustworthiness because I will adhere to all safety regulations, take personal responsibility for my actions, help each member of my crew achieve their goals, and ask for their help and guidance as needed. My crew will say that I am competent because they will see me striving for excellence every day by doing self-study, training them on all our skills, and researching new ideas and ways to become the best team possible. I will demonstrate my competence to my crew and others by knowing all department policies, adhering to good safety practices, and continually working on my leadership skills. Also, in one year my crew will say that their work environment is exactly the place where they want to be–in a station where they feel valued, where everyone can make a mistake and learn from it, where everyone knows that they can trust me and each other in all situations.” 

Conclusion: “I am confident that in one year, my crew will tell you that I have worked very hard to be a good officer.  They will tell you that I am someone they trust, that they have confidence in, and someone who always tries to improve. They will tell you that I am dependable and reliable in all ways and I have the skills and knowledge to perform my job competently. When they come to work, we work as a team, and all are valued and respected.”

So, if you read that paragraph out loud, it takes approximately 80 to 90 seconds to do so.  Not only does it follow Mrs. Jacob’s format, but it also follows the “Tell them” format.

Here is another great interview tip: Take the same practice question and answer it in one minute, three minutes, and then five minutes. It will help you understand how much time you can devote to each subject. It will also help you learn to fully develop ideas as well as how to edit them.

Next public speaking tip: Pay attention to how your nonverbal language either helps or hinders you. Whether during a formal interview, presentation, or anytime speaking, our body language gives off more signals than what we actually say. In fact, our actual words we speak are only 7% of our message! It’s how we look and how we sound that make up the other 93%. So, how do others perceive you? Are you brave enough to ask others how well you present yourself? If not, then it’s time to do what most of us dread doing–record ourselves rehearsing and practicing making speeches, presentations, and answering interview questions. It’s quite an eye-opener. Notice how you sit; how you stand; what your facial expressions are; where your eyes are looking; and if you are actively doing annoying bad habits like fidgeting, frowning, or sitting stiff as a board. Or, do you have good posture and look relaxed, self-assured, and composed? Again, the key is p-r-a-c-t-i-c-e.  Practice standing and sitting tall, projecting your voice, using pauses effectively, looking around the room, looking people in the eye, smiling as appropriate, using positive hand gestures, breathing, and looking and feeling calm and confident.

You can only overcome any degree of fear toward public speaking if you decide it’s time to step up to the plate and improve this important skill you use every day. Do you walk into work with your head down, shoulders slumped? Or, do you walk in with shoulders back, a smile on your face, ready to face the day? Just that alone can set you up for a more confident approach anytime you open your mouth. Remember, the only thing you can control is yourself. If you actively look for opportunities to improve your speaking skills, your formal interview skills, and your everyday verbal interactions, you will improve!  Whether a supervisor or a citizen asks you a question, a fellow firefighter wants input or needs help, you need to give information to your crew, or you are talking shop with a colleague, all those are opportunities to grow your confidence in your ability to speak up and use your voice.

It’s all about practice! Start now! 

Katherine T. Ridenhour, a 30-year fire service member, is a retired battalion chief from Aurora (CO) Fire Rescue. After retiring, she spent five years as a volunteer firefighter in her hometown in southwest Colorado. She has an extensive teaching background in strategy/tactics, command, conflict solution, personnel problem solving, promotional preparation, and leadership at the national level.

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