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Melvin L. Rubin, MD, MS
Professor emeritus
University of Florida College of Medicine
Gainesville, Florida

These ideas incorporated into your talks and visual materials will reward you and your audience by fostering a significant improvement in your presentations, enhancing the experience for everyone.

You may have been giving talks for years, but you are not likely to be aware of many things you are doing or saying that are less than ideal. And obviously, if you don't recognize you have a problem, you will not make the effort to address it. Too many speakers (inadvertantly, I'm sure) pay little heed to what the audience perceives. Since those in the audience are giving you their time, to hear and learn from you, you owe them your best.

In this paper I will identify some common foibles and suggest ways to overcome them. With a little practice you can improve your presentations and enhance the learning experience for your listeners. (I will not be addressing content, which I assume is already cogent and well organized.)

Do You Suffer from Sloppy Technique?

What I call sloppy technique afflicts even those with great experience at the podium. Sloppy technique interferes with understandability. And if you don't make a distinct effort to be clear and understandable, you are being disrespectful to the audience. The following are examples of sloppy technique:

  • Mushy, Unclear Speech

To correct this, learn to form words cleanly, with appropriate use of your tongue and lips. Do not assume that the quality of your diction is good. It takes conscious and persistent effort to pronounce and enunciate clearly, even if you otherwise have good speech habits. If you have a slight speech impediment or mumble or speak with a high squeeky or nasal sound, you need to be especially sensitive to what the audience hears.

  • Not Loud Enough

You need to speak clearly, of course, but you must also project your voice, talking loudly enough (without shouting) for individuals in the back row to hear you without straining. If they can't hear you easily and comfortably, you will not hold their attention. Keep in mind that your voice has to overcome ambient noise in the room -- noise that insinuates itself between you and the listeners (many of whom can be tactless, even rude to the speaker, as they add to the noise themselves -- another pet-peeve).

So, open your mouth and speak out, since your verbal gems are going to be filtered through side conversations, coughs, throat-clearing, beepers, cellphones, rattling papers, and even noisy projection equipment. Any or all of these interfere with the receipt of your message. Make sure your voice carries above the din.

If you use a microphone, learn how to speak into it. Listeners find it annoying if your voice fades in and out as you move your head back and forth or shift from facing the audience to looking at the screen behind you. From your position in front of the room, you are not likely to know how your amplified voice sounds or carries to the audience.

Remember, microphones vary. Some are unidirectional, others, omnidirectional. (You have more leeway to move about when you use the latter type.) If your microphone is fixed in position and unidirectional, be sure to speak into it with a natural intensity and from a relatively constant distance. Though a lapel mike moves with you and helps even out the sound, the level reaching the audience will still vary with your head position, so try as much as possible to keep your head steady relative to any microphone.

  • Boring Speech Patterns

Have any idiosyncrasies crept into your speech -- pet phrases that you use over and over again? And what about those utterings that are unconsciously used to fill pauses, such as, "um. . . and uh . . . ya know. . .right? . . .okay? . . .know what I mean? . . ."? These contribute nothing to your talk and are annoying to the listener. (A nice, quiet pause is far preferable). Make an effort to rid yourselves of these irritants.

  • Talking Too Fast

Slow down. Most speakers talk much too fast. To be understood from the podium, you must speak more slowly than you do in everyday conversation. This slowdown is needed to compensate for the time it takes for aural information, especially technical jargon, to reach, be digested and processed by the listener; and also to compensate for the room reverberations, which increase when your voice is amplified by a microphone, and for room noises, which tends to cover your voice. Speak in a conversational style, but more slowly and deliberately, always pausing between phrases, to facilitate the listener's cerebral processing of your message.

  • Dull, Monotonous Sounding Speech

Standing at a podium seems to bring out a monotone, even from individuals who would never talk that way in conversation. Monotones are soporific, even when content is interesting. Enthusiastic speech is exciting. So, learn to modulate the sound level of your voice. Speak in conversational tones. Emphasize important words and phrases by varying your pitch, intensity and tone.

  • Reading the Talk

Too many speakers simply read their manuscript. That can be insulting to listeners, first, because reading is usually done too rapidly (and with too little pausing between phrases), and second, because the material was originally written in a style for publication -- in other words, meant to be read, not spoken. Written language just doesn't sound like spoken language, which is conversational, often colloquial, with natural pauses.

There is a significant difference between written and oral language. The eye/brain network grasps written content quickly, much more rapidly than the ear/brain combination can possibly do. Material written for publication is necessarily compact and concise. (Any concept not understood the first time through can always be reread until it sinks in.) When read out loud, however, it is not easy to follow.

Still, it is acceptable to read from a script if you have carefully prepared it using conversational English -- in the language you'd use in talking with someone. After you've written your talk, practice reading it aloud so that it sounds like you're talking. Do not keep your eyes fixed down on the manuscript; look up frequently at the audience (which also helps cover up the fact that you're really reading).

Actually, since you probably have no idea of how you sound to others, it is a good idea to record what you plan to present and to listen to it carefully to make yourself aware of your own speech patterns and diction. Or, you might present your talk to a friend, someone willing to be constructively critical and honest enough to tell you how you really sound. It's amazing how much you'd benefit from either of these efforts.

How to Enhance Your Presentations

  • With or without a microphone, whether you read your talk or not, do not get into the habit of turning around to talk to the projection screen behind you.

  • Speak toward the audience.

  • Make eye contact with them.

  • Don't be afraid to use natural hand and body gestures to help express yourself, but don't overdo it.

  • It's always good policy to encourage questions since that promotes understanding, but, right at the start of your talk, set some ground rules for the audience. You can leave time for a general question-answer session following your talk, or you might even permit clarifying-type questions during your talk if such interruptions do not hamper your train of thought and if there is no time-constraint.

    But inaudible questions are worse than none at all. You can help make the questions audible to all by (1) asking the questioner to stand, and (2) if there is no floor mike or movable mike available, repeating the question so that the entire audience and not just the questioner benefits from your response.

  • Make sure your visual material is well designed. Projected graphs, tables, charts, diagrams, or clinical photographs can significantly add to the impact of your talk and help your audience absorb its content. But the material -- whether slides, PowerPoint, or overhead projection -- needs to be properly constructed. Too often it is not.

    Furthermore, more is not better. Visual materials are so readily available, they tend to be overused, with too many superfluous examples given. Keep the number of slides reasonable, sufficient only to list, explain, or amplify.

How to Make Visual Materials More Meaningful

  1. Coordinate what you say with what is on the screen. When you're finished with a particular slide and are going on to talk at length about something that does not have any accompanying visual material, turn the room lights partly on until you need them off again. Anything on the screen that is not being utilized right then distracts onlookers from what you are saying. But, do not keep flipping the room lights on and off too frequently.

    If the time gap between slides is going to be only moderate, leave the lights off, and fill the break with a neutral slide (a simple pattern, color or gray, but not one that is completely opaque or completely clear since the sudden darkness or brightness of either is too jarring.)

  2. Avoid simultaneous double slide projection whenever possible. Double projection is excessively overused by academicians the world over. It is usually unnecessary to have two slides on the screen at the same time; in most cases the second slide is only the consecutive slide anyway and could just as well follow immediately after the single projection of the first.

    Only rarely is double projection used appropriately -- the second (side-by-side) slide complementing or amplifying a detail that is being shown on the first slide, to make rapid visual comparisons easy. Most of the time, that same comparison can be accomplished almost as well by using single slide projection and quickly shuttling back and forth between the two slides you want to compare.

    My main objection to double projection is that the second slide on the screen is distracting, since it gives the audience something extraneous to look at, which may not be what you want them to look at at that moment. In addition, having two projectors on simultaneously more than doubles the chance for something to go wrong -- mechanically or electrically, but most often by the paired slides getting out of sequence with one another. Surely, you must have experienced that situation, along with the attendant frustration of both lecturer and audience waiting for the slides to be re-synchronized.

  3. Use a pointer. A pointer is a mandatory adjunct for any lecture with slides, PowerPoint, or other illustrative visual material. If your slide displays a large array of data, a graph, clinical photograph or radiological study, a pointer gives clear direction to the audience to the particular detail you wish them to notice.

    Without a pointer and, for example, more than one graph on the screen, if you say, "The graph shows such-and-such," the audience is faced with trying to figure out which graph you're referring to. Without your pointing (especially on clinical photographs or radiographs), the audience has the task of trying to quickly determine, identify, or locate something that might be just about anywhere in the picture.

    Why not preclude all doubts by using a pointer? Do not point with your finger from afar, which is necessarily aligned with your eye and not with the audience's, so they can't tell what you're pointing to. If you're using a laser pointer, make sure the spot is bright and clearly visible. Hold the pointer still, using it only for specific pointing. Do not wave it around on the screen as you talk, since the audience will get dizzy trying to follow it. That is obviously distracting and annoying.

  4. Regarding what's on the slide or PowerPoint: Content should always be simple, simple, simple. Most slides are far too packed with written or tabular information. (As a worst case example, think of those vastly congested data tables that the speaker typically apologizes for, yet still continues to show.)

    If you are presenting a list, keep it short -- no more than three or four lines -- with key words or phrases highlighted with bullets. People seem to learn best by seeing material in "clumps." (PowerPoint offers the capability of "progressive disclosure," highlighting a specific item on a list and then darkening it as you move down the list, but don't overuse any of the elaborate motion gimmickery. Yes, it can be attractive, but often it merely distracts the audience from the point of the talk. Keep it simple, using only an occasional touch of flair.)

    Too much written information on a slide is not only hard to see, it beckons the audience to read it while the speaker is talking. Simultaneous reading and listening is almost impossible, so attempts to do both generate yet one more type of audience distraction. Again, less is more.

    Do not use complete sentences in a slide. Not only does that make things difficult for the audience, it encourages the speaker to read from it, which should never be done. Your slide might serve as a prompt, but never as a script for reading.

  5. Legibility. Whatever printing you put on the slides must be easily legible to everyone in the room. You can control legibility by varying print size, spacing, typeface (font), contrast, and color.

  6. Print size should be large enough to be read easily from the rear of the room by someone with reduced visual acuity. As a rule of thumb, the letter size should be about 1/15 the vertical height of the slide frame or screen.

  7. Sufficient spacing -- between letters, words, and lines -- is a must. Crowding of print is anathema for legibility. Exactly how much space is needed is best determined not by rule but by "eyeball" judgment. Even large print can be illegible if the letters are crowded too close together. I've seen slides having only two bold lines of print, but positioned so close to one another they could not be read from even the front of the room. Be moderately generous with space, but not overly so.

  8. Typeface should not be ornate or script-like. A simple font with or without serifs will be legible if it is large enough and has enough space around it and it is sufficiently contrasting to its background.

  9. Contrast is of critical importance. It is the major factor that determines whether or not the contours of any letter or object are discernible to the eye. The greater the contrast between the letters and the background, the greater the chance the type can be read. You can use either light letters on a darker background or vice versa.

    An interesting physiological point: For a normal eye and small letters (near threshold size), it is easier to read dark letters on a light background than the converse. (Light letters on dark creates a slight blur of the letters in the retinal image because of image irradiation -- lateral light spread.) Because of this light spread, the best acuity for seeing light letters on a dark background is only 20/40 or so, whereas with dark letters on light (a typical printed page), the best acuity is 20/20 or even finer. But no audience should ever be subjected to slides with print that is anywhere near as small as threshold size.

  10. Room lights should be lowered so that the screen is "in the dark," even if there is some light on in the back of the room. Extraneous light falling on the screen will markedly reduce the contrast of any projected details and reduce their visibility.

  11. Color can be used to add interest and variety on a slide or to identify details (for example, for distinguishing among several graph lines.) But not every color or shade is suitable for use in slides. The key is to select colors that provide strong contrast to whatever background you choose. A dark color on a dark background (or a light color on a light background) might suit a room decorator but is virtually useless for slides since it can be almost invisible. For legibility, the greater the contrast the better. (But stay away from blue print on any background. Because of the chromatic aberration of the eye, blue -- short wavelength light -- is focused slightly in front of the retina and will appear a bit blurred; even the emmetropic eye is somewhat myopic for blue print.)

    Note: PowerPoint offers a choice of backgrounds; a commonly used one varies gradually in darkness from top to bottom, from a dark navy blue color at the top to a light blue at the bottom. On the darker part of the background, any print in a light color will be easy to read; however, that same light color may be almost illegible against the light part of the background. Be aware of the variable background's affect on the legibility of print.

* * * Be prepared. After you've finished your preparations, you still need to plan ahead. Arrive early, well before you are scheduled to give your talk, to make sure that the position of any podium and its lighting and all equipment you plan to use (a pointer, microphones, projector or computer) is in proper working order and set up as you wish it to be. The audience should not have to wait for your setting up during the time allocated for the talk.

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