Take a chance.

It is my pleasure to introduce another guest blog this time from a twitter friend @Liz_ORiordan on her experiences with a different approach to presentations than the “tried and tested” method.

“Hello, my name is Liz Ball, I’m a Consultant Breast Surgeon. I’m going to tell you a story….” That was how I started my presentation to the Medical Women’s Federation in November. I have never received so many compliments on a talk as I did that day and I believe those are due to the change in style of presentation I have adopted having read the posts on this website.

I have given many talks in the past based principally on the style I have seen at the many conferences I have attended as well as on the advice and example of colleagues. I would use the following “tried and tested” method:

  1. Condense clinical paper into abstract
  2. Accepted abstract = acceptance of concept/data
  3. Cut and paste abstract onto power point slides for lecture to last about 7 minutes
  4. Convert paragraphs into bullet points
  5. No more than 6 bullet points per slide
  6. Add in relevant graphs and data tables
  7. Add in all details of all references mentioned
  8. Practice opening sentence: “Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you for asking me to talk today on ‘abstract title’…”
  9. Read slides word for word.


Having been to a lot of conferences lately dealing with breast cancer trials I have realised that the vast majority of the audience (including me at times) switch off when abstracts are presented in this “tried and tested” method. All the speakers follow the process given to them by their seniors and because of their stress, read aloud from pages of notes or directly from the projected slides, data slides, complex diagrams and summaries. And I groan. I’ve no idea what the take home message is and often I no longer care. The further option of being encouraged to tweet during conferences is a great excuse to look at your phone/iPad and pay even less attention. Presentations shouldn’t be like this.

I saw @ffolliet ‘s post on “How to do a presentation” on twitter and thought I should try his advice. The first line was scary: “First, turn off the computer.” What…? I need my bullet points to work from. Then odd questions challenging me to consider who the audience are and what they might want and then write something called an “elevator pitch”? This wasn’t the “tried and tested” method!

When I reconsidered my abstract I saw that it wasn’t perfect for the audience, it was just a way of getting the story across within a word count in the hope that it would be accepted. It wasn’t really addressing the title of the conference or the audience that I was speaking to. I had to turn everything I thought I knew on its head.

It was hard to do initially, but the more I thought about the facts of the abstract as “story”, and where I wanted to go, the easier it became. By making it a story, I could very easily remember the flow of the talk, and by the time I came to looking for pictures, I knew the talk by heart, because I had rehearsed it so many times, and didn’t need text slides as a crutch to help me along. If technology failed me, I could still give a confident, effective talk.

The trickiest part was thinking how to illustrate my talk. I initially started looking for cute animal pictures – but realised (with prompting from @ffolliet) how they might detracted from the message as people might think, “aww cute cat” rather than listening. Clip art similarly was inappropriate for such a discussion. It was difficult to find the right images. Maybe one of the next blogs could be on how and where to source illustrations?

I sent @ffolliet my deck and he suggested possible changes: a common colour theme to tie in the illustrations to heighten the visual impact and blank slides between the images so the audience can concentrate rather than being distracted by the images on the screens.

The changes in style that I have adopted meant I would use fewer slides, with fewer bullet points and more images and would be able to talk to the audience, rather than talking to the monitor in front of me, or to the big screen behind me. 

And so, prepared in a way completely different from the “tried and tested” method, I stood up at the conference to start my talk, “I’m going to tell you a story…” The audience sat up and listened. After I had shared my story I was bombarded with compliments, both about the content of the talk and its delivery. 

And now, I want to spread the word about how we can deliver better presentations. We can all do better, and we can all learn from the experts. Why should public speaking be any different from any other skill? If you have used the the “tried and tested” method, can I make a suggestion quoting the last line of my warmly received talk:

“Take a chance and try something new. It worked for me, why couldn’t it work for you?”

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