Great lectures don’t just happen

September 15, 2013

Giving a great lecture requires ongoing refinement and the ability to be honest with one’s audience and oneself, according to an expert.

 

Miami Beach, Fla. - Giving a great lecture requires ongoing refinement and the ability to be honest with one’s audience and oneself, according to an expert.

When speaking at a conference, says Kanade Shinkai, M.D., Ph.D., half the challenge is presenting oneself. In this regard, “We would all like to think that we know our strengths and weaknesses. But they’re not necessarily what other people perceive as our strengths and weaknesses as a speaker. It’s not enough to be an expert on the content; it’s about the delivery. So sometimes it's not only a matter of self-reflection, but also getting feedback from other people who have heard you speak.” Dr. Shinkai is assistant professor of dermatology, University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine.

“And be very honest with yourself about it. For example, if you’re incredibly charismatic onstage, and are able to grab the audience’s attention and inspire them to participate, then that is the type of talk you should give,” she says.

Conversely, “If you’re quiet, conceptual and understated, emphasize those strengths. Don’t try to do things that aren't your forte. For instance, if you’re not a good joke-teller, don’t feel obligated to tell jokes. Highlight your strengths instead and learn the essential skills of giving an effective talk. Giving a talk is a skill that can be learned.”

Know your audience

Another critical challenge involves understanding your audience, Dr. Shinkai says.

“Who are they, and what do they want or need to hear from you? This requires planning. Find out how you can tie your presentation into the conference experience as a whole and be certain to target the information to your audience. For example, presenting a topic to a group of non-dermatologists should be very different than presenting the same topic to a group of experts,” she says.

Understanding the setting, time limits and format of your presentation are also important. “Are you speaking on a panel, leading a workshop, or lecturing to an audience of 1,000? And for how long?”

Presenting one’s lecture content begins with capturing the audience. To that end, “I always like to tell a story, about why I became interested in the topic I’m speaking about, or why I believe it’s important for people to learn about.” Anecdotes and pictures of a memorable patient who had a particular disease also help to bring alive a speaker’s connection to a topic, Dr. Shinkai adds. “Showing that you care about the topic in turn will make the audience care about the topic.”

Also at the beginning of a talk, she says, speakers should state the goals of their presentation. “You don’t want there to be any surprises. You want people to understand what they’re getting into. Provide a roadmap of what you will be discussing and how you will approach the information. But you don’t have to give away all your punch lines upfront.”

Then, throughout the lecture, she recommends delivering information on your audience’s level. “As specialists, we are at risk of scaring the audience or sounding ‘high and mighty’ about our particular area of expertise. If you’re speaking to non-dermatologists or nonspecialists, the last thing you want to do is alienate them by saying something like, ‘If you miss this diagnosis, you’re going to kill people.’ Try to work with what they do know, avoid jargon, and address them in a positive, motivating fashion.”

Dr. Shinkai suggests verbiage such as the following: “From my vantage point of having seen many cases of this entity, I want to share some clinical pearls about how to recognize this entity when it presents at your primary care clinic.”

Moreover, she says, diagnoses that might seem obvious to the speaker may not be obvious to the audience. Therefore, “It’s always good to say something like, ‘This is very subtle information.’ Rather than intimidating at audience, encourage them to recognize that it is a challenging diagnosis and lead them through the process of learning the information.”

Catch their eye

Regarding eye contact, Dr. Shinkai says, some inexperienced speakers literally lecture to one person in the audience.

“Maybe it’s somebody they know; maybe they always pick somebody in the middle section on the left side. And if you’re not in that section, you don’t feel as if the presenter is speaking to you.” At the other extreme, “Sometimes people overcompensate by scanning - looking quickly across the audience and never establishing eye contact with anyone. This makes people feel that you’re unfocused. It’s distracting.”

To establish a happy medium, she recommends delivering each complete thought to a different person - and all those behind him or her.

“When you direct your gaze at that person, it looks like you’re looking down a line, at that row of people. Complete that thought, then move to another person on another side of the room, and again you’re projecting toward a whole line of people. Shifting your gaze with each new thought or concept allows you to connect with a large number of people in a meaningful way,” Dr. Shinkai says.

Finally, learn from your experiences as a speaker.

“Reading your speaker evaluations or getting feedback from a trusted audience member is the single most important thing you can do to improve your presentation skills,” he says. “Try to be as open as possible to suggestions, and embrace each new talk as an opportunity to improve and practice your presentation skills. It’s a lifelong skill, and there’s always room for improvement."

Disclosures: Dr. Shinkai reports no relevant financial interests.