Top tips to nail your next presentation

Early career physicians can follow several tips and tricks for delivering engaging, impactful presentations.

Presenting in front of an audience can be nerve-racking in and of itself. For early career physicians, there's added pressure, since giving presentations can create opportunities for professional advancement and develop your reputation among peers.

"At this stage of your career, nobody looks at your medical transcript, or how you did in the introduction to the patient course, or your rheumatology rotation in your intern year. It's the here and now. And when you do this well, people look at you differently," said Scott C. Litin, MD, MACP, professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine in Rochester, Minn. "It's a career maker when you do this well. But when you do this poorly, it can freeze your career."

No one wants to be caught off guard by a question and although you cant predict what questions an audience member might ask you can prepare for some possibilities Image by kasto
No one wants to be caught off guard by a question, and although you can't predict what questions an audience member might ask, you can prepare for some possibilities. Image by kasto

If that sounds like a lot of pressure, don't worry. Experts offered several tips and tricks for delivering engaging, impactful presentations and stressed that, like most skills, success comes with practice.

Tackle your fear

Presentations, whether at a local academic institution or a national meeting, can not only shape your career but also help build skills and confidence, explained Farzana Hoque, MD, MRCP, FACP, associate professor of internal medicine at Saint Louis University School of Medicine and a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians (London). Dr. Hoque said she found presenting early in her career rewarding, as it gave her a sense of motivation knowing "that I am contributing to the medical field, I'm disseminating medical knowledge."

This mindset can help early career physicians who may doubt if their work is interesting or good enough to be accepted at the national level. And the only way to find out is to submit it and see, said Sam Lubner, MD, FACP, a hematologist and oncologist at UW Health and an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in Madison.

If your work gets rejected, it gives you a thick skin. If it's accepted, even as a poster and not from the podium, it's a learning opportunity, he said.

"Just a poster is a great place to start from, and then at least you get your foot in the door, and you get a chance to understand what it takes to get your primary or original research presented in a regional or national meeting," Dr. Lubner said.

Beyond quality concerns, one main reason so many dread presenting is because it requires public speaking.

But surveys show that while the speaker may feel anxious giving a talk, the audience usually doesn't pick up on it, Dr. Litin said. Practicing in front of friends, colleagues, or a camera can help assuage this anxiety.

For some, it may even be beneficial to adopt a stage persona, said Vineet Arora, MD, MACP, dean for medical education at UChicago Medicine. This helps presenters avoid reading their script verbatim and introduces a human element to the talk.

"Some of that stage persona is spontaneity, feeling comfortable in the moment so you can be spontaneous, feeling that you've rehearsed your talk enough so that you can be prepared for whatever strikes you as surprising," said Dr. Arora.

Physically rehearsing your talk is important, but mentally rehearsing a presentation, or getting in the right mindset, is also crucial.

"You have to be in a place where you allow your stage persona to come out, and if you're not mentally ready for your stage persona to come out, you're not going to project what you need to project," she added. "If you are in your comfortable zone, you are good to go."

Another way to get comfortable with public speaking is to enroll in an improvisation class, Dr. Arora suggested. If you put yourself in a position of discomfort speaking with others in spaces where it's OK to be uncomfortable, "you can do anything," she said.

Those who significantly struggle with public speaking can seek help from a coach or doctor, too.

Be prepared

Visiting the space where you'll give your presentation in advance will help you become familiar with the setting and equipment and make you more comfortable about handling any mishaps should they occur, said Dr. Hoque. Similarly, writing and practicing the presentation well beforehand will boost your confidence on the day of, she added.

Experts advise conducting self-evaluations after rehearsing, reflecting on what went well and what needs to be improved and recognizing any knowledge gaps you might have.

Self-reflecting also allows you to identify any potential questions that may arise from the presentation and highlight those that warrant additional research down the line.

"Competence will help to build the confidence," said Dr. Hoque.

Another tip is to visualize success during the rehearsal process. Before giving the talk, visualize yourself finishing on time, or the audience appreciating the presentation and giving you good feedback, Dr. Hoque explained.

When you do present, "whatever feedback you get, take it and really use it to make your next presentation better, and the one after that a little bit better," said Dr. Lubner.

Dr. Lubner also recommended looking for mentors at your own institution. "It's not a bad thing to ask people to review your stuff ahead of time so you put your best foot forward, especially early in your career. Because I think your mentors and the people who you work with closely and the people you learn alongside really want to help you succeed," he added.

Keep the audience top of mind

A presentation is a performance, and a good performance engages the audience, the experts stressed.

One way to grab their attention is with a hook. That can be a story, a clinical case, or even using the word "imagine" to set a scene. "Those are the kinds of things that will get the audience involved," said Dr. Litin, who has given talks on presenting at ACP Internal Medicine Meetings and has published several articles on the topic.

When people are engaged, they're more likely to learn, listen, and remember, added Dr. Arora. Asking the audience for a show of hands to take a poll or prompting them to think about the last time they saw a patient with a certain condition can also increase engagement.

Using nonverbal cues such as maintaining eye contact, practicing good posture, and pacing words and incorporating pauses is important as well, said Dr. Hoque.

Presenters should remember who makes up their audience, then tailor their talk accordingly. Whether that's different specialists, students, or the lay public, "if you don't know your audience, you risk either going over their head or not speaking at the right level," said Dr. Arora.

And because we all have short attention spans, it's important to not overwhelm the audience with excessive slides and text, and instead focus on key points.

"One of the misconceptions [about presenting] is 'The more factual information I dump into the brains of my audience, the more impressive I'll be.' If you tell them everything on a topic, they'll remember nothing," said Dr. Litin.

One rule of thumb is to limit each line on a slide to a single point, use less than six words per line, and use less than six lines per slide, according to Dr. Litin. Slides could also just show pictures, said Dr. Arora.

When the presentation is wrapping up, be sure to make this clear to the audience by stating "in conclusion" or "in summary" followed by three main points you hope they take away from the talk, Dr. Litin said.

Get ready for the Q&A

No one wants to be caught off guard by a question, and although you can't predict what questions an audience member might ask, you can prepare for some possibilities.

Throughout the presentation, "you might even say, 'This is a very interesting area. I don't have time to talk about this, but maybe we can talk about this in the Q&A,'" explained Dr. Arora. "You can roadmap your talk on where you want to call out things that you could question."

Another tip is to send some questions to the moderator beforehand, so they can ask you questions you've prepared while the audience is formulating their thoughts.

"Even having a slide after your acknowledgments and everything else that provides supplementary data to say, 'Hey, I was anticipating this question. Here's the data. Here's Appendix A of what I figured you guys might ask,'" typically goes over well with the audience, Dr. Lubner said. "It feels as if [the presenter] already anticipated that first question and has hard data to present based on that."

Remember to keep your answers short and to the point, Dr. Litin added. "Your answer shouldn't be an entirely new presentation."

If you don't know the answer to a question, it's fine to say so, and to ask audience members if they have any insights on it, he said. This tactic helps get the focus off the speaker and creates a dialogue within the audience.

Ultimately, understand "that a presentation is not solely a destination," said Dr. Lubner. "It is simply a way to document what you've done, and if it's really interesting, there's always a 'what comes next.' If you're faced with a question that you don't have the answers to, you can certainly take that as part of your 'what comes next.'"