Simplify, conceptualize for effective presentations

October 1, 2013

Nobody likes overly busy presentation slides - especially the audience members who must decipher them on the fly, an expert says.

 

Miami Beach, Fla. - Nobody likes overly busy presentation slides - especially the audience members who must decipher them on the fly, an expert says.

“Communicating medical ideas is an essential part of medicine,” says Wilson Liao, M.D., assistant professor of dermatology, University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). But when he and three colleagues began considering this matter, they realized that “We weren’t providing our residents with much guidance as to how to give medical presentations.” Results included presentations that went over the heads of their audience, or shoehorned in too much material, he says.

Fortunately, Dr. Liao says that to a large degree, “Presentation skills are teachable.” So he, along with Kelly Cordoro, M.D., Ilona Frieden, M.D., and Kanade Shinkai, M.D., all of the UCSF dermatology department, crafted a series of speaker development guidelines to help not only their residents, but also other dermatologists at the American Academy of Dermatology annual and summer meetings.

Know your audience

“Before you even create your talk,” Dr. Liao says, “determine your audience’s knowledge level, and what are the main things you can teach them that would be helpful or interesting to them. Those knowledge gaps should be the two or three things you continually reinforce during your presentation.” This way, he says that after leaving the talk, attendees should be able to tell colleagues, “The talk was about X, and I learned Y and Z.”

When creating slides, Dr. Liao says, “The key is to simplify. One common shortcoming we see is that people feel the need to put everything on the slides that they’re going to say. But it’s much more powerful to show an image” or another abbreviated version of the main idea, while leaving the details to the speaker.

By the same token, Dr. Liao recommends limiting one’s slide total to the minutes allotted for the presentation.

“If you have 15 minutes, generally you shouldn’t have more than 15 slides,” unless several of them are images that will flip by rather quickly, he says.

“We’ve noticed that it takes a person looking at a slide about 20 to 30 seconds just to figure out what’s going on. Few things are more frustrating” than watching a speaker advance slides too quickly. Conversely, “Leaving the slides up for at least a minute and going through the content helps audience members orient” and digest each slide’s contents.

Briefly stating each slide’s main idea across the top of the slide (or the appropriate diagnosis on each clinical image) also helps orient an audience. During any presentation, Dr. Liao says, “It’s natural for audience members’ attention to drift in and out.” This prevents them from feeling lost when they refocus on the talk.

Keep it simple

Furthermore, he says, medical research often produces dense, detailed tables that aren’t necessarily ready for prime time. Such tables might be appropriate in a book, Dr. Liao says. “But in a presentation, no one’s going to have time to look through all the different compartments.” Incorporating this information into simple charts or bar graphs communicates more efficiently, he says.

“Create your slides so that they tell a story. Human beings are wired to respond to stories,” Dr. Liao says. “Take the listener through a journey - whether it’s your personal journey learning the topic, or the journey of a patient.”

If starting with a case study, Dr. Liao advises inserting an image up front.

“If you don’t grab the audience’s attention within the first 60 seconds, you’ve lost them. Using a picture early draws them in right away. There’s nothing more powerful than a visual.”

Structurally, he adds, building from familiar information to less familiar information proves very helpful in engaging an audience.

“Jumping right into unfamiliar territory can turn people off. The idea is, somewhere near the beginning of the presentation, engage the listener,” he says. “Maybe give people a few ideas they’re familiar with so that they feel comfortable, and then slowly lead them to the new information.”

Other “story” arcs could involve moving from case presentation to case management. That way, “By the end of the talk, audience members will know what steps to take to take care of those patients in the future,” Dr. Liao says. Starting with an unsolved clinical problem and leading one’s audience to a solution works the same way, he says.

Disclosures: Dr. Liao reports no relevant financial interests.