Think you need to brush up on your presenting skills? Chances are you probably do. According to Benjamin Asher, MD, founder of Asher Integrative Ear, Nose & Throat in New York City, public speaking is something physicians are rarely trained for.
“[Physicians] either think they don’t have the time or they don’t need it,” he said. A seasoned presenter, Dr. Asher said he knows what it’s like to become uneasy in the middle of a presentation, and he says even a highly confident speaker will benefit from taking the time to refine his or her presentation skills. That’s what he did, working with coaches to help him warm up and feel grounded at the podium, project his voice and speak at an appropriate speed.
“It makes a huge difference to be able to give a talk that’s bright and has everybody behind it and that is engaging for the audience to hear,” Dr. Asher said. “In my experience, there’s not a person out there who’s an engaging speaker that hasn’t worked at honing the craft.”
Whether you’ve given hundreds of presentations throughout your career or are preparing for your first conference lecture, there’s always room for improvement when it comes to professional speaking.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Preparation may seem like an obvious tip, but it’s one that’s often overlooked, either due to time constraints or overconfidence, said George M. Hall, PhD, DSc, professor of anesthesia at St. George’s University of London in the UK and author of How to Present at Meetings, 3rd edition (Wiley, 2012). (Disclaimer: Wiley is also the publisher of ENT Today.) “The problem with senior presenters such as myself is that as we get old we think we can skimp on the preparation and the rehearsal and then we give a poor presentation,” he said.
Sticking to a rule of thumb given to him by a surgery professor years ago, Dr. Hall suggested one hour of preparation for every minute of a presentation. “That’s hopefully a little bit too much if you’re particularly familiar with the topic, but if you’re starting from scratch, it’s probably about right.”
Part of preparing is developing a practical core message with an opening that captures the audience’s attention, said Susan Miller, PhD, a speech pathologist and CEO and founder of the Voicetrainer, LLC, a voice coaching and communication consulting business. “For an otolaryngologist, that might be a fact that gets the audience thinking about the prevalence or relevance of a topic,” she said.
Presenters should also identify two or three points they want to develop and create a strong closing, she added. “It should be something that will make people remember what you said weeks or even months later.”
Use Body Language
Having a clear message frees speakers to focus on another key aspect of effective presenting: body language.
“When you’re actually delivering your presentation, you have to remember: I really know this message, now I need to use powerful body language,” Dr. Miller said. “I need to look comfortable, maintain eye contact, stand tall, and use a voice that’s heard.”
Jannette Collins, MD, Ben Felson professor and chair of radiology and professor of medicine at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, who regularly gives faculty workshops on delivering effective presentations at Radiological Society of North America Annual Meetings, said she counsels physicians in her specialty to deliver in a conversational yet professional manner, varying the volume and pace of their speech. “An example I use is delivery of a paragraph that’s monotone with no change in voice inflection. I ask the person, ‘If that is not how you talk to a friend, then why would you speak that way when talking to an audience?’”
She also said speakers should move around, as opposed to being fixed at a podium, and they should make broad, open-handed gestures to the audience, being careful not to point fingers or wave their fists, which can be seen as threatening.
Get the Audience Involved
Involving the audience in your presentation is the easiest way to sustain their attention, Dr. Collins said, and there are numerous ways to make even a presentation to thousands of people interactive. “You can ask rhetorical questions, ask for a show of hands, ask members of the audience to interact with the people next to them or write down an idea,” she said. She also suggested giving clinical scenarios and asking audience members what they would recommend for further management, or even using volunteers for role playing.
When it comes to a lay audience, Dr. Hall said you should pause for questions throughout the presentation so you don’t lose their attention as time passes. Using props may also be effective for this type of listener, Dr. Miller noted. “If the presentation is about smoking, you may want to bring a pack of cigarettes,” she said, “or show a short video of a patient who’s had a laryngectomy and is speaking with an alternative method.”
Use PowerPoint, Sparingly
Rarely will a speaker give a presentation without using PowerPoint, but the program has become fatally easy, Dr. Hall said. “The problem is people try to cram too much info in too short a space of time, and you suffer from PowerPoint overload.” To prevent that from happening, he suggests having no more than one slide per minute of a presentation.
Dr. Miller has her own rule of thumb when it comes to PowerPoint: no more than six lines on a slide. “Presenters typically use busy, data-driven slides. Use simple graphs or emphasize the important statistics in a different color,” she suggested, noting that a well-chosen visual can significantly reduce the time needed to present a concept. “Visuals should be bold and brilliant, and they should be fully integrated into the presentation.”
Think on Your Feet
One key skill physicians traditionally haven’t been able to master is sensing the mood of the audience and altering their presentation accordingly, Dr. Hall said, adding that this is a huge aspect of keeping the audience engaged.
“Stand-up comedians sense how their presentation is going and alter it to the mood of the audience, and I think that is what really good medical presenters can do as well.” Although he said that capability isn’t something that can be taught, there are ways physicians can become more in tune with their audience. Dr. Collins suggested testing listeners using an audience response system prior to beginning a presentation. The remotes allow audience members to answer questions using the hand-held key pad so that presenters can query the audience to learn more about what they know and tailor the presentation accordingly. As Dr. Collins pointed out, the more prepared you are, the easier this will be.
“By rehearsing and being familiar with the content, you can alter a presentation so that if a question comes up about something you planned to talk about later, you can jump ahead to that information or tell the audience you plan to cover it,” he said.
Because no two presentations are the same, improving your speaking skills is something that you should build upon with each engagement, Dr. Hall said. “It’s a bit like show business. You’re only as good as your last presentation, because that’s the one that people remember.”