Tips for Improving Your Presentation Skills
Many physicians would prefer passing a small kidney stone to presenting a paper.
- Journal of the American Medical Association
If the above quote describes you, you can take comfort in the fact that you’re not alone. Why does speaking to a group of peers evoke such universal dread in so many people? It may have to do with many people’s deep-seated discomfort with being the center of attention. Or it may simply be a lack of experience. Rather than dwell on the why, let’s look instead at what can be done about it.
First, take heart. There are hundreds of stories of people who have overcome debilitating shyness, speech impediments and various other problems to become not just adequate, but extraordinary speakers. (Helen Keller comes to mind) You, with your education, brains, and desire to improve certainly can, too.
Be the Expert
If you have been invited to speak, whether you are presenting your own research, addressing your Kiwanis club, or proposing a toast at the office Christmas party, it means that someone out there considers you an expert. Don’t give them reason to doubt it by revealing your nervousness or making apologies. Remember, in many cases your audience has no idea what they don’t know. Most crowds will be unlikely even to notice if you lose your place or miss a point. Just soldier on as the expert they have come to hear.
If you are worried about being able to remember your speaking points, acronyms are a favorite tool of professional speakers. Arrange the first letters of your main speaking points (there should not be more than 3 to 5) into a word – even a nonsense word – and keep that word in your head, or on your notes, as you move through your points. Knowing you can always call that word to mind will help ensure that you don’t ‘draw a blank’ when the spotlight is on you.
Act the Part
Even speakers who don’t get especially nervous can be guilty of poor presentation skills simply because they fail to be intentional. Poor posture, hands in pockets, failure to make eye contact with members of the audience, and speaking too quietly or too quickly can all be major distractions and draw your audience’s attention away from your information.
A tall but relaxed stance, a clear, measured speaking voice, and appropriate hand gestures all help to build rapport with your audience and hold their attention. If this doesn’t feel natural to you, try this mental trick: Simply ‘act’ the way you imagine a professional speaker should act! Your audience won’t know the difference.
If you are one of those people who is unsure what do to with your hands when you are speaking (and, no, gripping the lectern is not the answer), a prop can help. It does not necessarily have to be a prop that is related to the topic of your speech, although that can often enhance a presentation. Even a fountain pen, clipboard, or the handheld remote you are using to advance your slide presentation, can instill confidence by giving you something to hold on to and can help hand movements come more naturally as you speak.
If you do use a projected presentation such as a PowerPoint, take advice from civility consultant Sue Jacques and keep the slides “minimal in quantity, maximum in font size, and memorable in nature”. When you want to share more detailed or complex data, use handouts instead.
Practice, Practice, Practice
To feel as confident as possible in a stressful situation, organize, simplify and practice your presentation. Many professional coaches recommend taping yourself for an audience member’s perception. Be well familiar with the information and the order in which you plan to present it, but avoid memorizing or reading which can look stilted.
Finally, smile! Your job as a speaker is to put your audience at ease so that they can absorb what you have to say. A warm and pleasant demeanor makes them more open to you and to your information and is more likely to illicit appreciative nods and attentive looks that, in turn, will boost your own confidence. Everybody wins!
MED Editor-in-Chief Alex Strauss is a former television new anchor and health reporter and a frequent speaker. She empowers physicians and other healthcare providers to communicate more effectively with colleagues, patients and the media. Strauss is the author of "Physicians and the Press: A Doctor's Guide to Working with the Media", available Winter, 2013.