Today, perhaps more than ever, fire service leaders must be highly skilled and capable at presenting reports and information in a public forum and in responding to questions in an efficient and effective manner. This is certainly true for fire service leaders who must present information, deliver presentations, and respond to questions from their local mayor and council.
Responding to questions during a council meeting can be very challenging. The stakes are often high and the need to be able to deliver accurate and factual responses in a clear and concise manner is critical to the success of whatever recommendation is being discussed.
There are certainly times when reading from prepared remarks is both acceptable and appropriate, including during formal press conferences and when delivering formal remarks as part of a ceremony. However, trying to respond to questions in a council meeting by reading from a script is certainly not one of those times.
Achieving the trust and confidence of those whose questions you are responding to demands that you provide thoughtful, accurate and specific answers to questions in a reasonably articulate and efficient manner. Unfortunately, that can seldom be achieved by reading a canned response.
I find it surprising how many fire service leaders, despite fully understanding the importance of a particular report, or knowing in advance that the subject matter at hand is likely to generate a significant number of questions, fail to intentionally prepare to respond to questions in advance.
If you were to peruse my work calendar, you would find a number of scheduled meetings entitled “snake pit”. This rather ominous sounding appointment appears quite frequently in our calendars and is one of the processes that my team and I use to ensure that we are fully prepared for whatever report or presentation is upcoming.
A snake pit begins with the spokesperson for a particular report or presentation actually delivering their presentation to a team of people assembled for this purpose, in live time, and in the exact manner in which they intend to do so. My snake pit meetings generally include a handful of senior officers, along with those who have particular subject matter expertise in the topic at hand.
Once the spokesperson has completed their presentation is where things get interesting in the snake pit. The rest of the team then take turns peppering the presenter with every obscure, difficult, sensitive, problematic, and uncomfortable question that they can think of. In each case, the spokesperson must respond directly to each question that is asked.
The goal of the snake pit is to have the spokesperson face and consider as many challenging or awkward questions, concerns, or rebuttals as possible, to ensure they are well prepared to respond effectively to the questions that may come during the real meeting.
Nothing is off limits during a snake pit; in fact, the more challenging and obscure the questions, the better. Admittedly, it can be very awkward to be put on the spot like this by your colleagues, and perhaps even harder to be the one putting your teammate in this kind of position, but it is vitally important that it happens.
During the snake pit, it is common for questions to be asked that expose the need for additional information or for some additional preparation in order to ensure that we are able to answer those questions effectively when the pressure is on.
In my experience, to fully prepare to answer questions, you must actually listen to yourself voice your answers out loud. It is only then that you will identify opportunities for improvement in areas such as wording, tone, inflection, and even accuracy of information. This is often the only way that you will become fully aware of any questions or subject matter that might be especially challenging for you to speak to.
By the end of well-run snake pit session, the spokesperson will have faced the most challenging questions and will have responded to them effectively. This is a huge confidence builder that sets us up for success when this subject matter will be formally debated.
I encourage you to implement the snake pit process in your team’s preparation process to set yourself up for the best possible performance when it counts.
Matthew Pegg is the chief with Toronto Fire Services, having previously served in Georgina, Ajax and Brampton, Ont. Contact Matthew at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @ChiefPeggTFS.
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