The Optimized Doctor

How to give a talk


I have to give a talk. Get this – the topic is how to give a good talk. Very meta.

I’ve given a hundred or so presentations in my career, including a couple of TEDx talks. With each one, I try to get a little better. Effective speaking is always simple but never easy. Let me share with you a few things I’ve learned.

Even if you don’t want to become a TEDMED phenom, you should know a few fundamentals. Giving good talks enhances your reputation and can jump-start your practice or career. For any talk, you must master three things: preparation, content, and delivery.

Dr. Jeffrey Benabio, director of Healthcare Transformation and chief of dermatology at Kaiser Permanente San Diego.

Dr. Jeffrey Benabio

First, prepare. Just as no football team, no matter how dominant, would play without exhaustive preparation, no presenter should speak without thoroughly preparing. No matter how slick your slides, if the audience is not interested, you’ll lose. The purpose of a presentation is to affect your audience – to teach them, to move them, to inspire them. Therefore, you must know your audience. A seasoned private practice dermatologist will care about different issues than a second-year resident or an academic psoriasis expert. Ask yourself, Who will attend? Why are they coming? What do they hope to get out of your lecture? Perusing the agenda and seeing other speakers’ topics can also help you understand your audience. These factors should help determine both your content and delivery style.

Just as we choose movies with actors we like, people choose speakers they want to see. Who you are matters. If you are introduced by an emcee, then be sure he or she bills you as a star. However, don’t try to be someone you aren’t – If I gave a talk on robotic prostate surgery, I’d be sure to lose no matter how witty I was. That’s why writing your own intro can sometimes be your best option.

Next up: content. It’s the king of speaking as well as marketing. Although you can pick up points for style, if you want to be remembered, you have to deliver something worth remembering. This starts with your preparation. Resist the temptation to focus exclusively on your slides. As in writing, it is best to brainstorm what you want to cover, then outline your ideas, then fill in content with slides.

Most presentations require visuals; however, there are times when you can do without. Go for it! Nothing is more freeing or more intimate than you one-on-one with your audience. If you must have slides, then follow the one-idea one-slide rule. Slides crammed with information actually detract from your presentation. Here’s a tip: Write only what you can fit with a marker on a Post-it pad. Then, laying out the Post-its, you can rearrange slides getting a feel for the flow or argument of the talk.

Did you ever wonder why headlines like, “Why I never use this suture” and “How I cut my EMR documentation time in half” work so well? They tap into a core human instinct: curiosity. Your opening should introduce some sense of wonder. What is she going to share? Really, how does he do that? Starting with a problem and taking them to a solution is also a great game plan that will often yield success.

When it comes to slides, be clean and concise. Taking a cue from wildly popular TED talks, use images and art instead of words. Use sentence fragments, not sentences, and limit content to the width of the slide (no easy feat). Sometimes you need the slide to prompt your talking point. Put only the data or fact you need and leave the rest at the bottom in your notes section.

Humor is almost always a good idea and more difficult to execute than most realize. Cartoons with captions don’t work. I know that’s hard for many of you to hear, but it’s true. Delete them from your decks. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Instead, try finding something relevant to the audience that only they will find funny. Inside jokes not only have a higher chance of success, but will also help you bond with your audience. A joke about ICD10 as it relates to neurology is better than the funniest Calvin and Hobbes strip. Self-deprecating humor is always appreciated. I’m not among the gifted who can come up with a great one-liner on the spot. It’s OK to plan it ahead.

Once you’ve got your talk built, it’s time to run it. This is hard, as it requires planning to have your content done in time to rehearse. Find the discipline to do it. The first time you run it, you’ll likely realize that 1/3 of the content needs to be cut. Cut it. Indeed, plan to run 10% less than the time allotted. Leave your audience wanting for more rather than wishing for less.

As I’ve learned, your talking points and slides will always be most appreciated in your own head. Keeping to time shows your respect for your audience and makes you appear polished.

The day of, get to the venue well ahead of time and check the sound, lights, and temperature. All of your preparation will be for naught if they can’t hear you, see your slides, or feel their fingers due to the frigid AC.

One of the reasons I love giving talks is because they are live. You and your audience are intimately engaged, and like any conversation, you’ll sense how it’s going. Are they looking at you or at their phones? Do they seem bored? Do they laugh easily, even when you weren’t expecting them to? Observe what is happening and adjust your performance accordingly. Are you losing them? Pause. Let them catch up. Are you putting them to sleep? Pick up the pace. Try that bit of humor now.

Your delivery is critical to your success. If you’re on the dais and behind the podium of a large audience, then be big, Greek theatre big, which means bigger facial expressions and bigger arm and hand gestures. Vary the tone and pace of your voice. Speed it up to build excitement. Slow down and lower your pitch for gravity and authority. Pause for 3-4 seconds to create suspense and drama.

Leave time for discussion when possible. Invite the audience to engage by asking, What do you think? Finally, on the plane ride home, or even as you walk back from the auditorium to your clinic, think about your presentation: What worked? What fell flat? What roused the audience? How can you deliver it better next time?

Even if it didn’t go well, remember, there’s always next week. It’s on to Cincinnati.

Dr. Benabio is director of Healthcare Transformation and chief of dermatology at Kaiser Permanente San Diego. The opinions expressed in this column are his own and do not represent those of Kaiser Permanente. Dr. Benabio is @Dermdoc on Twitter. Write to him at

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