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Presentation Skills for Clinicians: Making Your Next Presentation Go Better than Your Last

As a healthcare professional, good presentation skills can make or break your career, but speaking to a crowded conference room can be petrifying. Scott C. Litin, MD gives 16 tips and tools for giving a memorable presentation.
January 20, 2022
Scott C. Litin, MD


Why is it crucial for you to present yourself and your material well? Well, the point is our careers depend heavily on the way we present ourselves and our material. If you do this well, doors swing open. If you don't, they usually find somebody else. So, this could be a career-maker or a career breaker. 

Now, how did I get involved in this? Well, a number of years ago, I was elected to be our speaker at high school graduation. And it didn't go very well. And I couldn't quite figure out why. I thought it must have been the microphone or whatever. But I went off to college, Rice University. While at Rice University, I listened to one of the greatest speakers I've ever heard, and that was Muhammad Ali, who spoke in front of the campus and commanded the audience. He almost didn't graduate high school. I figured if he could do this well, I could get better. 

I read books, I took courses, and it's from what I learned the hard way, I want to share with you some of the tips and tools that we've learned. One of the things that we have done is a workshop where we videotape learner colleagues, and we go together and group critique what goes well and what could be improved. And I've been doing this for about 20 years now. 


So, let's go through some of the important lessons. The goal today is I want your buy-in that this is important and teach you a few things. But I really want to motivate you to think about put in your presentations together a little differently than you've done in the past. And I'll try to demonstrate some of these skills as best I can to you today. 



Body language is very important. You've probably seen TED talks in the past. Ted speakers speak with what we call open body language. What does that mean? It means nothing between you and your audience so they don't stand behind lecterns and hold on to the lectern. They don't have their hands clasped or arms folded. They're out in front, full-body hand gestures going, and it creates a real impression with the audience, and it makes everything go better. 


So, a couple of basics. If you're speaking formally, always include an email address on a slide, on a whiteboard, or on a handout. You might ask, what does this tell your audience? It says you're approachable. If they have questions or want to contact you, they can. 

Now, one of the questions I often get from people is, “Oh, won't you get a lot of spam doing that?” I get spam, but it's never, never abused in a professional audience. I might get an invitation to speak in Hawaii. I might get a referral, I might get some constructive critiquing. But rarely do you get anything. It just makes you look good. 


Again, if it's a formal presentation, write your own introduction. In the Bible, it might say the meek shall inherit the earth. Not when you're wanting to write your own introduction, you need to give yourself credibility on the topic to which you are speaking. And this is important – only you know the credibility you have. And if you send a 40-page curriculum vitae to somebody, nobody reads it, and they might pull out things that you don't feel are important. 


And then what have I learned about the name badge? Well, first of all, when you are presenting formally, lose the badge because if you have a badge on your body, it looks stupid, it flops around, and anything on your person that is distracting will detract from your presentation. 

But if you are going to use the badge, put it on the upper right of your lapel. Why? Because when we meet and greet and shake hands, or bump fists, or hit elbows, it's on the upper right side and people can glance and see your name without looking over your torso embarrassingly to try to remember what your name was. 


In medical presentations, lots of PowerPoints are still used, and it can be your friend, but it can often be your enemy. A college professor surveyed a thousand students and asked, “What do you all find most annoying sitting through PowerPoint presentations?” And they could answer more than once, but let me just share a few of the things they found most annoying, 

No. 1 was the speaker reading verbatim, word by word, your slides. Next, having tiny point type in the slides. Well, if you have 17 lines on a slide, you have to have tiny lettering to be seen. So, if you've heard of the rule of five or six, that's something to think about – no more than five or six lines per slide and no more than five or six words per slide. And watch out for hard-to-see colors, flying techs, and complex charts. 

Let's get to the meat of this talk and talk about how you best connect with an audience and the number one tip, know who's in your audience and meet their needs. 


What do they want to know? What do they need to know? Not, what do you want to talk about? If you can do that, your evaluations will go sky-high. And that's hard for some people to connect with. But it also takes a lot of baggage off of your shoulders. You don't have to talk about everything about a topic, you don't have to cover from front end to back end. You just have to think about what's this audience wants to know or needs to know. 

And you will meet their needs because they are tuned in to an FM radio station whenever you and I speak called WIIFM – What's in it for me? If you answer that question early, you've hooked them. They want to hear more. We'll talk a little about hooks further on. 


The other important point is the organization of your presentation. An audience will give us somewhere between 5 and 30 seconds before they make a judgment of us and our material, and if you don't hook them, out come the iPhones and they’re reading their email. So, in that opening statement, you need to hook the audience. You can do that with a story, medical stories are cases, or the word imagine. And I'll give you an example. 

So, let's say that you're the chief resident is giving a discussion with the residents about diarrhea. And he starts out by saying, “Good morning. Today, we're going to speak about diarrhea. Diarrhea was first described by Dr. Dye and Dr. Rhea in 1898,” and in the audience is going, “Oh, lord, get me out of this. Now, this is going to be terrible.” 

But what if the same chief resident started with something like this? “Good morning. You pick up the chart of your first patient. She's a 39-year-old woman who's complaining of three weeks of watery diarrhea. Your heart sinks. You think, ‘What do I need to ask historically? Is there anything on the exam I need to pay attention to? What about testing? Do I need to do testing or order stool studies, or could I empirically treat her and see if she gets better?’ Great questions we’ll answer all these in this presentation. So if she's your first patient, you'll be ready.” 

That's a hook, starting with a case. Now, they feel they need to know or want to know more about diarrhea, when before, they weren't interested in a bunch of facts. 


Speaking of facts, it has been shown that after a typical gland rounds presentation, when the learners walk out of the room, and they're asked to recite any facts they recall from the presentation, the average number is zero to three. Zero to three! Why in the world would we give presentations if they don't remember everything we say? 

Unfortunately, if your goal is 25 facts in 25 minutes, you'll fail every time, but you can do a lot with a presentation. You can get the learners interested in your topic, so they learn more and want to read more about it. You can get funding for your research. You can get a promotion. You can change somebody's career. You can teach a procedure. But if your goal is 25 facts in 25 minutes, you'll fail every time. 


“Oh, we're done today,” is not a strong closing, nor is a picture of your family, the new baby, or a sunset. If people are going to remember anything out of your presentation. It's usually the last five percent. So I like to teach, say, these two words: In Summary. People awaken. If they've got a pencil, they'll start writing down whatever you say next. If you say, “And if you only remember three things from today,” that's probably what they'll remember. 

  1. GOOD DELIVERY AND SPEEDood Delivery and Speech

Concentrate on the delivery – face your audience, not your screen or your slides. Avoid monotone. You don't know what you sound like unless you've listened to your presentation, and your voice. 

  • Pace

Pace is important too. Many speakers talk very fast because after all, they only gave me 15 minutes to go through all this material, and I've got about 40 minutes of material but if I talk really fast, I can get through most of it. And I don't know about you, but I get a little nervous in front of an audience, so the faster I speak, the quicker I sit down. 

What's the trouble at that pace? It’s hard to listen and hard to understand, so you lose a sentence or two, and again, out come the iPhones and your into your email. 

  • Pausing

And the most important speech technique you can master is pausing. To a speaker to pause seems eternal – to the audience, it's a short break. And for those of us that have filler, sounds like, “um, ah, so, uh, you know, etc.” knowing that you make those sounds and learning to replace them with a pause instead is the key here. 


Now, this is a hard thing sometimes for medical presenters, but you need to make your presentation a performance. Now, when I say performance, you don't have to tell jokes or sing and dance, but you have to connect with your audience. And the easiest way to connect right off the bat is to remember to smile. The audience wants you to succeed. They want you to feel that they can approach you after the presentation, ask you a question. 

Yet many of us are actually kind of frowning and looking off-putting because we're trying to think about that 23rd fact that nobody cares about anyway. If you cannot show enthusiasm for your own topic, how is your audience going to care? 


Hand gestures are important. We talked about open postures, so they're not together and grabbing, but along with open posture, you can have purposeful gestures. Do you know they're making pacemakers now at the size of a postage stamp? They can be tucked right under the clavicle. Can't even be seen anymore. Stories are better than facts, but a fact tied to a story will be remembered. And in medicine, our stories are wonderful. We have patient cases stories. We have lots of cases, and we can illustrate a teaching point that will probably be remembered because it's part of a story. 


One of the biggest fears of people is public speaking, and I've heard from so many learners that they feel petrified and nervous if they have to speak in front of a large group. In fact, tongue in cheek, I heard once from a friend that there was an article published that showed, at a funeral, 80 percent of the congregation would feel more comfortable in the casket than delivering the eulogy. But public speaking can be a little frightening. 

The beauty is most anxiety doesn't show. In our videotaped workshops, we always videotape colleagues and then we ask them, were you nervous during this? “Oh, yes, very nervous.” Then we ask the group of other learners, “Did he or she look nervous?” “Absolutely not.” Most audiences will rate the speaker looking cool and calm, even though the speaker feels uncomfortable. The biggest fear of the speaker is looking nervous, biggest fear of the audience is being bored. 


Sometimes, your voice can get a little dry. I think the parasympathetic can kick in. So, it's OK to have a little water to sip on while you're speaking. You probably don't want to slam down a big drink of diet cola before you speak. Not just the caffeine, but the bubbles could come up at the wrong time and embarrass you. So sipping on a little water is fine. 


Eye contact. If you're starting out, and you're a little nervous, make eye contact with somebody who is nodding and affirming, and that gives you a little more confidence. And then you can move around the room and make eye contact with others. 

  1. HUMOR

I'm asking a lot about humor. If humor is part of your personality, like you can probably tell it's part of mine, it's OK to use it, but don't feel forced. And if you use humor, the safest humor to use is self-deprecating humor. I spoke poorly at my high school graduation. I'm sharing with you what I learned the hard way. That's a lot more acceptable than putting the humor on somebody else. 


We've covered a lot of ground. But in summary, if you only remember a few facts from this presentation: meet the needs of the audience, organize the presentation, start with a hook, limited facts, a strong summary, make it a performance, smile, hand gestures, purposeful gestures. 

And finally, your presentation skills are extremely important. And let me prove this to you. Think of a person that you have heard present in the last year or two that if he or she were presenting again, you'd make an effort to attend, get a face in your mind. I'll give you a moment now to yourself answer this question. How many facts do you remember the last time he or she spoke? 

I usually know the answer, but you remember the person. They were either friendly, approachable, very knowledgeable, funny, an expert in their field. All the stuff on slides isn't remembered, but you remember them for a long time as a great speaker. And colleagues, I want you to be that person that is remembered for a long time as a great speaker. So, I hope these tips have been valuable to you. And I appreciate you reading.

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