What tactics or resources would you recommend to improve my public speaking skills?
Jessica Zhao, Pharm.D.
PGY1 Pharmacy Resident
Providence Health & Services – Oregon
Public speaking is an experience that some relish, but more often than not, one that makes most people uncomfortable or nervous. As you progress through your career, you may encounter many instances in which engaging in public speaking is required. Examples include presentations for residency or job interviews or at professional meetings or conferences; also, presentations may be part of your teaching responsibilities if you pursue a career in academia. Although some people may appear to be more naturally inclined to perform well at public speaking, becoming a proficient public speaker is a skill that takes time to develop. The process may include some experimentation to determine which strategies work best for you and to develop your own style. Here are some tactics and considerations for making the most of your public speaking opportunities and continuing to develop and refine your public speaking skills.
- Know your material.
In general, better mastery of the material or topic area will breed confidence in your ability to present and answer questions about it. When approaching a public speaking opportunity, consider the topic you’ve been asked to address. Perform a brief self-assessment regarding your comfort level with the topic area, and determine how much lead time you’ll need to prepare. Giving yourself adequate lead time to prepare will help reduce your anxiety related to the meeting deadlines for submitting any required presentation materials. Make sure you are including any recent additions to the topic area, and perform an updated literature search, if applicable. If new material is available after you’ve submitted your presentation materials, it is often fine to update the materials as long as you inform your audience. Avoid including anything in your presentation that you don’t have at least a minimum working knowledge of.
- Have a sense of your audience and its expectations.
Knowing more about your audience ahead of time will hopefully help you gauge what level you need to present at and will also help you tailor your presentation to the needs of the audience members. Request information ahead of time, including the number and types of audience members that may be present and any specific objectives or questions that need to be covered. For example, presenting on a therapeutic topic to 300 experienced clinicians at a national meeting is much different from presenting on the same topic to 20 first-year student pharmacists who may be encountering it for the first time. In either instance, knowing the audience ahead of time, presenting the topic at the appropriate level, and ensuring that any required objectives are covered should increase your comfort level going into the presentation.
- Structure your materials for success.
Approaching a presentation with well-prepared materials should only enhance your confidence in presenting at a public forum. Have a colleague review your materials ahead of time for clarity and appropriate level of content based on your audience, and always perform a spell check. Avoid placing everything you will say on your slides or handouts, and use tables or figures, when possible. This will allow you to elaborate on important points during your presentation and should prevent you from reading verbatim from the materials. Overall, you want to project that you have mastery of the material and can speak to many aspects of the topic area without relying solely on audiovisual aids.
As with developing any skill, practicing ahead of time should enhance your confidence both going into and during your presentation. Schedule time in advance to go through your presentation alone, and then consider asking volunteers to observe you and provide you with feedback. Consider audiotaping or videotaping yourself, and use this to do a self-evaluation for both content and pacing. Visualize how you might present your material, and experiment with different delivery methods to see what might work best. Take notes on what you may want to say or emphasize during different portions of the presentation. Practice using a laser pointer ahead of time if you plan to use one during your presentation. If you plan to use any adjunctive medication to reduce your anxiety when speaking, do so in conjunction with your health care provider, and make sure you have tried the medication ahead of time in a safe environment so that you know how it will affect you.
- Arrive early.
On the day of your presentation, make sure you plan accordingly to arrive well ahead of time. This will allow you to familiarize yourself with the layout of the room and use of any audiovisual equipment. Bring backup copies of any materials like electronic copies of slides or handouts in case there are issues accessing anything you may have submitted ahead of time. Troubleshooting any potential problems ahead of time will reduce stress and allow you to focus your efforts on your presentation. Know how much time you have to present and whether you will need to allow time for questions.
- Engage your audience.
One of the most effective ways to enhance your public speaking skills is to engage your audience. Consider using an icebreaker question that’s unrelated to your topic to set both you and the audience at ease. Use of humor is often effective, but make sure this is used judiciously and in a professional manner. Use of audience response technologies has become a popular way to engage audience members and reinforce important points. This includes programs like Kahoot!, Poll Everywhere, and Quizshow.io, among others. Ensure ahead of time that you will have the necessary technology available to use these types of programs, and practice with them ahead of time to familiarize yourself with how they work.
When presenting, consider moving out from behind the podium and addressing the audience directly by moving slowly around the room while being respectful of the audience members’ personal space. Make intermittent eye contact, if possible, and focus on speaking clearly, enunciating, and adequately projecting if you are presenting in a large room. Avoid reading excessively from your slides or notes, and be cognizant of your pace and remaining time. Don’t apologize to the audience for anything you’ve chosen to include in your presentation. Finally, repeat questions from audience members, if necessary, and if you don’t know the answer to a question, be honest in acknowledging it.
- Reflection and Resources
There are many resources on effective public speaking; however, self-reflection and observation of others are often among the best ways to identify effective methods. Using evaluations from your own previous presentations or experiences to identify areas for improvement should be one of the first steps in identifying areas for improvement. Think about some recent presentations you have attended that you thought were very good. What about the presenter or presenters did you find engaging or effective? Consider experimenting with similar tactics in your own presentations. Conversely, were there aspects of the presentations that you found distracting or ineffective? If so, you may wish to avoid these approaches. Consider watching some presentations on TED Talks (https://www.ted.com/talks) because these often involve dynamic speakers who use a variety of presentation techniques.
Several great blogs and websites offer advice on public speaking. These include the Accidental Communicator (http://theaccidentalcommunicator.com/), Garr Reynolds (www.garrreynolds.com/preso-tips/), and Six Minutes (http://sixminutes.dlugan.com/), among others. Amazon.com also has an entire bestseller section of books devoted to public speaking, many of which may also be available through your local library.
One of the most popular public speaking resources is Toastmasters International (www.toastmasters.org/). This organization focuses on leadership and public speaking. Local chapters may host events that you are available to attend, and for full membership, there is an associated fee.
Finally, consider taking a public speaking course. These may be offered online at sites like Coursera (https://www.coursera.org/specializations/public-speaking) or Ginger (https://www.gingerpublicspeaking.com/courses/free-online-courses-classes) or possibly at local colleges in your area, often as part of a communications major. Some are available at no cost or for a minimal registration fee.
Brian A. Hemstreet, Pharm.D., FCCP, BCPS
Associate Dean for Student Affairs and Professor
University of Colorado Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences