Tips to Make Your Next Teaching Presentation Better Than Your Last

Scott C. Litin, MD

As physicians and teachers, we often are asked to present information to colleagues, students, the public, and patients. Although the situations differ, the skill sets needed for success are remarkably similar. After you finish reading this 2-part guest commentary, I will make you a promise: I promise you will learn several tactics and skills that will make your next presentation go better than your last. This skill set is important to us as medical professionals, because success in our careers very much depends upon the way in which we present ourselves and our information when we speak to our colleagues, students, patients, and the public.

This first part is divided into 2 sections—the first section concentrates on presenting yourself in a positive manner and the second focuses on effective use of audiovisuals (including PowerPoint) during your presentations. 

Medical professionals need strong presentation skills; the goal here is to teach you tips to improve your presentations, to motivate you to use these skills when creating presentations, and finally, to improve your ability to constructively critique your own presentations and those of your colleagues. Remember, “she was very good” or “he was boring” are opinions, not critiques. An example of a constructive critique might be, “His voice was monotone, and he spoke much too fast, which made it difficult for his audience to stay connected. In the future, I would suggest he work on slowing his pace and varying his voice so he will appear more enthusiastic about the topic and connect with his audience.”


Contact information. When you are providing a handout or delivering a PowerPoint presentation, it is important to put your e-mail address on the handout and in your PowerPoint presentation. Either the first slide or last slide work best for this. Including your e-mail address shows the audience that you are accessible and willing to communicate with them outside of the presentation. Why are most presenters deathly afraid to do this? They are fearful they will be overwhelmed with e-mails and spam. This fear is unfounded. You will rarely get e-mails from this technique, but your audience will appreciate the gesture of being accessible. When you do get e-mails, however, they generally will be positive. For example, you may get new information or stories to use in your next presentation, you may garner patient referrals, you may receive offers to collaborate on your research, or importantly, you may receive invitations to speak elsewhere.

Introduction. It is essential to provide a written introduction for your host to read verbatim when you are being introduced. When giving a continuing medical education (CME) talk, you are always asked to provide the host with your curriculum vitae and a statement of any disclosures. I had been under the mistaken impression that the host of the meeting would spend hours studying the curriculum vitae in order to write an introduction that highlighted all of the speaker’s most important accomplishments. As I personally learned early in my career, that is not the case.

Allow me to share a story to illustrate my point. I was invited to return to a hospital where I had done a preceptorship during my second year in medical school. During that preceptorship, some 20 years earlier, I had lived for 2 weeks with a wonderful family physician and accompanied him on all of his duties during the time we were together. Now, many years later, I was invited to give grand rounds at that same hospital at which some of the staff whom I remembered fondly still worked. I was now a professor of medicine and a founding member of the anticoagulation clinic at our institution, and I was going to share some practical cases with the audience. I had sent my curriculum vitae (of which I was quite proud) and my disclosures long in advance. As I stood on the podium next to the CME director, I smiled and waited for the accolades to begin. To my horror, the introduction I heard was the following:

“Some of you older folks in the audience might remember Scotty Litin. Twenty years ago, when he was a medical student, he spent 2 weeks with Dr. Bill Smith. Bill always said that it was very hard to wake him for early morning deliveries. Scott, you’re on.”

There I was, having to begin after an introduction that gave me absolutely no credibility with the audience. From that point on, I have instructed people to write their own introduction, and I do so myself. The introduction should be short (delivered in about 30 to 40 seconds). It should tell a bit about yourself to introduce you to the audience. It should also list accomplishments in the area about which you are speaking so that you may have credibility with the audience. This is not the time to be modest about your accomplishments. You have heard the Bible verse, “The meek shall inherit the earth,” but the meek do not gain credibility with the audience to whom they are presenting.

Name badge. Let me comment about the placement of your name badge. Where you wear the name badge is important. A public relations person once taught me that the proper position for your name badge is on the upper right portion of your torso, preferably attached to the upper right lapel. Then, when you meet and greet someone and shake their hand, they can follow their eyes up your right arm to your name badge and greet you by name, avoiding embarrassment if your name was temporarily escaping them. When the name badge is worn on the left lapel, it is much more difficult to see and read without being obvious. This can cause embarrassment for both parties. And where in the world are you supposed to look when a person wears their name badge attached to their belt or lower? Glancing at the name badge in that position can cause even greater embarrassment to both parties. Therefore, the proper place to wear your name badge is on the upper right torso. However, when you are actually presenting in front of a group, remove the badge—it is distracting to the audience, it cannot be read, and it detracts from your professional dress. When you are finished presenting, put it back on the upper right lapel area. 


In the 21st century, PowerPoint presentations have become the norm for medical presentations. PowerPoint often can add to your presentation, but it also can detract from your presentation. This section discusses several PowerPoint issues that audiences universally complain about.

• Audiences dislike it when a speaker reads the slides word for word.

• It is very distracting when a speaker faces the screen and reads the slides as opposed to facing and speaking to the audience.

• Audiences find too much information on slides distracting and demoralizing. It is important to remember the “Rule of 6” when preparing text slides. Try to avoid more than 6 bulleted lines per slide and more than 6 words per line.

• Audiences dislike having the slides typed out in complete sentences, or worse yet, in complete paragraphs.

• The background of PowerPoint slides is important. Avoid using background images on slides, which can be distracting and make the text much more difficult to read. Make sure background colors are visible, clear, and not distracting. It has been stated that a blue background on slides is the most pleasant and easy to read. Use white text and yellow highlights on a blue background. One does not have to be color blind to realize that red and green do not project well on any background. In fact, many speakers use red to highlight important words on their slides, but in reality, this makes the image less visible to the reader and “lowlights” instead of highlights the words.

• Moving, spinning, flying, and other custom text animation can be very distracting and should be used sparingly. The custom animation “appear” function is useful when the text slide has a number of points. This function allows each bullet point to appear individually, in order, one at a time. It helps the audience focus on each point you are making and also helps prevent them from reading ahead on the slide.

• Overly complex charts are not remembered and are rarely useful. Often an apologetic presenter will say, “Let me apologize for the following overly complex chart.” The audience often is overwhelmed by such a statement and the slide that follows it. If you need to apologize for a slide, do not use it.

Some basic PowerPoint rules also are useful to know. The size of text in the title heading should be between 36 and 44 points. Many experts suggest that the font size of the text of slides should be 24 to 32 points. I suggest and personally always use 32-point type. It is bigger and thus easier for the audience to read, and it keeps me honest. By using a larger-point font like 32, I also will not be able to place too many words on each slide.

Sans-serif fonts (eg, Arial or Helvetica) are easier for the audience to read on slides. Serif fonts (eg, Times New Roman) have extra projections or finishing strokes on the letters that can make it more difficult for the audience to read the words on the slides. Finally, it takes the audience longer to read slides where the letters are all uppercase, so this should be avoided. Some presenters use capitals to EMPHASIZE specific words, while others prefer to use color.

I am often asked how many PowerPoint slides one should use for a 30-minute presentation. While there is no correct answer, most experts agree that the fewer slides, the better. The purpose of the slides is not to serve as a written manuscript of your presentation. They simply should serve as prompts for you and the audience while you detail the important points of your presentation. Memorable presenters do this with examples, stories, and cases and use slides as prompts or illustrations of the key information they are providing.

Tune in next month for 10 essential tips for successful presentations. 

Scott Litin, MD, is a professor of medicine at Mayo Clinic Rochester, MN. He has directed numerous regional, national, and international CME meetings. In this role, he has heard and critiqued over 2000 presentations. He has become well-known nationally as a public speaking coach and teacher for medical professionals. He is frequently invited as a visiting professor to medical centers to lecture and run workshops on effective public speaking.