Expert advice on how to give a compelling talk to any audience

Chances are, most doctors will be called upon to do some public speaking at some point in their careers. Whether you’re giving a patient education seminar, presenting at a medical conference, or speaking on a panel, here are some tips and best practices from the experts to make the experience go smoothly.

Know your audience. Presenting at the American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery annual meeting is very different than giving a patient education seminar about LASIK. Keep your audience in mind when creating your presentation, said Robert Sternberg, Ph.D., a former president of the American Psychological Association (APA). Is the audience going to be mainly fellow health professionals who will understand medical terminology? Or are you speaking to a general audience who may not be familiar with clinical explanations? What does your audience want to learn? What would you like them to take away from your talk?

One surefire way to connect with an audience on an emotional level is to tell a story related to your topic.

Make an emotional connection. Hooking your audience and keeping them listening till the end of your talk requires more than having an interesting topic, solid facts, and an engaging speaking voice. “What emotion do you want your audience to feel during and at the end of your presentation?” asked Robert A. Felberg, M.D., in a post about public speaking for doctors. Do you want them to experience hope, confidence, or inspiration? “One surefire way to address the emotional feelings of the audience is to tell a story related to the topic,” he wrote. For example, don’t just talk about cataracts; tell a story about a patient who was able to watch his grandchildren play soccer after having cataract surgery.

Prepare and practice. While this may seem like an obvious tip, doctors often skip or skimp on preparation, either due to time constraints or overconfidence, said George M. Hall, Ph.D., D.Sc., professor of anesthesia at St. George’s University of London in the UK and author of How to Present at Meetings, in ENT Today. Dr. Hall’s rule of thumb is one hour of preparation for every minute of a presentation. “That’s hopefully a little bit too much if you’re particularly familiar with the topic, but if you’re starting from scratch, it’s probably about right.”

Harness the power of the pause. A common mistake many public speakers make is rushing through their presentation. “Nervousness makes people speak faster, with a higher pitch to their voice and without pausing,” notes an article by U.K. consulting company ISC Medical. Whereas “more relaxed people speak more slowly, pause regularly and have a deeper, more authoritative tone of voice.” Nothing grabs an audience’s attention like a pause. It allows listeners and note-takers to catch up with you, it can emphasize an important point, and it re-focuses the audience’s attention on you. Two seconds is the ideal length for a dramatic pause, according to the article.

Using multimedia tools like slides and video reaches visual learners and makes your talk more dynamic, engaging, and interactive.

Use visuals. People don’t learn just by listening. An estimated 65 percent to 85 percent of the population is thought to be visual learners – people who retain information better by seeing pictures and videos. Use visual tools such as slides or video in your presentation.

However, don’t let technology obscure what you’re trying to say, warned Barry Schwartz, Ph.D., in an article titled “10 tips for speaking like a Ted Talk pro.” “PowerPoint is incredibly powerful, but use it to get halfway there, rather than expecting it to do the whole job for you.”

Encourage interaction. Another reason to use different media in your talk is to make it more dynamic and compelling, according to Kristi Hedges, leadership coach and author of the book, The Power of Presence: Unlock Your Potential to Influence and Engage Others. Consider ways you could use slides, video, props, handouts, or even spontaneous polls to engage your audience, she suggested. And of course, always leave time for questions at the end of your presentation.  

“A doctor with excellent public speaking skills will always be in demand,” noted Dr. Felberg. Having the ability to educate and inform a group has several benefits, he stated, “including engaging a large audience of potential patients and referring doctors, instant expert status, and the opportunity to network with thought leaders.”