What doctors know about making presentations

I’ve seen lots of doctors make presentations and the brutal version of this blog post could be, frankly “not much”.  But that’s odd, because there’s a lot of good research that’s been carried out to see how to improve presentations for medical students. Let’s face it, they’ve got a lot of information to take in, so the more efficient and impactful the presentations are in med-school, the better. Richard Mayer, from the Department of Psychology in the University of California has, well, if not cracked it, at least made damned good progress.

Mayer cites five things a presentation might have to do: I’ve put them into a hierarchy here based on what’s being passed on

  • facts, such as X is greater than Y
  • concepts, such as X causes Y (or more realistically X causes Y in the presence of Z, but only on the second Tuesday in a month! 😉   Science isn’t easy, sometimes!)
  • tactical procedures, such as what to do about X when Y isn’t what you want (or is!)
  • longer term strategies, such as how to develop the relationship between X and Y over a five year period
  • beliefs, such as “I understand how X and Y relate to each other and I’m good at dealing with it”

[jbox color =’red’ title=’action point’] Take a moment – look at your last presentation and ask yourself which of those things it was trying to do. My personal experience is that all too often presenters aren’t quite sure what it is their presentation is supposed to achieve and fails as a result.
For example, if what you’re trying to do is just pass on facts, you’re better off with handouts as take-aways at the end of the presentation (or perhaps just handouts and no presentation!). On the other hand, if your intention is to create  team in your audience members, then you’d better allow some time for conversation and group work, etc.

But that’s just the start of Mayer’s work on presenting

Let’s take it that two outcomes come from a presentation (or don’t!):

  • transfer measures – these are measures of how well people in your audience can remember the information in the presentation.. that is, how well does your presentation transfer data?
  • application measures – these are measures of how well your audience members can apply what they’ve learned and transfer it to different situations… that is, how well have they understood the presentation?
Presentation impact - the good, bad and ugly :)
Presentation impact – the good, bad and ugly 🙂

Pretty clearly you can get a two-by-two  matrix – for low transfer scores you can have either a low or high application scores, and the same fore high transfer scores. I’ve scribbled this out on my office whiteboard. (Sorry if you can’t read my writing – it’s why I normally type! 🙂 )

Mayer went on to do a lot of work about what increased these two possible outcomes. I’m going to go out on a limb here, and suggest that your ideal outcome is for your presentation to score high on both measures.

So what increases the scores in your presentation?

Spot the terminal moraine!
Spot the terminal moraine!
  1. Decreasing extraneous information. Well that sound obvious, right?  After all, no one would include un-necessary detail in their presentation, right? Oh so wrong I want to cry!  The more you know about a subject the harder it is to leave out the stuff that feels important to you, but isn’t to your audience. But there’s a bigger application here that takes people by surprise, I find. It’s this… consider using simple, representational figures rather than photographs or realistic pictures. The less ‘noise’ their is on an image, the easier it is for audiences to see the wood for the trees.  It’s obvious when you think about it, as that’s what you got a school in your text books.   If you studies geography, for example, you got almost ‘cartoon-like’ sketches of things like terminal moraines to glassiers, labelled. Then, once you know what to look for, you got photographs which were, frankly, messier than the sketches.
  2. Secondly, using highlighting words (or something) that signpost the structure of your presentation.  The example here is that I’ve started this paragraph with the word “secondly” so you know where you are – it’s overkill because I’m using numbered bullet points! I’ve done it just to give an illustration – imagine how it would read in freely structured text.  (I’ll resist the temptation to start the next paragraph “Thirdly”.)
  3. Use good labels for diagrams. Basically, this means forgetting a lot of what you want to do about making your figures look pretty – just make them work. For example, labels need to be contiguous to what they’re labelling – not a long way away with a line or arrow indicating where you’re supposed to be looking. Think how hard a map would be to understand if the names of cities were printed away from the city symbol and joined to it with a line. You might be able to handle one or two cities like that, but what if they  were all like that?!

Those first three ideas make it easier for your audience to get to grips with that you’re saying by reducing the amount un-necessary mental effort people have to make in your presentation. These next few ideas reduce the amount of necessary mental effort!

  1. Pre-learning – this is an interesting idea but obvious as soon as I explain it: it’s easier to understand a presentation if you already understand the key concepts involved. For example, if you’re trying to get to grips with some definitions at the same time as how those things are used, it’s tricky. On the other hand, if you have ‘pre-learned’ the definitions, it’s easier. It might be handy to think of giving presentation audiences a crib-sheet or a jargon-buster as a handout before you start, so that they’re familiar with some things before the kick off.  My experience is that this has the added advantage of giving early arrivers something to do in the awkward period while you wait for the laggards 😉
  2. Breaking things down into chunks – another obvious one as soon as I say it. Mayer’s research is pretty darn clear here, though! You should do your absolute best to make sure that your presentation is broken down into chunks that are small enough for people to wrap their heads around. This might feel a little pedestrian, or even boring to you, but suck it up – you’re the expert and other people can’t cope with information too quickly. After all, you’re presenting the results of something you took a long time to learn, right?
  3. Speak it, don’t write it – but before anyone ones off jumping around pretending that means you shouldn’t use slides, it doesn’t. Mayer specifically says that words should be spoken – because the main route into the brain for words (the ‘auditory-verbal channel’) can generally process speech better.

Mayer has three more ‘big things’ and I’ll cover them next week, because they’re massively powerful tools, but following the idea of chunking things down, I’m going to stop now, as this should give you food for thought about your presentations! 😉   Take a moment, or even an hour, and go over your last couple of slide decks!

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