Public Speaking Tips for Fellows

Oncology FellowsOctober 2011
Volume 3
Issue 3

All fellows will at some point in their careers be required to speak in public. This article provides a number of tips to make that task easier.

Along with death and taxes, public speaking is one of the most common fears known to man (and woman). For some it can take on phobic proportions. As an oncology fellow you’ve chosen an intensely research-driven field, in which the very lives of patients depend upon the sharing of information via both the written and spoken word. In other words, public speaking is almost certainly in your future.

The good news is that even those who anticipate a speaking engagement with as much enthusiasm as they do a root canal can learn to become competent or even excellent speakers. To this end, the following tips will help to put you on the road toward viewing public speaking as an opportunity rather than a curse.

Know Your Audience

When it comes to presentations at medical meetings, one size definitely does not fit all. Indeed, knowing your audience (and tailoring your talk accordingly) is the first commandment of public speaking. Let’s assume that your subspecialty is radiation oncology. Over the course of your career you’ll likely be called upon to speak to audiences of your true peers (ie, other radiation oncologists) as well as to medical oncologists, surgical oncologists with a variety of subspecialties, nononcologist physicians, nonphysicians (eg, nurses, physician assistants), and audiences that include all of the above. Adding another layer of complexity is the likelihood that your audiences will often include clinicians with a broad range of experience and expertise, from residents to fellows to veteran staff physicians.

The best speakers are those who provide audience members with information they want and need, and do so without speaking over their heads or, arguably worse, speaking down to them by dwelling on information considered common knowledge.

The old you-can’t-please-everyone adage notwithstanding, seasoned speakers are adept at handling all possible eventualities. If your audience consists primarily of your true peers it’s fairly safe to assume that their expertise and knowledge are similar to your own. If, however, you’re speaking to oncologists from other subspecialties, they’ll likely need additional background and explanations of some subspecialtyspecific terminology. Presentations given for nononcologists will require more of such explanations and background, and in more detail. In all cases, avoid jargon; by using it you run the risk of losing or even alienating at least some of your audience.

Finally, keep in mind that the majority rules, and your talk should be geared primarily to meet their needs. You can do this and still acknowledge your minority audience members with brief explanations or references to what most listeners know as common knowledge.

Trick of the Trade

Track down some colleagues who are representative of those in your audience and ask them to serve as a focus group. Give your talk and invite constructive criticism.

Respect the Guidelines

If you’ve already written for a peerreviewed journal or trade publication you’re familiar with the need to adhere closely to author guidelines. In most cases, clinicians invited to speak at medical meetings are also provided with guidelines, and the need for adherence is equally important.

In addition to specifying requirements such as presentation length, these guidelines can be used as a template, of sorts, for writing your talk—as will a syllabus and published proceedings from previous meetings.

Once you’ve determined the content of your talk, keep in mind that every speaking opportunity is different with regard to attendees, expected content, time restrictions, venue, tone, degree of formality, and so on. While not written in stone, smaller meetings tend to be more relaxed while larger meetings tend to have an air of formality that necessitates a different tone and


Trick of the Trade

Ask a colleague whose speaking abilities you respect to critique your written presentation and slides. Then, audit a meeting similar to the one at which you’ll be presenting or access a video of previous speakers. Doing so will give you a sense of the tone of the meeting. It will also give you an opportunity to listen to excellent and less-than-stellar speakers, and to determine what they’re doing right—and wrong.

Learn the Art of Presenting Your Art

Some of the most respected presenters earn that reputation, in part, because of their visual aids. These presenters know how to ensure that those visuals enhance, rather than distract from, their talks. (See “Visual Aids: Take It Slow, Keep It Simple.”)

As in medicine, presentation technology is only as effective as the person using it. Furthermore, using technology for technology’s sake is always a bad idea; unless it helps to illustrate your spoken words, walk away and go with what you know.

Exorcise the Jitters

There’s no better way to calm your nerves than to practice—and to do so over and over again. When you’ve lived with your talk for as long as possible, giving your presentation becomes almost second nature, even if you’re battling a case of nerves. Practice in front of family and friends, ask to present at grand rounds, and conduct several “dress rehearsals” (visuals included) in front of colleagues.

And there’s more good news. Many seasoned speakers will tell you that it’s easier to speak in a large room before a large audience than it is to talk to a small group in an intimate setting, since standing on a stage with the lights dimmed provides a comfortable sense of distance.

Trick of the Trade

On the day of your talk, do whatever normally helps you to relax (going for a walk, talking to a friend, and so on). Even more important is not doing something you normally don’t do. If, for example, you’re not a coffee drinker, the last thing you want is to find out how caffeine affects you right in the middle of your talk. (The tried-and-true advice of picturing your audience members naked is probably dubious at best!)

Use Your Notes Wisely

While no one expects you to give your talk from memory, watching a speaker whose head is buried in a stack of note cards or obscured by a computer screen can be distracting—or even annoying. Notes should be used as an aid rather than a crutch. If you’ve practiced sufficiently you probably do know your talk by heart. Even so, use your notes as a “just in case” to be glanced at when needed.

Trick of the Trade

Make sure your notes are legible (preferably typed or computergenerated) and large enough to be easily read by the small light of the podium. Highlight or enlarge potential problem areas and, if needed, insert reminders such as “slow down,” as well as any needed cues related to your visuals.

Heed the Clock

Unlike those making acceptance speeches for Oscars and Emmys,you won’t be played off the stage by annoying music when you reach the time limit for your presentation. You will, however, be given such a limit. At larger meetings a gentle reminder might take the form of a light that begins to flash, or one that changes from green, to yellow, to red.

Think of your talk as a 2000-word article that needs to be cut to 1000. As you edit you’ll find that you’re eliminating extraneous verbiage and unnecessary information—precisely what you want to do.

Trick of the Trade

Two of the most commonly made public speaking mistakes are the tendency to speak too quickly or too softly—usually without even knowing it. Make your talk 20 seconds shorter than the time allotted. This way, you can speak at a comfortable pace without feeling rushed and will have plenty of time for end-oftalk acknowledgments. Also remember to stand sufficiently close to the microphone to be heard by all attendees (or be sure your wearable mic is working perfectly). Whenever possible, sneak in beforehand for a sound check.

Anticipate a Q&A

As long as you’re well prepared and confident in your material, questions from the audience should be no problem. Keep your answers brief and to the point, remember that questions are more often an indication of interest than a sign of challenge, and don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know” if that’s the case. (If appropriate, you can offer to retrieve the requested information at a later date.)

Trick of the Trade

Use your focus group to practice fielding questions.

Seize All Opportunities

Take advantage of every opportunity to speak before an audience, whether at grand rounds, regional meetings, or large national meetings. Every speaking opportunity is a chance to share your knowledge, hone your skills, and give your confidence a boost. Remember that everyone who stands behind a podium will someday lose his or her place or stumble over a word; it’s simply part of the process.

Trick of the Trade

Inspire yourself. Think about how much you’ve learned from other speakers, and how much your colleagues stand to learn from you.

Laura Bruck is a Cleveland, Ohio—based freelance writer and editor who has specialized in healthcare since 1987.

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