by Jen Sharp published in Parachutist Magazine August 2013

Imagine an instructor holding a bottle of water. He asks a student if he is thirsty, and the student replies, “Yes.” The instructor then pours the water into the palm of his hand and tries to hand it to the student. Of course, the water goes everywhere.

In this story, the water symbolizes knowledge. It illustrates the concept that how instructors present information to students is just as important as what they present. If the information is not in a useful form, then it doesn’t matter how good the information is. Using a concept called “positive-specific” can help you ensure that you’re presenting your knowledge in a useable way, and this can take you from being an acceptable coach or instructor to being an exceptional coach or instructor.

Positive-specific is a way of framing information that provides students with correct, succinct directions during practices or debriefs. In the context of skydiving, “positive” refers to something that the student must do (an action or position), and “specific” requires the coach or instructor to refer to a precise body part.

The opposite of positive-specific is negative-vague. An example of negative-vague instruction is telling a student, “Don’t backslide!” Of course, this tip is correct, yet it’s not very useful to someone with little skydiving experience. Instead, try reframing the instruction in a positive-specific form by saying something such as, “Legs out.” This names a body part and a specific action.

While one meaning of “positive” is “encouraging,” that is not the meaning of the word in this context. Instead, it means telling students what to do rather than what not to do; it doesn’t mean telling them they’re doing well. Confidence comes with achievement, not accolades. If you give them something they can succeed with, they’ll gain that confidence.

It’s important to be specific since too much information can dilute good advice. If you have ever had a long-winded friend describe part of his day to you, you have experienced how too much information can obstruct the essence of a conversation. Coaches and instructors should hone in on the key element and give substantive advice when training a student. Though some novices seem like sponges, resist the urge to tell them everything you know. You need to emphasize their priorities so they don’t become confused about what is truly important.

It is true that knowledge is power. But power in a form that’s unusable is worthless. Become an exceptional teacher by using positive-specific instructions when training and during debriefs.