Keep it simple and entertaining

January 06, 2009
Written by Tim Beebe
I stopped peeling potatoes and peeked out the door to see what was making the ruckus. Francis, the slightly built head cook, was stomping a mangled can opener into the gravel, and swearing eloquently in French and English. With a crash of the garbage can lid, he stormed up the stairs and puffed into the MNR bush kitchen, red-faced, eyes glaring.

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“Da nex parson who bring dat dam ting in here, I keel dem!” he sputtered.

Cheap can openers are the bane of any cook’s existence. This one had crossed the line, and its death is still a vivid memory nearly 20 years later. Francis had a temperament like Mount St. Helens but he knew how to get his point across.

The banquet hall was in an uproar. Firefighters stood on chairs and played volleyball with crumpled napkins. Others hooted and made catcalls. The keynote speaker droned on without looking up, reading from a thick stack of papers as if he were in a soundproof compartment.

“The technical excellence of our product makes it a sound choice for fire departments of all sizes and budgetary considerations la di da di da. . .”
The smart guys and gals had already escaped to the bar. The rest of us dodged spit balls and entertained dark thoughts of shoving the man’s tie down his throat. Would this guy never shut up? It takes acrobatic skill to balance the yin and yang of education and entertainment. This yahoo had fallen off the tightrope an hour earlier, and now swam in shark-infested waters without a lifejacket. The problem? Mr. Keynote had the facts but couldn’t feel the pulse of his audience. His words were hitting a barrier and sliding to the floor. We weren’t getting the point.

A four year-old girl received a Bearhug Band CD, with catchy, appealing music that quickly became her favourite. She may not have known that she was being indoctrinated with safety messages, but her parents knew. They didn’t have any choice. They nicknamed her the “seatbelt Gestapo” because she demanded that everyone fasten their seatbelts the moment they got in the car. A few years later, she was with her mother and brother when their car vaulted off a slippery highway and flipped end over end several times before it crunched to a stop on its roof. They hung upside down from their seatbelts, virtually unhurt because a little girl got the point.

The mind is a fortress, with layers of defenses. The gates of the outer courtyard swing freely in either direction, making it easy to penetrate. The problem is that words flow out as fast as they flow in. If you want to make an impression, you have to reach the inner bastion, where the memory and will reside. Its gates are solid, and must be unlocked from the inside. Karl Marx said, “Give me 26 lead soldiers and I’ll conquer the world.” He was at least partly right. The lead soldiers are ideas. Persuade your listeners to let them in and the battle is won.

It’s easy to attack in the traditional way, like Mr. Keynote, and assume everyone will roll out the red carpet. Maybe they will and maybe they won’t but they will at least give you hints about what they think of you.

My crew is good at this. I arrived at the fire hall one evening, prepared to demonstrate a handful of clever knots. When I walked in, there was a hangman’s noose tied to the stair railing. There’s nothing like a good visual aid to keep the instructor brief and to the point.

It’s reasonable for firefighters to expect to learn something useful, and be entertained in the process, especially on a Monday evening after they’ve whacked trees or hauled gravel all day. One of the best instructors I know does a virtual vaudeville show of group discussions, movie clips, brain teasers, role play and more. She mastered that elusive mix – enough entertainment to open the gate, enough education to make an impression. We had no choice but to learn something.

In the movie musical Chicago, Richard Gere plays a defence lawyer famous for bamboozling juries into acquitting guilty people. In one scene, he tap-dances the Old Razzle Dazzle to make his point and wow the skeptics. Our listeners are the jury. The most terrifying verdict they can give is “you are boring!”

I’ve never heard snores during live fire training, but education isn’t always intrinsically fascinating. If you aren’t a tap dancer, another way to deal with boring courses is through the internet. I assign WHMIS as an online course. It’s a short, sweet, way to deal with a nearly useless topic. The legal beagles are happy and the crew isn’t mad. A win-win situation.

Another tactic is bribery. This year during Fire Prevention Week I promised a prize to all school kids who practiced their escape plans. I heard later that a couple of young lads tried their second way out – they climbed out a second storey window and down the log walls to the ground. I need to revisit safety next year but hey, they got the point. And I pried the gate open with a stuffed Energizer bunny.

Making an impression is the ultimate goal, whatever the tactics. Mr. Keynote failed to gain entry with an artillery barrage of facts. I can’t even remember the name of his company. A bush cook, on the other hand, made a lasting imprint with passion, honesty and brevity. The most unwilling gatekeeper can’t resist these qualities. I hope my bush cooking days are over but if I ever do have to go back, you can be sure I’ll have a good can opener in my pocket.

Quality improvement usually comes through simplification. - Dr. Tom Peters (paraphrased). 

Tim Beebe is the fire chief in Upsala, Ont. He can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

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