Preparing lecture content requires scalpel precision

November 1, 2013

In preparing and organizing presentations, an expert says, keeping the content fresh and tightly edited helps both audience and speaker.

Miami Beach, Fla. - Preparing and organizing an effective presentation requires tailoring the topic appropriately and keeping the material fresh and concise, an expert says.

“There are many venues where people can learn speaking techniques - how to use their voice and avoid common mistakes that people make in their delivery,” says Ilona Frieden, M.D., professor of clinical dermatology, departments of dermatology and pediatrics, University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). She says, however, that the workshop during which she spoke (along with UCSF dermatology colleagues Kelly Cordoro, M.D., Wilson Liao, M.D., and Kanade Shinkai, M.D.) covers how to develop and prepare a presentation’s content.

In preparing a presentation, “First, know who your audience is - are they students, residents or physicians who have been practicing for 30 years? The composition of the audience determines the appropriate content level and content mix.”

If you don’t know, ask

If you don’t know who your audience will be, “Ask the meeting organizers or other colleagues who can assist you.” Novice speakers can even ask meeting planners what topics their attendees would be interested in, she says. Reviewing the program helps, Dr. Frieden adds, to see what other topics will be covered.

Conversely, “Sometimes it requires dialogue with the meeting organizers to say, ‘I know you asked me to talk about this topic, but my sense of this audience, having talked to them before, is that they might be more interested in this other topic. Would that be OK?’ If you’re an experienced speaker, you may have insights that the meeting organizers themselves might not have. Often they appreciate your insights and input. After all, they’re trying to assemble the best program they can, and they may not know the latest” regarding a particular topic.

Next, Dr. Frieden says, the best way to start preparing for a talk is “not to sit down at the computer and start writing it.” This traditional approach might include outlining an introduction, dissecting a topic, “And then at the end, you may or may not have hit the major teaching points.” Instead, she recommends identifying your key take-home points first and building the talk around them.

Break down info

Furthermore, she suggests aggregating information - in brief bullet form, when applicable. Instead of marching through mountains of data, “It’s more helpful to synthesize what several studies have in common, what trend or direction they highlight, or even the differences between several studies. The audience appreciates that you’ve done your homework. But they don’t necessarily want you to tell them everything you know.”

And just as topics may require tweaking, Dr. Frieden says, “I believe strongly that one should never give the exact same talk more than once.” For starters, she says, it’s important to refine a presentation based on feedback about which portions worked well or didn’t.

Additionally, “Even if you’re going to cover the same topic as a previous talk, it’s important to update for new information,” Dr. Frieden says.

Examples could include adding new research, case studies and photos, she says. Along with better serving the audience, she says, this helps to keep the topic fresh for the speaker.

“How you feel about your talk is very much conveyed nonverbally to the audience. We’ve all been at talks where the references were out of date,” or the speaker’s tone of voice betrayed boredom.

As the clock winds down

In structuring the presentation itself, “Consider having a go-to slide corresponding to five minutes remaining in the talk,” Dr. Frieden suggests.

For inexperienced speakers particularly, she says, “Have a slide that you know should appear about five minutes before you’re done, and if necessary, skip some slides to get there.” Or, if one reaches this point early, she says, perhaps slow down and provide more discussion of prior materials, or leave extra time for questions.

Even for expert presenters, “Timing can be very difficult.” Speakers rarely finish their talks early, she observes. However, “No matter how much time you’re given, you must respect the time you’re given.”

In mid-lecture, “If you realize you are running behind, you may need to omit content and even skip ahead a few slides. If this happens, it helps to acknowledge this to the audience and even give a minor apology,” she says. “This is far better than speeding up the talk and speaking extremely quickly.”

Speaking quickly and trying to cover lots of material doesn’t mean people will be able to take in more information, Dr. Frieden says. “The best approach, however, is rigorous editing during the planning and preparation phase, to extract extraneous information, synthesize content, and highlight the major points you want to make in the best, most effective way possible.”

Disclosures: Dr. Frieden reports no relevant financial interests.