Top 10 List for Giving Effective Presentations
by Robert T. Hasty, DO, FACOI, FACP
February 8, 2024
I had the honor of giving the “first lecture” in the brand new OCOM (Orlando College of Osteopathic Medicine) building recently as part of our faculty development series. My presentation was focused on how to give effective presentations. For academicians, I think it is one of the most powerful tools in the toolbox. Even for non-academicians, it can be an incredibly valuable skill. In fact, the billionaire, Warren Buffett values the skills that he garnered from a Dale Carnegie public speaking course so much that he hangs that certificate instead of his Columbia University degree. Nancy Duarte, an international expert and author on presentations says that presentations have the power to change the world. I agree and I think it is an invaluable skill for most physicians, especially those in leadership or academic-related positions.
Most of my recommendations are centered around basic concepts. I am a believer in the wisdom that an expert is a master in the basics. The hit Netflix film, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, is a great example of how focusing on the basic details equates to mastery. This is true for physicians in that the best physicians are typically those who can take an excellent history and physical and have wonderful communication skills. I think the best presenters also focus on the basics as contained in my top 10 recommendations below.
I have created the following top 10 list of my recommendations for giving effective presentations:
- Presentations Should Vary from What Is and What Could Be: Nancy Duarte has studied the greatest presentations of all time and has mapped them and in her famous Ted Talk, says that the greatest talks of all times vacillate between what is and what could be. This is counterintuitive to what we normally would normally think and is a departure from the classic three-act structure found in Ancient Greek or Roman plays. Examples (and some of the greatest presentations of all times) that demonstrate this are MLK’s ‘I have a dream speech’ and Steve Jobs’ Introduction of the iPhone.
- One Thought Per Slide: Our minds have limited capacity in what we can take in. All too often, speakers want to create slides that are more like a handout. The audience moves on very quickly to their phone or other distraction when slides are too wordy or create too much work to digest. It is easy to create a separate handout. A follow-up study aid has an entirely different purpose than a slideshow. Even scientific data can be presented in a simple fashion. If the goal is to teach scientific analysis, that should be done in those specific settings, not when you are teaching unrelated content.
- The Audience is King: Another great quote from Nancy Duarte is that your audience is king. Treat your audience like royalty. I am a big believer in servant leadership and I extend that belief to education by focusing on servant education. Having an excellent, well-prepared, and thoughtful presentation that clearly delivers educational concept is respectful of your audience.
- Prepare Thoroughly: I love Mark Twain’s famous quote, “If you want me to give you a two-hour presentation, I am ready today. If you want only a five-minute speech, it will take me two weeks to prepare.” Keynote and expert presenters will continue to redefine talks over weeks/months/years and continue to tweak the presentation. If I am giving a new and important presentation, I will spend months preparing. I typically start with a list of ideas on my notes app on my phone and jot down ideas that come to me at various times. I then take those ideas and turn them into slides and refine over and over again as I review and rehearse. Lastly, I will make a handout as my final step and it acts as a run through.
- Modeling is the Fastest Way to Improve Your Skills: Bandura’s Concept of Modeling shows that if you closely model an expert, it has the potential to quickly improve your skills. As physicians, we do this through training where we model the behaviors of our attending physicians to garner our patient care skills. The same approach is helpful for improving presentations skills. Two great presentations from a seasoned presenters that are excellent for modeling are Randy Pausch's Last Lecture and Steve Jobs’ Introduction of the iPhone.
- Don’t Speak Behind the Podium: Body language is important. It is important to have a posture that is open to the audience. It is also good to use gesticulation (hand gestures) and to speak with a positive inflection in an inspirational tone, as appropriate. Hiding behind the podium removes some of the basic human interaction opportunities that being open to your audience allows for.
- Avoid Expected Jokes: When in doubt, don’t tell a joke. If a joke bombs, it sends the message to the audience that your presentation isn’t good. You also don’t want to be the person that puts in Far Side cartoons. If the best thing in your talk is a distantly related comic, you have missed the mark on creating an effective presentation. Also, it is so incredibly easy to offend folks. If it is anything more than the Bristol Stool Chart, it has the potential of offending.
- Persuasive Talks Should only Be 20 Minutes and have a Low Cognitive Burden: Often times in academia and other leadership positions, it is important to be able to give persuasive presentations. My favorite and extremely insightful book on the topic is Pitch Anything. Persuasive talks should be brief (no more than 20 minutes). Karen Nichols’ excellent book titled Physician Leadership: The 11 Skills Every Doctor Needs to be an Effective Leader discusses the amygdala hijack. This concept encourages one to avoid too much cognitive burden when being persuasive. Our prefrontal cortex helps guide most of our decisions and we are wired to do so in an almost instinctive manner that can get triggered negatively if there are too many red lights or cognitive challenges.
- Be Very Careful with Having Videos in Your Presentation: All too often, technology gets in the way of giving an effective presentation. I see way too many presenters want to present videos. Sometimes videos are helpful, but often times they are unnecessary and can be distracting. If you do think a video augments what you are presenting, make sure the video is going to work with an appropriate sound and great resolution. I always use Apple’s Keynote that self contains the video, looks excellent, and promises the least amount of technical challenges.
- Incorporate Review Slides: Review is an important part of educating folks. I nearly always end my talks with review slides in the form of questions to the audience. In most sized audiences, I like to do the questions in a family style “shout out the answer” form. It engages the audiences, reinforces your learning points, and is extremely rewarding to see how much the audience has learned.
One of my favorite quotes from Winston Churchill (not Spiderman) is, “Where there is great power, there is a great responsibility.” I do agree with Nancy Duarte that presentations have the power to change the world. I hope that these pointers help you to improve your presentation skills for doing good in the world.