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Effective Presentation in Medical Education and Research

Silhouette of a speaker in front of audience

On March 13, I gave a two-hour faculty development workshop, “How to Talk the Talk: Presenting to Diverse Audiences.” The audience: an interesting mix that included clinical faculty, faculty with research programs, senior M.D. and Ph.D. postdoctoral fellows and principal investigators in basic science laboratories.

Ironically, the diversity of the attendees (aka the “audience”) made this session problematic, as the presentation had to be useful to individuals with different backgrounds and varied needs in terms of developing their own talks.

Clearly the National Institutes of Health–funded basic scientist and the pure clinician have different depths of knowledge about topics such as optical methods for studying phagosomal maturation or the management of diabetes. Hence, the workshop was a terrific opportunity for me to go “back to basics” in defining how to give a talk to different audiences while wearing the hat of a physician, researcher or educator.

Bridging two worlds is something I do regularly. My role as assistant dean for student affairs in Einstein’s M.D. program means working to support students on their path to becoming enterprising, empathic doctors; my position as a researcher and professor of medicine and of microbiology & immunology takes me to a lab where I work with colleagues on therapies to combat fungal diseases and enhance wound healing.

Giving a medical or scientific talk can be daunting—even more so when the audience is not completely made up of your peers. At Einstein, we’ve determined that effective communication is essential across all of the educational “competencies,” making expertise in presentation to diverse audiences a high-value faculty development skill.

While I cannot cram everything from my two-hour course into this brief blog post, I’d like to share certain steps that can dramatically improve the effectiveness of a presentation given to an audience whose members have expertise different from yours, or even have minimal to no scientific backgrounds.

  • First, clearly define the presentation’s goal. Do so in a manner that is informative and quickly engaging. Ask yourself to explain “So what?” If you can answer this, particularly in a clear and enthusiastic manner, you are off to a great start!
  • Never set out to give a talk designed simply to impress everyone with how smart you are. Make sure your slides are not too busy and that you take the time to explain any graphics, especially scientific ones.
  • Don’t use abbreviations, as they can have many associations. For example, “TLC” can stand for, among other things, thin-layer chromatography, triple-lumen catheter, total lung capacity, or tender loving care.
  • Keep answering the “So what?” as you move through your talk. Continuing to address the “So what?” clearly is especially helpful to the nonscientists in the audience.
  • Don’t overanimate your slides, and don’t wave your pointer around.
  • If it is a medical talk, give patient vignettes to bring to life what you are discussing; for example, explaining how a patient developed a side effect from a medication is a useful way to maintain audience interest on the topic of careful medication ordering.
  • If you have an hour, make your talk 45 to 50 minutes long, to allow for questions. If there aren’t any, no one will complain if you finish early, I promise. Give yourself plenty of time to answer questions. Feel free to ask questions during the course of your presentation. This is a helpful way to gauge whether the audience understands the points you’re trying to make. This method is especially important if you are talking to nonscientists. When you are asked a question, it is also important that you are not afraid to say “I don’t know.”
  • Show up early! Make sure that your slides project appropriately and that there are no technical difficulties.
  • When preparing your slide set, make sure you give yourself time to practice your talk. The first run-through usually improves your subsequent attempt tenfold, and the second twofold. If possible, practice your presentation with someone outside your area of expertise to evaluate how effective you are in delivering your intended information.
  • If you have any disclosures to make, you need to put this information right after your title slide. This reassures the audience that the information you are providing is not biased (or bought). At the conclusion of your presentation, it is also important to acknowledge anyone who assisted you with your work, as well as the funding, if any, that supported your efforts.
  • Wear appropriate clothing. This can vary according to the forum, but it is always best to dress professionally when delivering medical or scientific information. Also, if you are using amplification, remember that T-shirts lack an appropriate location to attach the microphone and silk blouses can be too fragile for the microphone clip.

If that’s a lot to take in, remember these simple “do”s and “don’t”s:

          Do: engage, excite and inform. (Always answer the “So what?”)
          Don’t: overcomplicate, exceed your time or be arrogant.

At the end of our two-hour interactive workshop, I felt confident that the attendees were uniformly excited to use these simple lessons in their own talks, especially in settings outside their specialties. I hope these pointers will help you engage the audiences attending your presentations.

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