At about 15 minutes before 8, I arrived at the UCSD Extension classroom on the third floor, on a bright September Saturday morning, just as I had nearly every month this year. This time, instead of saying hi to my fellow classmates, and the co-founders of the UCSD Health Leadership Academy, I was greeted almost immediately by the first of several speakers, Mary Ann Mariani.
“Hi, you must be Ed. I have you speaking second this morning. Can I get your flash drive, and I’ll load your presentation? I’ll have your classmate hold up a sign when 1 minute’s left. Oh, and if you don’t mind, I’d like to ask you to use your phone to record yourself.”
Cue the sound of a heart beating ever so slightly faster. (And I love public speaking!)
The prospect of presenting may spark sirens, alarms, and flashing red lights of fear in you, or it may trigger a sense of anticipation, that you have an opportunity to connect with your audience. Whatever your relationship, we all can improve our skills. Whether your audience is your colleagues during a department meeting, a grand rounds, or an invited session before 1000 people at a specialty society annual meeting, you want to put your best foot forward and deliver a message that resonates—and in some cases spurs your audience to action.
I was one of three volunteers to present a 7-minute snippet of a recent talk. We had the unique privilege of hearing feedback from not only Mary Ann, but also our peers—half of whom offered comments on our content, the other half on our style. Here are some key takeaways I hope you’ll find helpful.
1. Place your conclusion, your key takeaway message, at the beginning
Yes, you read that right! Journalists have an adage: “Don’t bury the lede.” (That’s the opening sentence of a news article.) I was guilty of doing the opposite, of trying to build a strong case, by introducing the problem or question, the background, the solution. But, we need to hook the audience right from the start. For instance, for my mini-talk, I stated my key point, “We’ve been studying a potential new modality to test blood glucose,” several slides in.
2. Start strong!
Open with a horizon-expanding question, an uplifting quote, or a thought-provoking statistic. Mary Ann’s first slide simply read, in giant font, “33 million.” “Anyone know the significance of that number?” (That’s actually the number of presentations being delivered on any given day!)
3. Tell a story (or two, or more)
We humans love a great story, ever since the time our ancestors sat around fires. Stories instruct, entertain, and connect us to our shared humanity. Why do we love movies, musicals, plays, fiction, or biographies? What’s the history of the present illness, but the patient’s story? Stories are memorable, as they grab our attention, and they appeal to our emotions. Enhance your impact by relating a relevant story when you’re presenting.
4. Jazz up your titles!
Instead of banal titles, such as “Results” or “Our Proposal” (two of many I’ve actually used!), render this valuable real estate on each slide powerful by being as descriptive as possible. We learned to think of titles as akin to headlines.
5. Use “B”
When you’re telling a story, or want your audience to hear you emphasize a key point, just hit the “B” on your keyboard to put up a blank screen. This tactic is underused but tremendously effective, in a world where too many presenters show too many slides, and don’t take a few moments to pause, and focus the audience’s attention on themselves.
These are clearly not exhaustive but should spark some ideas. I’d love to hear any pearls of wisdom you’ve gleaned along the way.
Dr Chao does not have any conflicts of interest relevant to any companies noted in this article.