10 Tips for Improved Scientific Lectures

David A. Johnson, MD


December 13, 2017

What They Don't Teach Us in School

Hello. I'm Dr David Johnson, professor of medicine and chief of gastroenterology at Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk, Virginia.

Welcome back to another GI Common Concerns.

This forum is usually devoted to communicating hot topics in gastroenterology, but I wanted to deviate from that a little this time for a topic near and dear to my heart: how to give a great talk.

None of us were ever taught this in medical school. Whether you're a physician, ancillary provider, nurse practitioner, physician assistant, or a businessperson involved in healthcare, what I'm about to share with you will hopefully change your life regarding how you formally communicate in a public forum.

I'll confess to you that, being fairly advanced in my career, this was something I once took for granted. I thought that we were invited to do talks because we were specifically recognized in that area. However, the ability to deliver a meaningful talk, in a positive way, and communicate with the individuals in the audience is a skill that I believe is worth a few minutes of discussion.

Halfway into the senior part of my career, I was invited by a sponsoring pharmaceutical company to give a talk. They picked six of us emerging leaders in the field of gastroenterology and flew us to New York, where we sat with a speaking coach for an entire weekend. I thought that was pretty silly. We all gave national talks all the time, but it really changed my life. I can't tell you how many people come up at the end of a discussion now and say, "That was a great talk."

I'm sure you've all been in talks and lectures before where you've noted that the speaker was either particularly good, just okay, or that you really didn't get much out of it. During this talk, I'll give you my top 10 discussion points and suggestions on how you can give a great talk.

Doing the Prep Work

The first item on this top 10 list of recommendations is to know your equipment.

Never show up to a talk at the last minute and expect everything to go perfectly, because it never does. I remember the earlier days, when people would present slides by hand, turning them upside down, and you'd hear clunking noises as the slides would fall out of the carousel.

You need to get there early, understand the equipment, go up to the podium, check the microphone, and have a grasp of what the logistics are. All of those things need to be field-tested in advance before you get up to the stage and find out that you don't know how to advance the slides or make something work. We don't go into a medical procedure without preparing and knowing exactly what we need; it shouldn't be any different when we give a lecture.

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Number 9 is to know the type of audience you are speaking to.

Know who's in the audience and their baseline level of understanding so that you don't speak over them or demean them by speaking beneath their intelligence.

That directly leads to number 8: Connect with the audience.

If I'm giving a fireside chat, a dinner presentation, or something at a local level, I'll walk around and get to know who is in the audience. I'll ask about what they're doing in their practices, what their ancillary responsibilities are, what their clinical experience is, so that I can have an understanding of that.

This gives you several ways to connect with your audience. There's a myriad of different personality types out there. In the most basic categorization for this topic, there are people who will simply receive you as an expert and absolutely follow what you advise them to do. Then there are others who will view you more experientially and say, "This isn't what I've seen in my practice, so it doesn't really seem right in my experience." Others will scan the crowd of their colleagues, note one who is seemingly taking the advice in, and based on their respect for that person, will go along with them. Then there are others who will tune you out because it doesn't relate to the patients they treat. We need to somehow bring all of these elements into our discussion.

What I try to do is know the audience from the start and really match my presentation to their personalities. For example, sometimes you'll give a presentation and note the level 1 evidence from randomized controlled trials. But you can also reach someone by discussing it experientially, saying, "I saw a patient like this in my clinic the other day and it made me think," or, "Somebody stopped me the other day and asked my opinion of this, because they had a conundrum of a patient they were presented with." Building in some experiential links allows you to reach all of those people in the audience, so you're not just presenting the evidence and they accept it. You've got to really communicate with them in the way they are receptive to, using a dialogue they understand.

Don't Disconnect

Conversely, number 7 is about how you can disconnect with the audience, which is really something you never want to do.

There are several ways to do that, the main one being to insult the audience. If you're saying anything in a disrespectful way or exhibiting some type of irrational behavior, the audience can shut down. Certainly, off-color remarks and humor is an immediate way to shut somebody down.

In discussions where you're walking around a crowd and approaching audience members, remember that proximity will sometimes result in that person moving back. They'll become embarrassed and won't want to speak at all. You can use that in a powerful way to shut down somebody that's being obnoxious in a discussion, but you can also use it in a favorable way of getting around people but not getting too close to their space.

You can also disconnect by calling on people in the audience who may not want to participate. Remember, there are several different personalities out there. Some of them may be eager to be called on to show what they know. There are others who are worried that if you call on them, they won't be able to speak or answer your question.

How do you identify those who want to be called upon? Sometimes I'll ask a hypothetical question and request that the audience members raise their hands to get a flavor of what they're thinking. I let them know that I'm not going to call on anybody, which immediately avoids any apprehension on their part.

This allows you to then say, "For those of you who are kind enough to raise your hand, perhaps we can get some insight as to why you would make that decision." You volitionally connect with the people who said they're willing to talk.

Keep It Structured

The number 6 tip is to structure your presentation.

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A presentation should go in an orderly way. I like to start with a very clear goal. I then give an outline of what I'm going to discuss. I summarize that again at the end, which allows the audience to reconcile what I actually wanted them to remember. It gives them the opportunity to reconnect the dots, if you will.

A slide presentation is like a story, with a beginning and an ending. Provide a certain number of focal points around the topics as you go along every couple of minutes. Then close off those sections with brief summaries of what's been learned so that you can reconcile that and move on to the next section.

Humor is sometimes a good way to mark the transitions between these sections. I use that strategy very frequently, as those who've seen me speak in meetings will know. Humor is an appropriate way to provide a little levity before moving on to the next section.

Body Language and Speech Patterns

Tip number 5 is to look for ways to improve position and posture.

You need to be relaxed. Nobody trusts somebody who is fidgeting, moving around, or lacking confidence. Whether at a podium or walking around in a crowd, look and be relaxed.

I love the conversations that people like Oprah Winfrey have, where they walk around the crowd. Everybody loves that. Be careful of your positioning, but nonetheless, walking around and engaging with people with proper body positioning and posture really facilitates communication.

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Tip number 4 is to use effective eye contact and speech patterns.

How many of you trust people who look down when discussing something with you or talk very quickly? We really do not engage that way.

Eye contact, to me, is everything. It can impart feelings of integrity and increase trust. People trust people when they look at them, which we need to remember. Even when speaking to a large audience, you want to maintain eye contact going forward. You do not want to be looking down at notes or reading your slides. You want to look out at the people.

You want a speech pattern that is in a relaxed and understandable cadence. In particular, you have to be careful with different nationalities and dialects, where you may have to speak more slowly. I'm from the North but I live in the South, where we tend to speak more slowly. That is just the way people engage.

Communication needs to be in a conversational manner, not in a strident way where it sounds like you are trying to force your information on them. This is a dialogue that goes back and forth. Give the idea that we are just having a conversation here today, not really a lecture—"This is something where I want to engage with you."

If you are ever on a stage where they're projecting your image onto the screen, you want to maintain that eye contact so it seems like you're looking back at the audience. If you are not being projected but are simply in front of a crowd, I recommend looking at a certain area when discussing a certain point. Once that point is complete, move to another section and talk to those people as an individual group. Then talk to another group and so on. What I find disruptive is when people scan the crowd, never achieving eye contact. I want to know that when you are talking to me, you are actually talking to me. Finish the point and then move on to somebody else. If you are talking at a national meeting, you'll always speak [positioned] straight and forward because the screens will achieve that effect for you.

So again, eye contact, good cadence. Slow your speech patterns down. Sound trustworthy and trusting, and they will certainly listen to that in a better way.

KISS Principle for Slide Formatting

Tip number 3 is about slide formatting, which is really an important point.

I work from what I call the KISS principle, which stands for "keep it simple, stupid." You've probably all heard this before. It means that you have to keep focused messages on your slides.

When you throw a bunch of text on the slide, the audience will start reading and stop listening. In my discussions, I'll phase in one line at a time. This allows me to introduce a point, finish it, and then move on to something else. Do not throw a slide up there that has six bullet points, because they are going to start scanning ahead for what they need to know.

Do not show a slide that has a complex graph or table. If you do, they are going to stop listening and instead try to figure it out.

Again, that is really where you have lost your communication. They are not listening anymore.

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Tip number 2 is regarding the use of a laser pointer.

This is a no-brainer for me. I never use a laser pointer. It's something that is very distractive. I find that it does two things. First, invariably, people with laser pointers turn away from the audience to face the slide and are no longer speaking into the microphone. You have lost the eye connection [and the strength of your voice]. Second, people tend to bounce these things and it becomes very disruptive to the audience. It's something that may be a crutch for people, but it's very disruptive.

What do I do instead? I use highlights, dropdowns, circles, or build features. This highlights the areas that you really want them to focus on. Even if you include a table that is quite complex, you can show them the points they should focus on by circling that area. This way, they're not reading it, but rather you're drawing them right where you want them to be.

If you do need to use a laser pointer, use it and then turn it off. It's not Star Wars; they're not lightsabers. Turn the laser pointer on, then off. But my suggestion is do not use them at all.

Timing is Everything

The last point is about time.

When you plan a lecture, timing is something that really is important to practice. One rule of thumb that's good to use is one slide per minute. If you use videos or audience interaction–type things, that's a different set of rules.

If you're giving a scientific presentation on an invited lecture topic, there's nothing worse than when the moderator says, "We are out of time," "There is no time for questions," or "You need to stop your discussion now." It's quite embarrassing.

It's really important to recognize that you need to have your message succinct.

Do not be disrespectful to the audience, who are also giving up their private time to attend your discussion. They are there for a reason. I don't care if it's a course or a dinner meeting; you need to be respectful of the time.

Even as somebody who has done this for 37 years, I always review my slides again. I do not want to have a slide show up that I did not realize was there. I do not want to ever apologize for a slide, and I certainly do not want it to throw me off my time.

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As you start to look at your time, always remember to practice, practice, practice.

None of us do anything where we do not practice. We track these things. We train in these things. Communication skills are nonetheless the same and should be practiced.

Bonus Tip

The last is a bonus rule, which is to have fun.

When you do these discussions, you need to be confident and relaxed but also have some fun. This is something that you are sharing as the expert who has the knowledge base, the communication skill set, and the ability to transfer the information from something you know to something they can now know.

Hopefully I have done that for you as well, and these skill sets will provide you with an opportunity for giving not just a good talk but a great talk next time.

With practice and attention, I think you'll find that these communication skills will deliver more meaningful messages and also drive you to become an even better discussant—be it in a family discussion, a board discussion, a presentation with your patients, or at a national-level meeting or around your community.

Remember to practice, be relaxed, and enjoy yourself. Giving a great talk is really not so easy, but hopefully these messages will steer you well.

I'm Dr David Johnson. Thanks again for listening. We will see you next time.


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