By putting a little time and effort into your presentation skills, you can become more persuasive and effective in your day-to-day job—and even advance your career and reputation.
For hospitalists, with their often-heavy committee load and frequent formal or informal teaching conversations, addressing groups is part of the job.
“At the end of the day, hospitalists are advocates—whether for quality improvement or patient-care issues,” says Jeffrey Wiese, MD, FACP, associate professor of medicine at Tulane University Health Sciences Center in New Orleans, associate chairman of medicine, director of the Tulane Internal Medicine Residency Program, and associate director of student programs, internal medicine. “And most of their advocacy efforts [are] going to be person-to-person, verbal discussions, where their passion and conviction can come through.”
Even if you’re never asked to present at a national meeting, you are likely to address a lot of committees, teams, and task forces in your career.
“It’s important to realize that people’s time is valuable in committee meetings,” stresses Dr. Wiese. “You have to be able to speak clearly, concisely, and to the point to make your case effectively.”
Learn by Listening
If you haven’t had much experience addressing groups or you feel your presentation skills are lacking, there are simple steps to become comfortable—even accomplished—at speaking.
“Most effective speakers are partly born but mostly made,” says Robert Wachter, MD, co-founder of SHM, frequent keynote speaker and professor and associate chairman of the Department of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.
Becoming an effective speaker may require formal training, perhaps from a course or a book. But one step every aspiring speaker can easily take is to listen to other speakers—a lot of them.
While working on his own presentation skills, Dr. Wachter says: “I learned to be a shameless mimic and thief. Even now, when I hear a good lecture, I always ask myself what that person did really well, and can I do that, too. And when I hear a crummy speaker, I wonder what I would tell them to them improve.”
Dr. Wiese does the same thing. “My strategy is to learn from every talk I sit in on,” he says. “Watch how the speaker is performing—not just at medical meetings, but also on TV. In this election year there are a lot of opportunities to listen to speeches. Note good speakers’ cadence, pitch and tone, and borrow from them.”
Effective speaking is built on some basic tenets. “There are fundamental skills that most speakers don’t use—you’d be surprised how basic these skills are,” says Dr. Wiese. These basics include:
Practice makes perfect: No matter how confident you are of your material, practice. Whether you’ll teach, speak to a quality-improvement committee or address a national group, make an outline and run through your speech. “There’s no talk I give without at least sitting down an hour beforehand to think through what I’m going to say,” says Dr. Wiese.
Give it all you’ve got: “When you’re asked to address a group, you have to convince yourself that this is the most important talk you’ve ever given,” stresses Dr. Wiese. “Your belief in this will give you the passion and commitment to your topic that comes out in how you speak.”
Start strong: Getting your audience’s interest and attention immediately is crucial.
“Engaging the audience successfully in the first one to three minutes is unbelievably important because unless you get them to care enough to listen at the outset, you’ve lost them for the rest of the talk,” he says. He believes only about one in 100 speakers do this well. “I assume the audience is not really with me and that I need to actively engage them—and I make sure they know enough to care about the topic. I start with the reasonable assumption that I know more and care more about my topic than they do. Make sure you give them enough background to get them started.”
Fledgling speakers can try capturing their audience’s attention by starting with a joke, story, dramatic anecdote, or shocking data. Starting your presentation with a bang, says Dr. Wachter, “is a learnable skill, and it’s a lot easier when you’re addressing a small group of people you know.”
Spice up dry information: If you’re stuck with a topic you fear is too boring to engage, find a “hook” to draw the audience in. Dr. Wachter suggests, “When you explain facts, use analogy and metaphors, and use graphics only when appropriate,” he suggests.
Find your voice: A tricky thing for new speakers is controlling their voice and using it to maintain interest. Avoid using a monotone—a common effect of reading from notes or slides.
“It’s important to work on your cadence and on the pitch and tone of your voice,” advises Dr. Wiese. “I think speaking is similar to music. Music has rest notes for a reason: to augment what you just said and to set up what you’re about to say. Try replacing the “ums” and “uhs” you use while you’re thinking about what to say next with silence. The audience will be riveted.”
Go easy on the PowerPoint: Don’t rely on your slides or flipchart to influence or engage your audience. Make eye contact with individuals and in a small group; touch a shoulder or two. “The truth is that most people use PowerPoint slides because they didn’t practice their talk,” says Dr. Wiese. “Turn away from your slides and talk person to person—you’ll be much more compelling.”
For an ambitious hospitalist, opportunities are abundant. “Find the residency director at the nearest program and tell them you’d like to give a conference for free,” Dr. Wiese recommends. “I guarantee this will get you 20 or 30 offers.”
He says national and regional organizations are great opportunities to get involved. “All it really takes is to attend the meetings, find the people doing the talks and tell them that you want an opportunity to hone your speaking skills,” he notes.
If you’re convinced that practicing your speaking skills will help you influence committees, enhance your reputation and improve your career possibilities, then take Dr. Wiese’s advice and get ready to launch your speaking career. TH
Jane Jerrard writes “Public Policy” for The Hospitalist.