HM17 session summary: The art of story in delivering memorable lectures



Ethan Cumbler, MD, FACP, FHM

Session summary

This session was designed to give learners a different paradigm in thinking about the structure and organization of presentations, for a more dynamic and engaging lecture.

Memorable teaching points are tied to a narrative with emotional impact. One study of surgery residents immediately after finishing grand rounds found that learners only remember approximately 10% of the material embedded in a lecture. Therefore, the focus of the lecture should not necessarily be to include a comprehensive amount of information, but to make the major points as “sticky” as possible.

Dr. James Kim
Dr. James Kim
One must be familiar with the topic, but it is important to empathize with the audience and ask oneself “what do they want out of this?”

This will help anchor your presentation and will hopefully assist in creating an organizational framework. Most people are familiar with lectures that have a “standard” format: “I’m going to talk about disease/problem X. This is the scope of the problem, epidemiology, pathology, etiology, diagnosis, treatment, complications, and prognosis.” While this is an organizational structure, it doesn’t draw the audience in. Instead, what was suggested was to think about a real patient case to keep the audience engaged. Since everything may not be known in real time, you can add drama and suspense as the audience and the speaker work through the case together.

One should have a “hook” as an analogy to engage with the audience while reinforcing the central “take-home” message. One can think of it as a kind of leitmotif. Another example would be the “call-back” in stand-up comedy where a concept or joke is introduced early in the routine, is not addressed for a period of time, and then reintroduced and becomes more funny the second time around.

Many people are used to seeing PowerPoint presentations with 5-7 lines per slide, 5-7 words per line, with greater than 24 point font. Dr. Cumbler recommends thinking of one’s slide from a design perspective. For example, in TED talks, one will often see large images that act as a reference but there is often very little text on the slide. In order to provide more content while not burdening slides with more text, one should reconsider handouts. Instead of sheets of paper with 6 slides which are repeats of the PowerPoint, use the handout to provide information that one cannot show during the presentation.

It is incredibly difficult to stay engaged in a lecture delivered at the same pace and in a monotone. Timing is important in music, comedy, and presentations. One should vary the volume and tempo during the talk and allow for pauses when appropriate. An example to illustrate the point was dubstep music; it is set at a tempo of 140 beats per minute, but the song is not 140 beats per minute the entire time. It will sometimes slow down, and there is always a point where the “beat drops.”

Again, a good talk is not only the information itself, but a presenter’s presence, so one should think of body language and positioning. One should use hand gestures to emphasize points in the lecture and draw the learners in. Dr. Cumbler recommended making eye contact with individuals periodically instead of a distant, vacant stare into the great expanse. One should feel free to move across the stage or walk through the audience, so ask for a wireless microphone to liberate oneself from the podium.

Key takeaways for HM

  • Consider the stand-up comedy concept of the “call-back.” Start with a concept, and then return to this concept in different forms through the presentation. One can return to another variation of this for a surprise at the end. One can make a key point memorable by using a theme with multiple variations.
  • Think about structure in order to draw listeners into a talk and keep them invested (organizational framework centered around a patient); create a “hook”; think about slides visually, not from a content perspective (that’s what handouts are for); keep the tempo, timing, and volume dynamic; use body language and presence to engage the room.
  • If one would like to learn more, consider reading the book Presentation Zen; watch TED talks; practice multiple times to hone various aspects of the talk; give the talk multiple times for iterative improvement; always ask for feedback and try to change at least one thing from one talk to another to continuously improve.

Dr. Kim is a hospitalist who works at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, and is an editorial board member of The Hospitalist.

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