What can a group fitness instructor or personal trainer learn from an
intelligence analyst? A lot!
In my 8 years as an analyst and writer for the U.S. intelligence community,
I learned how to convey important information quickly and efficiently to
some of the country's top policymakers. Sometimes I had to tell them,
politely, that they were wrong. No pressure!
Other times I didn't have an immediate answer for a tough question. With
clients who made foreign policy decisions that affected global politics, it
was imperative that I deliver information quickly and accurately. The
stakes were high-one misinterpreted message could have led to a string of
poor policy decisions (Petersen 2011). I also learned a lot about how to
manage egos, including my own.
Thankfully, my work today as a group dance and fitness instructor isn't
quite as stressful, but I still call on much of what I learned as an
analyst to be engaging, humble and accurate. Whether I'm working with a
client one-on-one or leading a ballroom with over 100 participants, these
analytical, briefing and communication skills have helped me more than I
ever expected. Here's a sample of what I learned during those years that
might help you sharpen your professional edge.
Convey a Friendly Sense of Confidence
As an intelligence analyst, I learned quickly that lack of confidence
undermines a briefing's bottom line. The same principle applies in the
fitness studio. Your non-verbal communication can show clients you are
knowledgeable and friendly.
The first thing you learn when giving intelligence briefings is the
importance of making and holding eye contact, and this is just as important
when cuing clients. It helps them feel seen and appreciated, especially if
they're new, and that encourages them to return.
Research has found that public speakers who make regular eye contact with
their audience are perceived to be more persuasive (Sundaram & Webster
2000). Some public speaking coaches suggest looking around the room in a Z
pattern to keep the eyes moving (Collins 2004).
If you're at the front of a large group fitness class, you're probably
leading with the exact movements your clients will follow. But with a
smaller group such as a Pilates reformer class or in personal training
sessions, you're likely standing, giving verbal and physical cues to your
client. Research suggests the best cues convey friendliness and
interest-think casual smiling, light laughter, open body posture and a
slight lean forward in the body (Sundaram & Webster 2000).
Also, avoid folding your arms across your chest: This can make you appear
closed off or even frustrated. Good posture exudes confidence, so pull back
your shoulders and stand tall. When observing a client, stand with your
hands clasped behind your back to show you are confident, yet open.
If you have a naturally higher-pitched voice, you might want to practice
lowering your pitch. Researchers have found that adults with lower-pitched
voices are more likely to get leadership positions (Anderson & Klofstad
2012; Klofstad et al. 2012), and that people associate lower-toned voices
with authority and trustworthiness.
If you have a higher-toned voice, avoid ending sentences with a questioning
inflection, which can also undermine your authority. You need to sound sure
of what you're saying, and that might take some adjusting of your casual
Communicate Quickly and Clearly
Intelligence analysts must get their point across to busy policymakers
quickly without ambiguity. Fitness leaders must do the same, particularly
in a group class where the instructor's voice competes with music.
PRECISE, CLEAR SPEECH
Group fitness instructors
should verbally cue their classes in and out of movements quickly and
clearly. Make sure your class interprets your words the way you intend
them, particularly with difficult movements or ones that might pose injury
risks if they are not done using proper form.
It's also important to speak a bit slower and enunciate more than you would
in your daily conversations (Collins 2004). Often if we're nervous or
enthusiastic, we can speak so quickly that our audience can't understand
us. Even if you're teaching with a headset microphone, crisp consonants and
vocalized vowels ensure that your clients hear every cue and correction
When working with clients, especially beginners, stick to nonmedical terms
about anatomy. Instead of "femur," for example, say, "thigh bone." Or
instead of "iliopsoas," just use "hip flexor." Save the anatomical talk for
Policymakers love graphics, and so do clients. Research shows that using
visuals while teaching significantly improves learning and retention of new
information (Collins 2004; Stokes 2002). When appropriate, make printouts
or use other visual references such as posters or books to show specific
muscle groups or bones to supplement your teaching. Even better: Make
something your client can take home.
Get Better at Answering Questions
When clients ask questions during a class, make sure to repeat the question
so everybody can hear it before you begin your reply.
When leading a group class, or even working one-on-one with a client, be
sure to answer questions quickly and precisely. The client isn't paying you
to wax poetic about how fascinated you are with the structure of the
glenohumeral joint or the latest peer-reviewed research on workout
We must continually educate ourselves on developments in our field,
including breakthroughs in sports medicine, kinesiology and workout
recovery. But sometimes a client will ask a question to which we won't have
One of the first things I learned as an analyst was that it's all right to
not have all the answers. Some people would rather create an answer or talk
around a subject rather than look uninformed. But in reality, clients will
respect you more if you admit when you need to do some research and get
back to them.
Studies have found that children who want to impress adults around them
often make up answers to a question if they don't know the right answer
(Waterman et al. 2000). Of course, we don't want to be perceived as a child
but as a leader! Also, remember that what you say is being heard by clients
and maybe even repeated. Upholding your credibility is of utmost
Say what you know, and admit what you don't know. Then follow through, get
the right answer and remember to deliver it in the next session.
Teaching Is a Roundabout
Teaching is not exactly a two-way street; a better analogy is a roundabout.
While we're imparting our knowledge to our clients, we are also learning
from them. We must regularly reflect on which cues are most effective, and
what descriptions truly stick with our clients. We are also constantly
learning, adapting and polishing our methods to make sure our clients
understand and integrate our guidance quickly and safely.
Instructors succeed when their participants truly learn something new or
look at old information in a new light. Intelligence officers also must
ensure that their briefings shift--or elaborate on-their clients'
perceptions or viewpoints, hopefully so they will make the best decisions
for the citizens of their country. And while the fate of the nation isn't
at stake when you lead your group fitness classes, you owe it to your
clients to be engaged, inspiring and informative.
Have you ever watched a video of yourself speaking? I had to as part
of my analytical training. I still reflect upon those videos in the studio,
even though the first ones were pretty cringeworthy. I've also watched a
lot of videos of myself in my roles as a fitness and dance instructor and
have learned from them to be a stronger communicator. Watching videos of
yourself teaching a class or even a private training session can be a
fantastic tool to evaluate your body language, vocal projection, cuing and
overall energy (Sherin & van Es 2005). It's easy if you have a mobile
device; just make sure the camera captures your whole body. If you work in
a studio with a mirror, place the camera in a back corner where it can
record your body in the mirror's reflection. Before you do, though, make
sure that your device has enough storage and battery life for an entire
class. And definitely get your students' consent before recording, even if
they're not in the frame.
Later, watch the footage, ask yourself these questions and decide where you
can make improvements.
- Do my instructions make sense?
- Am I speaking clearly at all times?
- Do I look confident yet relaxed
- How much eye contact am I making?
- Am I looking at everyone in the room?
- Are members picking up my cues right away?