Presentation skills: plan, prepare, phrase, and project

Authors: Laura Brammar 

Publication date:  27 Aug 2008


In the third of her series on getting the dream job, Laura Brammar looks at giving an interview presentation

Many doctors have extensive experience of delivering presentations at conferences, during research projects, or to medical students during their training. Nevertheless, for many medical professionals having to deliver a presentation is still something they dread rather than relish. Equally, candidate presentations are becoming an established feature of selection and assessment for many roles within medicine.

Applicants may be asked to prepare and deliver a presentation as part of the interview process for anything from a salaried general practitioner post to a senior consultant post. For that reason alone, it’s vital to grasp the nettle and strengthen those presentation skills, which you can draw on throughout your medical career.

Break it down to just four P’s

To prepare most effectively for your presentation, you might find considering four main areas particularly useful: planning, preparation, phrasing, and projection.

Planning—A good presentation begins with the early stage of planning. Common complaints about ineffectual and dull presentations revolve around the apparent lack of structure shown by the presenter.

You will generally be given the topic of your presentation in advance. Topics vary, but they usually relate to your specialty—for example, “What do you see as the main current issues/future direction of this specialty?”—or link to contextual factors related to the role—“How, in your opinion, could the current system of X work more effectively?”

Think of the title as your research question or hypothesis and structure your presentation so that you answer that question directly. A simple but effective framework for any presentation is: tell them what you’re going to say, say it, and tell them what you’ve just said. Whether your presentation relates to the latest National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) guidelines for your specialty or a business plan in response to a proposed polyclinic, this structure will help keep your audience engaged and your presentation within the time limit.

Indeed, timing is crucial when giving a presentation. Most candidates are overambitious about what can be squeezed into just five to ten minutes. Be realistic about what you can achieve in the time limit and plan your presentation accordingly. As a rule of thumb, less is almost always more and remember to build in time for questions at the end.

Preparation—Having a clear structure can give you a useful framework that underpins your presentation. In a similar way, using particular resources to support your point can be a good method to employ during a presentation.

While the use of PowerPoint is becoming increasingly popular, in these circumstances you need to check before slaving over your slides. Remember that you are the focus of the presentation, not the screen; avoid distracting animations and excessive detail. Even if PowerPoint is an option you still need to plan for technological meltdowns; bring hard copies and overhead slides as a back-up.

You may consider it worth while to produce a brief summarising handout of the main points. Aim to distribute this before you begin so that you can create a clear and confident start, rather than compete with the rustle of paper as you try to introduce yourself.

Phrasing—Many candidates get anxious about the fact that they may “um” and “er” during a presentation. The vast majority of people feel nervous when they are presenting. Accept that and remember that, to an extent, it is what your audience will expect; from the selectors’ perspective, a completely laidback candidate might appear unmotivated and flippant. So while you want to aim for a fluid and articulate delivery, it’s not the end of the world if you occasionally need to pause between sentences. Indeed pauses can be an excellent way of emphasising your points and retaining your audience’s attention.

Essentially, use your structure to help you—for example, “First, I’d like to talk about . . .; next, let’s look at . . . ; and, finally, in summary . . ..”Also, be aware of your pace and volume.

Projection—Many people associate the term “presentation skills” with aspects of non-verbal communication, such as gestures and facial expression. Even when you feel nervous there are ways successfully to convey confidence to your audience. The following suggestions will help you to show a positive and calm attitude, which in turn will help you to maintain control over your presentation.

  • Breathe—If you are particularly nervous before you start, take a few moments to slow down your breathing; it may help to think about balancing the length of your inhalation and exhalation and breathe deeply and evenly.

  • Share your eye contact—If feasible, make eye contact with all your audience throughout your presentation; if you are presenting to a large group, make sure you address both sides of the room during your session.

  • Take time to pause—Use pauses to illustrate the structure of your session. Brief pauses can also help you to slow down your delivery and maintain the focus of your audience.

  • Project your voice—Check that those at the back can hear you before you start. Maintain your volume throughout and aim at projecting your voice to the back of the room.

  • Own the space—If possible, try not to stay stuck to one spot for the duration of the presentation. Clearly, now isn’t the time to try out gestures that feel unnatural or forced. However, convey your confidence through the way you stand and emphasise your message through your body language.

  • Smile—Despite feeling anxious, displaying a smile can make you feel more relaxed. Even better, it also gives your audience confidence in you and in your message.

Awkward audience moments

While you may have organised thoroughly your planning, preparation, phrasing, and projection, the one area you cannot control or necessarily predict is your audience’s reactions. Many people find the thought of their audience’s responses, especially during the question and answer session, far more terrifying than the presentation itself.

Here are a few suggestions for how to deal with some common difficult situations.

  • Random interruptions—If someone asks a question in the middle of your presentation, make a decision whether it would be appropriate to deal with it now or later. Don’t be forced to change your structure unless you believe it is really necessary. Acknowledge the question and reassure the person that there will be opportunities to discuss that later. Equally, if it is an unrelated or irrelevant question remember to acknowledge it but make it clear that such a topic isn’t going to be dealt with explicitly on this occasion. You can always offer to research that question for them at a later opportunity.

  • Audience looks bored—Many people feel they are poor presenters because their audiences can look distracted or even bored. The key thing here is to ask yourself if they are actually bored or whether they are just presenting you with a professional and impartial expression. In your clinical work you need to be able to focus on a task and not be distracted by personal emotional considerations or anxieties; this is no different. Treat the presentation as a professional exercise and move on.

  • Someone isn’t listening and is talking to someone nearby—Depending on your audience (senior consultants or medical students, for example) you may want to vary your specific response to this. However, a good technique with any audience is to pause in your delivery, look at the culprits while smiling, and wait for their attention before you start again. This is an effective (and non-aggressive) way of acknowledging that they are distracting both you and the rest of the group. That is usually all it takes to get their full attention. However, if they are persistent offenders maintain your professionalism and carry on regardless.

  • Questions you can’t answer—Sometimes the dread of the questions at the end of a presentation can overshadow the whole experience. Avoid this by framing your question and answer session with a reassurance that you’ll do your best to deal with any questions now and will guarantee to follow up any additional questions after the session. If you are asked a reasonable question which you genuinely can’t answer you may want to try the following:

Remember that part of good medical practice is to know your limits and work within the parameters of your knowledge; it sounds far more confident and impressive to admit you can’t answer a question fully at this moment, rather than try to cobble together a poor answer and pretend you know.

Want to practise in a supportive environment?

The BMA Careers Service works with many individual medics who wish to improve their presentation skills through a tailormade practice presentation service. A bespoke practice presentation session, based on your actual material, can be excellent preparation for the real thing. During the session you can rehearse your presentation fully, practise answering focused questions, and gain immediate and constructive one to one feedback on your overall performance (www.bma.org.uk/ap.nsf/Content/Hubcareersadvicefordoctors).

Competing interests: None declared.

Laura Brammar careers adviser, C2 Careers

 laura.brammar@careers.lon.ac.uk

Cite this as BMJ Careers ; doi: