My First Teaching Session

I appreciate that sometime the comments on the site relate to more major presentations such as keynote and large scientific conferences. The challenge of How To Do A Presentation #htdap has been covered in a few specific posts before ; a major presentation and a short teaching session. The basic concepts are pertinent to every single presentation and are worth considering but this post will talk you through #htdap when it’s your very first teaching session.

my first teaching sessionIn medical training there usually comes a point where a senior will buttonhole a less senior clinician and say those dread words, “could you just do a teaching session on x, next week.” The standard response after the fear has died down a little is to grab a text book and type everything directly into powerpoint, chose the blue wave background and then wait to read it out at the event. Even those who have a degree of insight into a better way of presenting will default to this as, paradoxically, they feel some security in this approach. Far be it from me to suggest that it is easy to change but I would like to offer a few thoughts that may help those faced with this fear inducing situation.

The concepts of p cubed apply; your presentation is the product of the story (p1), the media (p2) and its delivery (p3). Remember that simply reading out everything typed in will definitely limit that value.

For the p1 first consider the audience needs. The reality of most “teaching sessions” is that it is usually a collection of people who know either very little about the subject (students) and those who know a lot (seniors). The purpose is to share knowledge with the former, the latter are unlikely to  gain anything new. This should direct the session. What exactly are the audience needs? This will not be to know everything about the subject, it’s not about covering the Reichstag. Clearly one needs some key points but then consider then an angle: what specifically interests you in this, what confuses you, what controversies are there, what recent developments have there been? This then engages interest and moves away from a simple recitation of facts. Perversely, the most junior will actually find this the easiest to get away with but if no specific learning goal has been given other than “a teaching session on x” it is entirely reasonable to focus specifically on a topic within the whole.

The value in the three-step approach of moving the audience from where they are at the beginning of the presentation to where you would like them to leave is essential. Three questions, three main points, pros/cons and decision are all reasonable approaches. Consider being interactive. Pro-tip it means you have to do less work. “How would YOU approach this problem?” allows the audience to be involved, share some of their knowledge and provides a much better learning opportunity. Take care not to embarrass your colleagues if an answer is not immediately forthcoming and skip to someone else or a Chief adding the answer you are looking for if there appears doubt in the room. The group constructing their own ideas on some basic facts you have offered will allow the direct of travel in the learning to be valued more, especially if there is no stated endpoint in the initial brief. This is very well supported by developing an elevator pitch beforehand to consider how the audience would become engaged. Plan out the three specific points. Now consider exactly how much time you have and aim for 75% of that. You will take longer.

Make a handout. This is where all the data goes to support your piece, not into the powerpoint. Make clear at the beginning that this will be available and this allows you the freedom to then engage with your specific topic safe in the knowledge that the information expected has actually all been delivered in the future tense. A plea- use an electronic resource rather than printing it off.

The p2 clearly is not simply going to be 9 slides illustrating the three steps. That would be unreasonable. However the science of fail should be borne in mind when constructing the supportive media. Text will be read. A handout would be better. Using text as a teleprompt will be boring. If you have moved from reading a list of facts to discussing a concept this is actually much easier to illustrate than annotate. Following the 3 steps in the presentation with clear visual clues is a pro-tip. It reminds the novice presenter of their steps without being as boring as a slide title that moves the audience painfully through each of the steps. Many topics are improved by graphics, illustration and diagrams. If they are not available simply drawing them yourself and importing is one option or consider using a flip chart. Again, being junior is the perfect opportunity to be different and not use centre justified, Times New Roman on the blue wave background. Be creative. Try an appropriate image as title slide, left justified and a challenging title. All this will set you up nicely to be interesting rather than confirm the boredom expected. This actually wins many friends

Delivery of this (p3) will be terrifying, everyone understands that. So, consider these tips for helping reduce your fear, making changes for your local surroundings. Essentials are practise lots it really DOES make a huge difference, check your supportive media works on the device provided before you need to start, bring copies as .ppt AND .pdf and remember that this is not your career on the line and actually (sadly) the Senior expect only a powerpoint list read out to them so if you come with anything other than that they will be impressed. Stand up to deliver the piece and move away from the desk or podium if at all possible. Look your colleagues in the eye and they will encourage you, don’t focus on the Chief who is bored. Their (initial) boredom reflects the 2000 identical presentations they have already sat through, not you. But when you deliver your masterpiece they will change. Make sure you stick to time and finish with a summary and a clear point.

Prepare the three questions you would ask you after this presentation. It should not be a cross-examination and of course it is appropriate to simply accept that you don’t know the answer BUT that you will find it out and report back. Pro-tip plant a question with a colleague.

Feedback will be a mixed bag. Most people will actually value the difference of your approach and the effort you have made even if it doesn’t reflect their expectations. Comments may include “it’s not scientific“, “where is the text” and “why have you been such a great presenter?” This is probably not the time to engage in pedagogical debate and discussion of psychological principles of powerpoint fail but if you have read much on this site you’re probably pretty well armed. The audience opinion is of most value, not individuals. You may be surprised at how warmly your new approach is received because you have met the brief of “a teaching session on x”. Well done.


  1. Simon

    Nice little summary Ross.
    FYI, you must have at least a couple of books in you!

    1. ffolliet (Post author)

      Watch this space

  2. Nick

    Just used this one to send to our foundation doctors who are delivering sessions to the medical students – thanks


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