Medical Presenting: Less is More

Challenge - keep even the ones at the back awake!

Challenge - keep even the ones at the back awake!

All kinds of people have to give presentations. This post is about medical educators. But the principles apply widely.

I first started giving presentations more than a decade ago. One or two as an intern in 2002-2003. A few more as an ECC resident 2006-2009. And then a significant ramp up as I started delivering Continued Professional Development (CPD).

As most do, I started off copying what I had been exposed to. Slides full of bullet points and text. The text often too small to read. Some complex graphs, tables and other images. Too packed. Too much redundant detail for the needed transfer of information. Often photos because they seemed obligatory rather than added value.  For me, the biggest accomplishment was trying to remove as many words as possible so I could at least get the font as large as I could!

This is a road well trodden, especially in academic circles. "What are all the things I want to say and how do I fit them all into my slides?" Some people then proceed to read their slides, even with their back turned to their ignored audience.

Then some years ago, I came across a discussion in medical education circles about what we should be doing differently. It seemed so right to me. I spent a long time redoing almost 1,000 CPD slides to try and improve them.

So, what should we be doing?

The first thing is realising that the best presentations are based on stories. Story-telling engages and holds interest. It takes a lot of forward planning, preparation and practice to produce a gem of a talk based on stories. I will say here and now, I do not manage this. I listen to how much time and effort some medical educators put into their talks with admiration. And with confusion where such busy people find the time!

The second thing is realising that slides do not make a presentation. The presenter does. The slides are the icing on the cake, not the cake. The slides are the backing singers, you are the star. The slides are the orchestra, you are the conductor. You get the point. Know your stuff very well so the slides are not your script; you should be able to do the talk without them! Especially when you apply the third point below. Oh and face the audience not the screen. Don't hide behind lecterns or tables. Get closer.

The third thing is to 'reduce, reduce, reduce' (Ross Fisher). Reduce what is in your slides; replace bullet points and text with pictures. Reduce how much you try to convey. Reduce, reduce, reduce. I believe there is some evidence suggesting that people remember as little as four key messages from a one-hour session. And generally what is at the start and at the end. Know your key messages and repeat them often.

Use a small number of contrasting colour schemes: e.g. black and white; e.g. dark blue and yellow.

If you do have text lists, consider building them up over consecutive slides, e.g. one point per slide. This way the slides change frequently helping to hold the audience's attention.

If you want to provide your audience with lots of information, do it in the form of a handout. Given out at the end of the talk - or emailed to save paper. Or, use a flipped classroom approach. Send your notes to the audience ahead of time. Some might even read them and come with more informed questions.

Again, I am no expert. Above is what I have absorbed from acclaimed medical educators via podcasts and other ways. One such person is Ross Fisher.

I would love to hear your experiences of good speakers, bad speakers, indifferent speakers.