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Public speaking fundamentals. Preparation: Tips that lead to a solid, engaging presentation

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Although you may not be a seasoned public speaker—and may even feel some trepidation at the idea of speaking—several simple preparatory steps can bolster your confidence and help ensure a seamless, memorable talk

In this Article

  • Preparing a presentation
  • Your speech opening
  • AV equipment and support



According to most studies, people's number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death...This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you're better off in the casket than doing the eulogy. -- Jerry Seinfeld

Public speaking is one of the best ways to market and promote your skills as a physician. It is an ethical way of communicating and showcasing your areas of interest and expertise to professional or lay audiences. Most physicians and health care professionals take pride in their ability to communicate. After all, that is how we take a history, discuss our findings with patients, and educate individuals on restoring or maintaining their health. Public speaking, though, for the most part is a learned skill. Except for presentations to faculty at bedside or at grand rounds, we have received little training in public speaking.

Few of us are naturally comfortable in front of a live audience or a TV or video camera. But with a little practice and diligent preparation, we can become good or even excellent, confident public speakers. This article—the first in a series of 3—provides you with preparatory tips and techniques to enhance your public speaking skills.

First, know your audience
Whether you are presenting to a group of 20 or 200, you can do certain things in advance to ensure that your presentation achieves the desired response. Most important: Know your audience. Don’t assume the audience is like you. To connect with them, you need to understand why your topic is important to them. What do they expect to learn from the presentation? Each attendee will be asking, “What’s in it for me?”

To keep listeners interested and engaged, you also must know their level of knowledge about the topic. If you are speaking to a group of residents about pelvic organ prolapse, you would use different language and content than if you were speaking to practicing primary care doctors; and these elements would be different again if you were speaking to a group of practicing urogynecologists. It’s insulting to recite basic information to highly knowledgeable physicians, or to present sophisticated technical content and complicated slides to novice physicians or lay people.

When presenting in a foreign country, learn how the culture of the audience differs from yours. How do they dress? What style of humor do they favor? How do they typically communicate? What gestures are appropriate or inappropriate? Are there religious influences to consider?

Practical steps. Before the meeting or event, speak to the organizer or meeting planner and find out the audience’s level of knowledge on the topic. Ask about audience expectations as well as demographics (such as age and background). If you are speaking at an industry event, research the event’s website and familiarize yourself with the mission of the event and who are the typical attendees. If you are presenting to a corporation, learn as much as you can about it by visiting its website, reading news reports, and reviewing associated blogs.

In addition to knowing the needs of the audience, ask the meeting planner about the goals and objectives for the program to make certain you can deliver on the requests.

Know your talk stem to stern
Review your slide material thoroughly. Understand each slide in the presentation and be comfortable with its content.

Avoid reading from slides. Reciting content that viewers can read for themselves breeds boredom and makes them lose interest. Further, when you are looking at the slides, you are not making eye contact with the audience and risk losing their attention. Good speakers are so comfortable with their slides that they can discuss each one without having to look at it.

Rehearse. The best way to achieve the foregoing is to rehearse. Your audience will be able to tell if you took the slide deck directly from a CD and loaded it into a computer and are giving the talk for the first time. You’ll need to know how long the program is to last and how long you are to speak. We suggest you practice with a timer to be certain you do not exceed the allotted time. Rehearse your talk aloud several times with all the props and audiovisual equipment you plan to use. This practice will help to curb filler words such as “ah” and “um.” It is also helpful to practice slide transitions, pauses, and even your breathing.

Prepare for the unexpected, too. Dinner meetings, for instance, may not start on time due to office or hospital delays for attending physicians, possibly resulting in a need to shorten your presentation.

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