Managing Your Practice

Public speaking fundamentals. The program: Key elements in capturing and holding audience attention

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Familiarize yourself with the structure of an appealing program and recognize the pivotal moments for audience engagement. Knowing what (and what not) to do can make all the difference.


In the first part of this article series (“Preparation: Tips that lead to a solid, engaging presentation,” OBG Manag. 2016;28[7]:31–36.), we offered tips on preparing for a group presentation. In this article, part 2, we discuss the presentation itself and what you can do to capture and hold your audience’s attention.

Paul Zwolak for OBG Management

How to connect with the audience

Let’s assume the meeting host has just introduced you to the audience using, as we suggested in the previous article, an autobiographical profile you provided. You now have the audience’s undivided attention. What you do and say in the next 30 to 60 seconds will set the stage for your program. Following the requisite “thank you” to the host and meeting sponsor, use this time to establish your expertise as a spokesperson on the chosen topic. Or, if the introductory remarks made your expertise plain, you may choose to connect with the audience on an informal, personal level. If you are from out of town, for instance, you could remark on an interesting aspect of the city or region you are visiting that you learned on the Internet before arriving.

Underscore the topic’s importance. On the other hand, you might want to begin with an insightful statistic germane to your talk. For example, a talk on breast cancer might begin with, “According to the American Cancer Society, there are nearly 250,000 new cases of breast cancer each year, and breast cancer accounts for more than 40,000 deaths per year. That means more women die from breast cancer than die in auto accidents each year. So this emphasizes the importance of appropriately screening women for breast cancer annually after age 40.”

An opening story about a patient can be powerful. Better yet, a personal experience reflecting your topic is a great way to connect with your audience members and get their attention. For example, one of us (NHB) gives talks on practice management and practice efficiency. I might talk about when I was called from an exam room 3 times to answer “emergency” phone calls from a patient who wanted only to request her medical records. To ensure that this embarrassment would never happen again, I put in place a system that I then describe for the audience.

Alternatively, an opening that addresses the audience’s unspoken question, “What’s in this for me?” is sure to grab their attention. For instance, a talk on office productivity might begin by promising to share a way to increase annual collections by $250,000 per physician through scheduling adjustments that can increase the number of examined patients by one per hour.

Steer clear of these openings. In general, avoid “I’m delighted to be here” and other clichés. One exception would be if you can make that cliché humorous. For example, if a speaker from the deep South is visiting the northern part of the country in summer, she might say, “Most speakers say they’re delighted to be here, and you may well question their sincerity. However, I’m from New Orleans where the temperature is approaching 105 degrees with 95% humidity. You know I’m really delighted to be here!”

Importantly, avoid starting with an apology. Do not mention problems with the audiovisual equipment or why you arrived late. The audience does not care, and you will immediately lose their attention. They want to be educated and entertained. There is no better way to do this than by offering a compelling and captivating opening that begins the moment after you are introduced.

Finally, avoid use of the “royal I,” as in “I am here to talk about XYZ.” It places you in a position superior to the audience, and that is a turnoff. Instead, you could say to the audience, “The reason you are here is to learn about XYZ.” This places the audience on an equal level with you, and they know there will be something in the presentation for them.

Housekeeping notes

The audience will appreciate knowing how long you plan to speak and whether you will take questions during or after the presentation. Based on our experience, if there are fewer than 20 attendees, we often encourage questions during the program instead of waiting until the end. This makes the program more conversational and usually generates more questions. With a dinner presentation, we prefer to speak while the audience is eating. We usually start after the waiters have taken the orders and the attendees have had their appetizers. We might say we will finish the program by the time they are ready for dessert. We also mention that we will distribute a handout after the presentation so they do not have to worry about following the handout, taking notes, and watching the speaker while trying to eat.

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