Jude D’Souza, BA (Hons), Formerly McCann Health Medical Communications*; Mary Gaskarth, MA (Hons), PhD, ISMPP CMPP™, CMC AFFINITY, McCann Health Medical Communications*
*McCann Health Medical Communications is part of the McCann Health Network

Despite presentations having long been at the heart of communication within our industry, they are still a format we struggle to optimize. Following our practical and well-received parallel session, Working with PowerPoint as your Co-presenter, at the 15th Annual Meeting of ISMPP in April 2019, we’d like to take another look at the building blocks of truly engaging presentations.

Why do we repeat mistakes we recognize?

Imagine, if you will, that you are at a dinner party and the meal you are served is less than impressive: the meat undercooked, the vegetables overcooked, the bread burned. You don’t leave with happy memories … or a happy stomach. Now, imagine that you decide to create the same dish yourself. Do you check the meat is cooked through? Take the vegetables off the boil in time? It would surely be absurd to meticulously recreate the same mistakes but expect your guests to enjoy the experience more than you did. Yet, when it comes to presentations, this is often exactly what happens – we roll our eyes at dry, text-laden, content-clogged slide decks delivered by our peers, but then follow the same playbook when creating presentations ourselves. When we talk about peer pressure, it’s usually vices that come to mind: drinking, smoking, drug use. But make no mistake – peer pressure is prevalent in PowerPoint use. (As is alliteration, apparently…) We need to start paying attention to the things that bug us so we can avoid making the same mistakes.

The audience is there for you, not for the slides

Our first stumbling block is that we often forget why we utilize slides in the first place. They are intended to be visual aids, to help us simplify complex topics or to reinforce key points. Yet, too often, we treat them as documents, loading all of our content into slides and expecting them to present the data and explain the key points by themselves – sometimes, the presenter may as well not be there. The problem is that documents are designed to be read at our own speed, the sole focus of our attention, whereas in a presentation, the speaker sets the pace. Viewing text or other complex content on screen while someone else is also speaking is more input than our brains can handle, so generally we pick one or the other – and it’s usually the speaker that loses out. Slides should ideally be image-centric, with text only appearing when necessary to make a key point. Text should also be kept as concise as possible, matching the wording the presenter intends to use, to reduce dissonance. Don’t fall into the common trap of assuming slides are required throughout an entire presentation; if they don’t add anything to a given section, why not ditch them? Consider the last presentation you attended – what attracted you? Was it the awesome slides you’d heard would be shown? Or, was it interest in what the presenter would have to say? The audience is there for the presenter, not for the slides. Don’t cede your spotlight to them.

Capture attention by building a story

Our second major oversight is forgetting to make our presentations engaging. Yes, your audience may be experts, but that doesn’t mean they’ll find a dull presentation any more interesting than a layperson. Stories are the key to capturing attention – even when it comes to data. Think about the last great documentary you watched. Did it simply lay out facts in a logical order, or did it weave a story from that information? There are plenty of famous story structures out there, from Conrad’s monomyth[i] to Freytag’s pyramid[ii], but most stories boil down to conflict and resolution. In other words, what was the problem, and how did you solve it? Setting up the conflict early in a way that grabs the attention of your audience will make them want to find out how it gets resolved. Finding a story can admittedly be tricky, so try using the acronym FTW to narrow down whether the heart of your presentation is a Financial issue, a Time issue, or a Welfare issue. Almost every story in medical communications relates to money being spent inefficiently, time running out for addressing a given issue, or something that will improve patient welfare.

To make it convincing, make it compelling

To illustrate the third error, go back to that amazing documentary you were thinking of. Was it simply presenting information, or was it attempting to convince you of a particular position? If the latter, it almost certainly employed the next oft-forgotten tool in our arsenal: emotion. Data alone, no matter how credible, are not always enough to convince someone of your cause. People attend presentations with all manner of preconceived ideas or unconscious biases, primed to treat certain claims with added skepticism or credence. Emotion is vital to making your case convincing and ensuring your message sticks. When setting up that compelling conflict for your audience, hook them with a surprising statistic or a frightening fact. Consider explaining your personal connection to the issue or sharing a patient experience, thereby encouraging your listeners to think with more than just their rational side. When something makes us feel a strong emotion, we are much more likely to be able to recall it later. That’s how the best documentaries work: they create disbelief, build a sense of outrage, make us laugh at the absurdity of events, or even feel shamefully complicit. They subtly make us imagine how we’d feel in some of these situations, which helps the headlines and statistics take root.

Failing to prepare is preparing to fail

The final common mistake seems almost too obvious: not factoring in time to rehearse. One reason that so many speakers use such content-laden slides is that they need a reminder of what to say next. All of us have seen our fill of presenters reading straight from their slides, or seeming mildly surprised at what appears on the screen when they press the clicker. It’s much easier to streamline your slide content and focus on laying out your story effectively when you’re comfortable with your presentation. There is a delicate balance to be struck with rehearsal, however; don’t rehearse enough and you appear clearly underprepared, but rehearse too much and you risk sounding bland and robotic – not ideal for eliciting an emotional response from your listeners. To hit the sweet spot, you should know the major details, such as the key statistics and the overarching structure of your story. Get to the point where you feel confident that you can improvise around any point where the details may escape you in the moment.

Figure 1. The building blocks of engaging presentations

Supporting other presenters

As often as they develop presentations de novo, medical publication professionals find themselves working with others, particularly authors and investigators, who are seeking advice to ensure their presentations are suitably impactful. The fundamental principles of giving engaging presentations can still be applied when reviewing and helping to enhance slide decks written by others. An early discussion about the proposed topic, audience, and presentation objectives is helpful in setting up an engaging narrative, and is critical to avoiding duplication or gaps across a series of presentations given by different speakers during a session or symposium. The earlier that presenters can be made aware of timings, location, room setting, availability of additional presentation tools (such as audience voting capability), or the possibility of utilizing alternative presentation formats (such as interviews) to optimize planning, preparation, and rehearsal, the better.

PowerPoint as your co-presenter

Once a presentation’s narrative has been developed and emotion incorporated to ensure the audience cares, the writer can focus on optimizing the slides, which will be the visual aids to the presenter’s storytelling. PowerPoint is packed with helpful features, but remember that less is often more. Figure 2 describes some of the common pitfalls encountered and explains how to address them using PowerPoint’s functionality.

Figure 2. How Microsoft PowerPoint can tackle common presentation pitfalls

In summary…

This is not a comprehensive guide to revolutionizing your next presentation, but it does provide the building blocks for improvement. We established earlier that part of the problem is that we recognize the faults of a poor presentation, but frequently replicate those same failings. The challenge we face in solving this arises from the human tendency to be aware of the methods that can and should be deployed, but to fail to actually utilize them. A well-known Zen teaching advises, “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” In other words, it is not enough to read this article and feel that useful information has been imparted. To prevent “Death by PowerPoint,” this information needs to be applied the next time you sit in front of your computer and open your presentation software.


[i] Campbell, J., 1949, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Pantheon Books, New York, NY

[ii] Freytag, G., 1863, Die Technik des Dramas, S. Hirzel, Leipzig


The authors would like to thank the two additional organizers of the session, Claudia Piano and Tim Collinson, who collaborated in the six months prior to the 15th Annual Meeting of ISMPP, to devise, plan, and run the session on the day.

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