Death by PowerPoint. It’s a phrase heard at every professional conference. Despite our oaths, medical professionals and researchers are especially notorious for assaulting audiences with dry, static, sleep-inducing slide decks. The “bullet point” has taken on new meaning.
Effective audience engagement is not only possible, but crucial, even in an evidence-based, data-driven field like healthcare.
Here are six proven tips to take your presentations to the next level.
1. Ditch the cliché
Emotional response is highly linked to learning outcomes, and high impact images are the key to evoking an emotional response in your audience. Campy stock photos and cartoonish clipart accomplish just the opposite. Find images that reflect the struggles of a disease state, a patient in treatment, or a region to be served by a vaccine. Our brains process visuals much more rapidly than text, so adding high quality images that evoke a conscious or subconscious emotion in your audience will draw them to your message much better than bullet points.
Which of these images is more impactful? Take the time to source quality images.
2. Don't shoot the audience
Speaking of bullet points, use them sparingly, if at all. Nothing loses an audience faster than a text-only slide with a heading and a 7 or 8 point list. If the statement you are trying to support requires a list, offer it verbally and let your slide reflect the big picture. If you’re representing data, use a table or infographic on your slide and provide raw data in a handout. Your slides should should have fewer words, but more meaning. If your 8 bullet points truly do need to be on the screen, use multiple slides rather than a list. This allows the audience to absorb one point at a time, rather than be overwhelmed by a text-heavy slide.
3. Don't just inform... Engage
Allow participants to consider the information in a real world context. Provide scenarios that humanize the data and mentally put the learner into a participant role. Refer to case studies that may trigger a memory in an audience member. An active learner is an engaged learner. Use in-course surveys to encourage audience participation and to gauge the mindset of the group. Address misconceptions on the spot and interact with your audience. By using tools that allow audience participation, you can respond and interact with your participants even in a room of 600 people.
4. Be the authority, not the messenger
You’ve done the research. You’ve developed the technique. You’ve treated the patient. Make your audience focus on you, not just the screen. Your slides are there to support you, not the other way around. When you rely too heavily on just reading from your slides, you become nothing more than the narrator of a faceless story that is difficult to engage with. If you are afraid you might forget your talking points, use the speaker notes feature on your presentation software. Again, make your slides say less, not more. Provide the supporting details with a dynamic voice and eye contact.
5. Give the audience a hand(out)
Two problems arise when the audience is furiously taking notes. First, it is difficult to process information when writing it down at the same time. Second, it takes the focus off of you and puts it back on the slides. While physical paper handouts may seem passe, a supplement that is well designed and kept to key points can serve as a guide to keep audience members on pace with you, and serve as a valuable reference for the future. Especially at a large conference where participants will be attending multiple sessions, a handout can keep your message from being lost in the crowd.
6. Enlist the help of an experienced medical writer
A professional medical writer knows how to create slide decks and supplements that will inspire your audience and make your presentation one to remember. In consulting with clients, the most common struggle I hear is that it's "impossible" to make research data interesting. Whether starting a new project from scratch, or editing an existing slide deck, I use these tips and the elements of effective instructional design to create stunning and engaging presentations, no matter what the subject material. When working with a medical writer, communicate your learning goals for the audience and the tone you’d like to set. A quality-focused and responsive writer will help you make it happen.
Megan Whitney, DMD is a medical writer and principal of Viaxis Medical Communications.