In medicine, we are constantly learning from each other. Professors stand in front of lecture halls to teach the fundamental knowledge needed to pass board exams and to treat our patients. Outside of the classroom, medical students, researchers, and physicians attend conferences to communicate ideas and update their colleagues with oral and poster presentations. In the clinic, students and resident physicians relay pertinent patient information to the physician in charge. Eventually, you will find yourself in front of an audience listening to your talk or an attending grading your clinical presentation. First, I will discuss what it takes to make an excellent presentation. I will then finish this topic by providing guidelines for perfecting different types of presentations.
Critical Elements of an Excellent Presentation
Do Some Research
Your audience will consider you an expert on the information you deliver. It is your job to achieve the expected level of comprehension of the topic. After choosing a topic, gather enough background information from diverse but appropriate sources (e.g., journals articles, relevant chapters in textbooks, personal discussion with subject matter experts, online videos). Your research should provide you with a thorough understanding of the topic and a list of the important facts supporting your take-home message. Any gaps in your knowledge will become evident during your presentation. The goal is to develop confidence in your understanding of the topic and ability to share what you know.
Know Your Audience
Before putting your presentation together, take a moment to assess the baseline understanding of your expected audience. Ultimately your audience should walk away having learned something new. Try to figure out their collective interest, reasons for attending, and prior experience with the topic. Knowing your audience will allow you to focus on information that will keep them engaged and interested. For example, premed students have a different understanding of medical topics than medical students. A presentation on the same subject should be different for both groups. If your listeners have different levels of expertise, take a moment to explain the fundamental concept, then build up the language and complexity to allow everyone to benefit from the information shared. Your audience is the reason why you are presenting.
Tell a Story
The human brain is wired to remember stories, especially if presented logically. A presentation is about the information shared, but it should also include the presenters’ passion, excitement, and personal style. All topics can be formatted to include characters, a description of the setting, plot, conflict, and a resolution. The story should allow the audience to take a journey with you. The hardest part is identifying the start and endpoint of your story and which details are needed. Make every word count by checking if it adds value to your narrative. Consider using metaphors, real examples, and descriptions that give life to your words.
Practicing your presentation is a vital step in developing an excellent presentation. You can memorize a script. However, memorization can reduce your connection with the audience. But in certain situations, scripts are quick and effective means of communicating important facts. Another approach is drafting bullet points of the main ideas and practicing the natural flow of information. This method allows your personality to shine on stage. To become comfortable speaking, start by practicing on your own. You can also record yourself with a cellphone or tablet and review the recording to evaluate your performance. Next, find a small group to present in front of and ask for their honest assessment. Eventually, your presentation will feel natural, and your stage presence will aid in communicating your main idea.
Usually, your presentation does not end until after a question and answer session. Most presentations should include approximately five minutes in the end for the audience to ask questions. This part of the presentation allows you to clarify or further explain any part of your presentation. A question can also lead to expanding your presentation beyond what you originally planned to discuss. It is important for you to understand what is being asked and address the specific question directly. And if you do not have an answer, it is okay to admit that you do not know. Questions will force you to be creative and truly test your knowledge of the topic.
Different Types of Presentations
Presentations have many different forms, each with different goals; thus, each form requires a unique approach. In medicine, professors and clinician often provide students with lecture objectives and PowerPoint presentations that guide the students in their hour-long lecture. Conferences are a researcher’s platform to share their lab’s progress and conclusions. The last presentation I will go into is the clinical presentation a student typically performs for the physician in charge.
The main purpose of the lecture is to educate the attendees. We all have had great professors captivate our attention and other experiences that were a complete waste of time. But what makes some lectures better than others? The lecturer’s knowledge on the topic becomes obvious, and their stage presence confirms how comfortable they are with the topic. If you are tasked with lecturing on a topic or a series, ensure that you have a solid understanding and address your learning objectives in the time allotted. The main concepts should be repeated multiple times throughout the lecture, followed by examples. Your PowerPoint slides should be limited to only main points and images that support your talking points. After difficult concepts are covered, ask questions to gauge your audience’s understanding. It is better to reemphasize a concept before building up to more complex learning objectives.
Attending a conference is exciting, especially if you are representing your lab with an oral presentation. It is an opportunity to share your research story, from the point of identifying a question to the process of reaching a conclusion. Realize your audience will include Primary Investigators, post-docs, and Ph.D. students that are also experts in the field. Attempt to grab the audience’s attention from the beginning by providing them with a reason to care. Then continue to explain how your study relates to the published work. After building up the background, address how you arrived at your research question. The most exciting part of your presentation should be explaining your conclusions and the path you took to get there. Finish up strong by discussing the implications of your findings and how they will have an impact in the field. The natural flow of information will come with practice and a deep understanding of your research topic. Presenting as a student usually leads to networking with professors and clinicians that can help you progress in your career.
Medical students learn how to take a patient’s history and perform a physical exam, but it is more challenging to reason through your clinical findings and subsequently present to an attending. Your clinical presentation style will change depending on the environment, medical department, and supervising physician. Upon joining a medical team, discuss the expectations and preference with each physician. It may be a good idea to draft a script that can get you started on organizing your patient presentation. The success of your presentation is correlated to your knowledge of the basic sciences and ability to critically assess the patient’s history and physical exam; the more you learn and read, the easier decision making and producing a plan becomes. Another important element is practicing your presentation style until it comes out naturally. Take the time to listen to your peers and experienced colleagues; learn from their mistakes and strengths. After concluding your presentation, ask for feedback and practice implementing the suggestions. You will be the eyes and ears for the physicians in charge, perfecting your patient presentation will help get the care the patients need while making everyone’s job a little easier.
There are some basic steps to achieving an excellent presentation: know the topic well, understand who you’re presenting to, develop a memorable story, and practice until it comes out naturally. A career in medicine is very versatile; you can be at the forefront of the next generation of physicians sharing your experiences or updating the science community with your research conclusions. At the minimum, you will be presenting the patient in the clinic. Thus, presenting is a skill every physician must master.