A Great Presentation: A Burn Survivor Wins The Day

Over the past three years, my firm has been doing pro bono work with the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors.

Among other things, I’ve taught survivors how to advocate for causes they believe in by communicating through the media, speeches, and conversations with legislators. Rob Feeney, a survivor of the awful Station Fire that killed 100 people at a Rhode Island nightclub in 2003, attended one of my advocacy courses last year.

Earlier this year, Rob was invited to testify before the Chattanooga, Tennessee City Council, which was considering a requirement for bars and nightclubs to install fire sprinklers. The vote was going to be close, and advocates for home fire sprinklers were trailing by one vote.

This video is worth watching as a brilliant example of how to do public speaking right.

To be clear, I had nothing to do with Rob’s presentation. He conceived, wrote, and delivered this passionate testimony entirely on his own.

Rob did many things right during his testimony – but here are four things that stood out:

  1. 1. He Began With a Powerful Analogy: Rob was only allowed three minutes to testify, so he began his testimony with this sentence: “The irony is that in three minutes…96 people in the Station Nightclub fire lost their life …including my fiancée and two of our friends.”
  2. He continued to use that analogy throughout his testimony. Thirty seconds into his testimony, he talked about what was happening in the nightclub at the 30-second mark, and he continued to use that powerful device throughout his testimony.
  3. 2. He Started Small, Then Zoomed Out: Toward the end of his testimony, Rob listed a series of major fires with their related death tolls. But that list wouldn’t have been effective if he had started with it. Instead, Rob started “small” – with his personal story – and then zoomed out to the larger picture. By beginning with something concrete, it made it much easier for the audience to understand the abstract.   
  4. 3. He Was Emotional: Rob’s emotion underscored just how “real” this issue was. But what struck me was how he managed it. When he got overwhelmed, he just put his head down, paused for a few seconds, and resumed when he was ready. Perfect.
  5. 4. He Was On Message: Even though he was emotional, Rob never lost sight of his objective – to get fire sprinklers installed in Chattanooga bars. Everything he said was intended to convey that message to the members of the City Council.

A photo taken 40 seconds after the Station fire began

Vickie Pritchett, who serves on the board of the fire prevention group Common Voices, watched Rob give his testimony. She told me that there was a hush in the room when he spoke – and that the City Councilors didn’t dare interrupt him when he exceeded his allotted three minutes.

Largely as a result of Rob’s testimony, the Chattanooga City Council passed the fire sprinkler requirement.

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Related: How to Tell a Good Story: Make It Small

Related: What To Do When You Get Emotional During a Speech