American College of Physicians: Internal Medicine — Doctors for Adults ®

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Present like a pro

Tips on giving a killer talk to any audience

From the August ACP Hospitalist, copyright © 2012 by the American College of Physicians

By Jessica Berthold

Scott Litin, MD, MACP, doesn't like giving handouts at the beginning of his presentations.

“It implies what is printed on the paper is more important than your presentation style,” said Dr. Litin, a professor of medicine at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., who has delivered hundreds of talks as an invited speaker.

Scott Litin, MD, MACP. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Scott Litin, MD, MACP. Photo by Kevin Berne.



A presentation should be viewed as a performance, he told a packed audience at Internal Medicine 2012 in New Orleans in April. That means smiling, showing enthusiasm and using hand gestures.

“You should spend 50% of your time gathering material [for your talk] and 50% on your presentation skills,” Dr. Litin said. “Our careers depend heavily on the way we present ourselves and our material to others.”

Luckily, incorporating a few key tricks can go a long way, he said—whether you are presenting to patients and families, a hospital committee, or a national audience.

Targeting the material

When figuring out what to say, the most important rule is to meet the needs of the audience, Dr. Litin said.

“It's not all about you or how much you know on the topic, or how much material you can cover in the allotted time to be complete. It's thinking about what the group wants to know or needs to know,” he said.

At an internal medicine meeting of patient care physicians, the audience wants information that can be used in practice, not overwhelming details about statistical analysis, he added.

“When I speak and you speak, everyone is tuned into the same radio station—WII-FM: What's In It For Me. They are looking at you thinking of these three questions: so what, why should I care, and what's in it for me?” he said. “If you answer these early on, you hook the audience and they stick with you.”

Think in advance about what the audience wants and need to know, and deliver this information colorfully, Dr. Litin advised. “If you are speaking to interns on the internal medicine service and your topic is pulmonary edema, don't go to the whiteboard and draw a Starling curve, then talk about pressure gradients and sketch out equations,” he said.

He gave this example of what to say to interns instead: “‘You're on call tonight and the pager goes off; it's go to room 3-131 stat. You run into the room and there's an elderly man sitting on the side of the bed, elbows on the tray table, neck veins to his ears. You think to yourself, This guy looks really sick, I think he is in pulmonary edema. What do I do? Well, in the next few minutes I am going to help you think through the steps to make a quick diagnosis, institute treatment and probably save his life.’

“That is the hook for your interns,” Dr. Litin continued. “Now they want to know more about this topic, as they fear they may get that page tonight!”

The best way to end a presentation is not with a photo of a sunset, an exotic locale or your family, or by saying “This is my last slide, I guess I am done.” Instead use the words “In summary.”

“That wakes everyone up,” Dr. Litin said. “They will grab their pens and write down whatever you say next. These should be your take home points.”

Put the power in PowerPoint

“I'm sure none of us has ever been at a presentation where the speaker said ‘Ahhh, let me apologize for this next, rather complex slide’…” Dr. Litin said. “PowerPoint is still the currency we all use in medical talks, but it can be annoying. There are a few things you can do to make it less annoying.”

In a survey of about 1,000 college students, the worst named offenses in using PowerPoint were the speaker reading the slides verbatim, having too-small text, jamming too much text on a slide, and using moving text animations and sound accompaniments, he said.

Avoid full sentences or complete paragraphs on text slides. Instead, aim for fulfilling the “rule of six”: six lines of text with six words per line. Thirty-two-point type works best when following the rule of six. Headings should be in 36- to 40-point type, Dr. Litin advised.

San serif fonts—like Arial—work best because they lack the decorative elements that can be hard to see from the back of the room, he added. To create emphasis, use uppercase letters sparingly, like for individual words, or use color or bolding instead. “I use a blue background with white lettering, and highlight in yellow,” he said.

Oh, and those cartoons that are so popular in medical presentations? Ditch them.

“I've been at some presentations where every third slide is a cartoon, and they don't even fit the situation. And then the speaker goes, ‘Let me read this to you,’ because the caption is so small. At most, you might get a courtesy smile from the audience,” he said. “I like to use videos, but they have to fit—you can't just throw them in the talk willy-nilly.”

Please allow me to introduce myself

If you want to be portrayed in the most accurate and credible light possible, write your own introduction and tell the organizer in advance you are doing so, he added. The intro should run about 30 seconds.

“When you send a CV to the CME people, it often goes into a file somewhere and your introducer never sees it. And then you get there and the introducer runs up to you and says, ‘Scott, tell me something about yourself; I have to introduce you in 30 seconds.’ This way you can say, ‘Oh, I have my own intro,’” he said.

What's the appropriate stance to take when being introduced? Not with your hands crossed below your waist—”the fig leaf”—or with your hands behind your back—”the firing squad.”

“Stand comfortably and just put your hands at your sides. If your hands start to feel heavy, touch your index finger and thumb together,” Dr. Litin said. “Just remember that when you're [speaking], you should then bring your hands above the waist and use them conversationally. I've had speakers on for 30 minutes squeezing their thumb and index fingers together.”

Don't forget to put your e-mail address on the screen or white board, or in a handout—somewhere the audience can see it. This conveys that you are approachable, he said.

“E-mails are almost never abused in a professional audience. Rarely do you get a response, but when you do it's good. For example, ‘We're doing similar research at University of Michigan; why don't we combine our data and publish?’ Or, ‘That was fantastic. Can we fly you to Hawaii to give your talk at our meeting?’” he said. (Here's Dr. Litin's e-mail address, by the way.)

Also, while your name badge should be off when presenting because it's distracting, put it back on during the meet-and-greet times. And put it on the upper right side of your body.

“That way, the person you are talking to can take a quick peek at your badge while shaking hands. Most of us put it on the left because we are right-handed, but then you have to be kind of obvious about looking at it during the handshake,” he said.

Lanyards are not advisable because there's no natural way to look at the badge dangling at the end, he added. “I always bring my own [clip] so I can put the badge on where I want and be recognized. I want people to know who I am so I get invited back,” he said.

Mastering the delivery

Body language is vital. This means getting out from behind the lectern, facing the audience directly, and maintaining an open posture with your hands visible and your stature erect. It also means making eye contact and not looking over people's heads, Dr. Litin said.

“If I'm nervous, I make eye contact with someone who appears to be enjoying themselves, someone who is nodding along in the audience,” he said. “But don't forget to look around the room, too, so you make eye contact with all areas.”

If humor is part of your personality, use it, but keep it appropriate. “What's the most appropriate humor? Self-deprecating,” Dr. Litin said.

Hand gestures help, too, as long as they match the situation and aren't stiff and overly rehearsed, he added. “Use your hands the way you do when you are conversationally talking to your friends or family,” he said.

One of the biggest mistakes people make when giving a presentation? Talking too fast. This makes following the speaker a chore, so listeners eventually just tune out altogether.

“I know you are all daydreaming while I'm speaking; it's OK, I am too,” Dr. Litin said. “But as long as I speak slowly you can listen to the key points, stay connected, and still think of other things.”

A speaker's biggest concern is often appearing nervous, but the audience's main concern is being bored. The good news is that even if you feel anxious, it usually doesn't show. Videotaping yourself giving a talk is a good way to see how you appear to the audience, as well as a way to objectively gauge how fast or slow you are talking.

Pausing during your talk can help slow the pace, he added, and is a good alternative to saying “um” and “ah” to buy time. “To a speaker, a pause seems like eternity. To the audience, it's just a brief break,” he said.

The easiest way to connect with the audience is to smile, look happy, and deliver your talk with energy, he added.

“When you give a presentation you should be thinking, I can't wait to share this with you,” he said. “If you can't show enthusiasm for your topic, how is the audience going to care?”

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