Rajani Katta MD
How to Give a Medical Talk: 7 Key Principles for Medical Students, Residents, and Rotators
Updated: Sep 28, 2021
Here’s the typical (and average) medical student talk
This is a re-creation of a talk that one of our students presented to the team last year. It followed the script for the typical medical student talk (ie the type of talk which we’ve sat through many times):
Introduction: “The subject of my talk is pulmonary embolism.”
Content: unrealistically extensive overview of a massive topic based on major texts
Conclusion: “Well, I guess that’s all I have.”
It’s easy to make that talk significantly more impressive and memorable
Introduction: “Substantial and unacceptable.” Those were the words of Dr. Kenneth Moser, referring to the morbidity and mortality rate of venous thromboembolism ... A major issue in reducing these high rates is enhancing early diagnosis. In my talk today, I’ll review recent advances in diagnostic techniques of pulmonary embolism.”
Content: in-depth review of a focused topic including recent medical literature
Conclusion: “As the recent literature has shown, the diagnosis of pulmonary embolism may clearly be challenging. As in the case of our patient Mr. Smith, however, a combination of diagnostic methods leads to improved sensitivity."
Being asked to give a talk on a rotation, observership, externship, or clerkship
may be anxiety-provoking, but it’s still a
If you're a medical student, resident, observer, or rotator, then at some point during that experience you may be asked to give a medical talk or presentation.
This is a common (yet anxiety-provoking) experience. Having acknowledged that, it’s important to realize that preparing and presenting a talk is a great opportunity to demonstrate your knowledge and grasp of clinical issues. While you can’t control what an attending might ask during rounds, you do have complete control over your talk. With preparation and practice, you’ll be able to deliver an outstanding talk.
In this post, you’ll learn specific recommendations to improve the quality and impact of your talks.
In fact, it’s pretty straightforward to incorporate the 7 key principles of giving a medical talk.
It’s easy to make your medical talk significantly more impressive and memorable. These 7 key principles will show you how
1. Do the important prep work: audience research and topic choice
2. Strong introductions are critical
3. Educate, not overload
4. A strong delivery is vital
5. Practice the right way
6. Strong conclusions are also critical
7. "After the talk" is just as important as "during the talk"
Do the important prep work:
audience research, time limits, and
choice of topic
Before you sit down to draft your speech, make sure you do the important prep work.
Do an audience analysis
Know and adhere to all time limits
Choose the right topic: one that is focused, fits into time limits, and is of interest to you and your audience
You can’t give a talk unless you know your audience. Always take their knowledge level into account
If you’re assigned to speak before an unfamiliar audience, ask for this important information beforehand.
Your audience analysis should answer:
How many people will be in the audience?
How familiar is the audience with the subject?
What is the educational background of the audience?
How can I provide information relevant to their specialty?
What would I like the audience to do with the information I present?
If you consider the background of your audience, you’re more likely to deliver a talk that meets the needs of your listeners. In the article “Presenting with precision,” author Brenda Happell wrote that
“It is extremely frustrating to attend a presentation, confident that you are likely to learn something new, only to be exposed to basic information and knowledge that is readily available.”
Choose the correct topic
In some cases, you’ll be assigned a topic. If, however, you get to choose your own topic, we advise that you:
Choose a topic that you have background knowledge of. If you cared for a patient with asthma, address asthma.
Choose a topic that you’re interested in. Equally (perhaps more so), make sure it’s a topic that your audience is interested in.
Know your time limits
Once you know your time limits, make sure that you choose your topic accordingly. Time is a major concern, especially if you’ve been asked to speak about a broad topic such as “lung cancer”. To help you focus, either ask the attending for a specific aspect of that topic, or choose a relevant aspect, such as the therapy of metastatic lung cancer.
Many medical talks are too broadly focused
In a study of medical student talks, Yale students were asked to present a 30-minute talk on a topic of their choice during the Internal Medicine Clerkship. At the orientation, students were informed to avoid overviews or large topics. As an example, rather than talking about pneumonia, students were asked to focus on a particular aspect of pneumonia. Despite this recommendation, faculty evaluations noted that 35% of presentations were too broadly focused.
Clearly describe the objectives of your talk
You need to determine the specific purpose of your talk, also known as your lecture objectives.
What are the needs of your audience? Based on those needs, establish the objectives for your talk. When developing your objectives, be specific.
Consider these two possibilities:
"At the conclusion of this talk, my listeners will know how to manage an acute gout attack."
"At the conclusion of this talk, my listeners will be able to specify at least three types of medications that can be used to manage an acute gout attack."
The latter statement is clearly more specific and will help you develop a clear, focused, helpful talk.
Strong introductions are critical
Start your talk with an introduction that leaves your audience eager to hear what else you have to say. You only have one chance to make a strong first impression. And if you fail to grab your audience’s attention, you’ll find it a challenge to capture it later.
For this reason, plan your introduction carefully. Too often, students begin their talk with one of these statements:
I’m talking today about …
The subject of my talk is …
Yes, it’s critical to include the topic and objective of your talk in the introduction. However, rather than using a bland statement, begin with an introduction that inspires interest.
Introduction Ideas: Ask a rhetorical question
We all realize that pulmonary embolism is a major cause of death. Did you know that the diagnosis of pulmonary embolism is missed in approximately 400,000 patients per year? And that's just in the United States ...
Introduction Ideas: Make a bold statement or share a startling statistic
In the United States, 650,000 people are diagnosed with pulmonary embolism every year, with over 200,000 deaths.
Introduction Ideas: Use a historical reference
160 years have passed since Virchow's classic paper on thrombosis and hemostasis was published and we, of course, continue to use the principles of Virchow's triad in the diagnosis and management of patients with pulmonary embolism. From historical reports, Virchow was small in stature but possessed a quick wit. He was known to be sarcastic, particularly when he dealt with incompetence or inattention. Yet he could also be generous and friendly, recognizing those who had made significant contributions. If he were alive today, he would perhaps be impressed with the progress that has been made in the diagnosis and management of pulmonary embolism, but he might also berate us for not making more progress. After all, pulmonary embolism remains a major cause of death in the United States ...
Introduction Ideas: Provide a thought-provoking quote
Substantial and unacceptable.” Those were the words of Dr. Kenneth Moser, referring to the morbidity and mortality rate of venous thromboembolism …
Introduction Ideas: Tell a brief story
If you've ever seen a patient die suddenly of a massive pulmonary embolism, it's not something that you will ever forget ...
Your goal is to educate, not overload
Before you organize your talk, you have to first select material for your presentation. The real trick is determining what not to use.
Your research will yield more material than you could possibly use. This can actually be a problem: you need to avoid information overload, as there is a limit to what your audience can handle in a finite period of time.
In fact, one of the most common mistakes we see students make is presenting too much information. Remember: every point you make should support your talk's specific purpose. If it does not, cut it out.
Author Brenda Happell writes that “there is a tendency for inexperienced presenters to overdo the content in their presentation. It is easy to feel that every little piece of information is vital, but we know from experience that even the most interesting topic becomes hard to follow when we feel we are bombarded.”
How do you know what to include and what to discard? When you’re not sure, ask yourself if the information supports your specific lecture objectives. Discard any material that doesn’t support those objectives.
Make sure your data is accurate and that your resources reflect the most up-to-date science
During your talk, you’ll present data that supports your ideas. Your data must be accurate and relevant. Review all data several times, since even one inaccurate fact can call into question the accuracy of your entire talk. With statistics, make sure that your information is up-to-date. Presenting statistics that are years old when more recent information is available will damage your credibility. For resources, you should turn to authoritative texts as well as the recent medical literature.
Delivery is more than just content:
the importance of voice, body language, and note cards
Do not, under any circumstances, read your talk word for word
Some students write out their talk and then proceed to read it word for word. This is another very common error made by students. This almost always leads to a monotonous delivery. It’s also impossible to maintain eye contact with your audience, except for maybe an occasional upward glance, which diminishes credibility. Think about the best speakers at your medical school. How many of them read their talks word for word? Keep in mind the words of Dr. Michael Edwards who wrote that "... natural rhythm of telling a story with its pauses and eye-to-eye contact with the audience is lost when the talk is read."
Feel free to use note cards
Instead of reading your talk, we recommend the use of note cards, with no more than ten words (or so) on each card. These should be a reminder of the most important points. As you’re speaking, you then formulate sentences to express these points.
Practice with these note cards. As you practice, you’ll be able to start developing sentences using just these few words as cues.
As you grow less dependent on your cards, you can then memorize your introduction. Especially with a memorized introduction, you can convey the impression of confident and articulate student right from the start.
On the other hand, when quoting an article or conveying detailed statistics, it’s better to refer to your notes.
Students sometimes present an entire talk in the same pitch and pace, leading to the dreaded monotone. This is boring, and it suggests a lack of interest in the topic. As you practice, work to incorporate a more natural pitch and pace throughout your speech.
Limit your use of fillers
Fillers are sounds like “um” and “er” that speakers often use when they’re thinking about what to say next. Most students don't even realize that they use fillers. Make sure you record yourself, and if you find that you’re relying on them too much, practice replacing them with short pauses.
Speak at the proper pace
You need to speak at a speed that allows your audience to follow.
In students who normally speak at a reasonable pace, anxiety can cause them to speed up. The effect is poor enunciation with mumbled words and sentences. "Too many ideas presented too quickly will not be understood, even to the most well-informed and intelligent audience."
You must make a conscious effort to slow down so that your listeners can follow you. Accomplished speakers will also pause periodically to allow their listeners to fully process.
In their article on lecturing, Brown and Manogue wrote that lecturers, to improve clarity, should "speak clearly, use pauses, and don't go too fast ... Whilst these suggestions may seem [to make] common sense, observation of lectures suggest that they are not common practice."
Utilize gestures appropriately and deliver the talk while standing, if at all possible
Only 7% of a speaker's message is felt to be obtained through actual spoken words. 55% is conveyed through nonverbal communication, while 38% is transmitted through vocal tone.
How does this come into play if you’re speaking in a small conference room? Students often remain seated during talks given to a small group, and we’ve found that they generally place their hands underneath the table. This robs them of the ability to gesture. Voice patterns often follow hand movements, which may affect the energy of your presentation.
If at all possible, give your talk while standing. Keep your hands in front of your body with your palms open, and feel free to gesture when appropriate. If you decide to give your talk while seated, lean forward in your chair, a gesture that conveys enthusiasm and confidence.
Avoid gestures that convey anxiety or a lack of confidence
Keeping your hands in your pockets
Gripping the lectern or audiovisual equipment
Playing with keys or coins in your pocket