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Crafting an informative, interactive, and memorable presentation for conferences and guest lectures can be a daunting task for both wilderness medicine neophytes and experts alike. Wilderness Medicine Magazine Associate Editor Marc Cassone reached out to a panel of highly-lauded speakers with a variety of experiences for their top tips on how to give a stellar presentation.

Marc Cassone (MC): How did you choose a certain topic to present? How would you suggest to new presenters how to pick a topic and further their expertise?

Veronica Coppersmith (VC): You have to pick something that either you're passionate about and want to put the time in to become an expert on or that you have experience in that you can add value to others' knowledge base. Learning a topic with the goal to give a lecture can be daunting, but learning to pursue your passion is enjoyable and your audience will know the difference.

Nat Mann (NM): I find that learners engage best when the presenter can show exuberance for their topic and can connect it to personal experiences. The crowd is best engaged when they feel that they can experience the topic through the lecturer's eyes. It isn't necessarily critical for a new presenter to have a depth of life experience in the topic they would like to present. If they are able to find something that they are passionate about, then they will be able to turn it into a valuable presentation.

Terez Malka (TM): Additionally, when you agree to present, you are agreeing to effectively be an expert on that subject area, so make sure you pick a topic that you would be excited to spend hours or days researching and feel confident you understand fully.

MC: It can be hard to distill down a large topic into digestible bits. How do you set attainable goals and an organized structure for your presentation?

TM: I start every talk by listing the most important topic areas and teaching points, and that becomes the template for the presentation. I may use a textbook chapter or article to help me outline what I want to cover if it’s a more academic subject. My first draft of a lecture contains way too much information - I list everything I know or might want to discuss for that topic area, then I keep editing down to the most important elements. I try to integrate questions, a story, photo, or case study wherever I can. I incorporate many of the teaching points into the discussion around those and then remove them from the structured lecture since I know they’ll naturally come up.

Amit Padaki (AP): Honestly, learners can usually only remember a few points from a lecture, and their retention goes down the longer the talk goes. Beyond that, audiences tend not to retain overly specific facts like dates or study parameters. If an audience member is only going to remember a handful of things, I want them to be high value. Given that, I structure my lectures around overarching points and themes. I pick just a few for any given lecture and use studies or hard data only to support my major points.

NM: For topics that might be more familiar to the audience, I feel that it is important to be able to pick out one or two unique or overlooked details within the field and expand upon them. It is easy to lose learners when too much of the lecture is a review of basic topics, but they can be kept engaged when the presentation sheds a different light on one aspect of the field.

VC: Keep an open mind while designing the lecture to move parts around for the most logical flow. I reorganize my lectures after every time I give them to make sure they are including the most important info and portray an easy-to-follow and organized thought process.

MC: Compared to other medical education settings, WildMed lecture attendees often have a wide range of knowledge, skills, and experiences. Do you have any tips on how to present a topic in a way that engages a variety of backgrounds and levels of expertise?

VC: Ask questions at the beginning to gauge your audience's knowledge and to break the ice. Be humble. Chances are, someone in the audience knows more than you about something you are presenting. Welcome their input: everyone can learn something from someone else. Never think you are done learning.

AP: If you’re giving a conference talk, the showrunners might be able to send a survey to your audience about their experience. Knowing that would allow you to tailor your talk beforehand. Wilderness medicine also lends itself excellently to questions and audience participation. Let your audience members chime in when they can. They’ll be more engaged and their varied backgrounds can help your talk instead of hindering it.

NM: One approach is to address the median knowledge level of the audience. As an example, if you are addressing a medical topic to a room of people ranging from EMT-basic to fellowship-trained physicians, then teaching to the level of senior resident might be a good approach. Alternatively, when more advanced topics are discussed, a very brief review of the basics of the subject is prudent. When a presenter may feel that they are addressing a group of individuals beyond their own level of expertise or training, it can sometimes be useful to present the material with a personal twist so that the audience is forced to view the topic from the presenter's eyes.

TM: If I do use a scientific word or include a study, for example, I make sure I also explain it in lay terms and usually try to explain it in several different ways to make sure those with different experience and knowledge levels can understand.

MC: PowerPoint slides are required for many conferences and can often be an adjunct to your presentation or a distractor. What tips do you have for designing effective slides that support your teaching?

NM: One of my favorite techniques for maintaining interest in slides is to present each one with a different, visually appealing image. As an example, sometimes you need those "words on a page" type of slides (though they should be used sparingly). In those instances, I like to make the background a stunning image germane to the point of the slide or a unique and bold design. Care must be taken to not overpower the message of the slide while allowing the listener to have something visually appealing to focus on while you reinforce the data on the slide. This can be a good subliminal teaching approach. “Death by Powerpoint” most frequently occurs when folks present information on slides that all have the same exact formatting which creates a "cut and paste" appearance.


Peter Hackett speaking on altitude at the WMS 2020 Winter Conference

TM: Never list out what you are going to say on your slide - the audience will just read it and it undermines or distracts from what you are saying. With rare exceptions (ie, medication doses or a specific protocol), your slide should only have one sentence of text on it, or even none. Break down important bullet point lists into one point on each slide with a visual that helps emphasize each point. Keep the slides as clean as possible - you want the focus to be on you, not the slides, unless you have a particularly interesting graphic or visual.

AP: My main point here would be not to read your slides. Audiences can tell and they’ll lose interest quickly. That means you’ll probably have to rehearse your lecture a few times beforehand to the point you know your slides and your transitions - you need to avoid using the slides as a script or a crutch. Once you’ve done that, your slides can act more as a complement to your spoken words.

VC: It helps to frame slides with a question, asking the audience to think about why the topic at hand is important. Basic Sans-Serif fonts are much easier to read, as well.

MC: Many WildMed lectures involve equipment and skills demonstrations. How do you effectively integrate hands-on elements to your presentations?

TM: This requires practice. It is impossible to know how long learning a skill will take without doing it. Do some practice runs with yourself and colleagues or friends so you get a sense of exactly what equipment you will need, how much of it, and how long it will actually take to teach. You will need plenty of proctors (about one for every 5-10 participants) who can supervise, assist, and answer questions. It can help to have a video or photo of the skill running in the background that participants can refer to.

Hands-on practice at the WMS 2019 Summer Conference

NM: When trying to incorporate hands-on elements during lectures I like to break those things down into small and simple demonstrations. It is very difficult to do both an expansive didactic lecture and a worthwhile hands-on topic. When there is more time for presenting both, I like to teach first about the hands-on section by providing a background knowledge of the science or physiology of the topic and then provide physical examples to reinforce the ideas specifically taught.

TH: For straightforward equipment or skill demonstrations online, an additional high-definition web camera can capture close-ups or alternative angles to guarantee adequate visualization to all attendees and increase understanding. Just be sure to test and place the camera before your presentation. Adjusting a camera mid-lecture is distracting. As for encouraging hands-on participation of attendees during online presentations, many tactics exist. One tactic is to share access to an equipment list with attendees before a lecture. During the lecture, instruct attendees to use the equipment or readily available items to complete a skill.

MC: Presenters at WildMed conferences often have incredible experiences and stories to share. How do you effectively weave in relevant personal anecdotes and background to reinforce a topic while remaining accessible to the audience and not turning the talk into a “travel slideshow”? (Many of us have seen these talks and been guilty of this as well!)

AP: I think this probably centers around intentionality. Did you mean to tell this story at this point in your lecture? Why? To support a point or add credibility? To get a laugh from your audience? To invite a back-and-forth discussion of some kind? If you know why you’re using the story, you can transition into it, control its content and duration, and transition back to your presentation afterwards. I think it’s the unplanned stories that sometimes meander a bit.

TM: I sometimes use personal anecdotes to answer audience questions or when they are directly relevant to the subject we’re discussing. But globally, I keep these brief, a few sentences, and make sure they tie in closely to the content of the talk.

VC: Some personal experiences will help drive home the importance of the lecture topic and help keep people engaged. But remember, the goal is to teach a wilderness medicine topic, not convince your audience that you have had great experiences. Keep the stories for the campfire.

TH: When and if you do share an experience, keep it relevant and share just enough detail. Be conscious not to pass on biases. For online presentations, the opportunity to connect with individuals in a meaningful way is often lost. Plan to stay longer after the presentation to encourage follow-up from your audience. If you are on someone else’s platform and time is an issue, schedule a meeting immediately after your online presentation.

MC: Over the past year, virtual presentations have become a necessity and are likely to remain part of WildMed education. Based on your experiences, how have you been able to adapt your presentations to an online format and keep your audience engaged?

TH: Start with the mindset, objectives, and tactics you normally would for an in-person presentation and think creatively about adapting them to the online environment. Then, consider the various digital tools available to enhance your presentation further. Such digital tools may be an additional web camera for skill demonstrations, live annotations on an image, Mentimeter to create a live audience-based word cloud, or uploading your PowerPoint slides as your virtual background in Zoom. The online presentation platform, allotted time length, and audience interaction capabilities must also factor in. Find out which platform will be used and adjust your presentation accordingly. If the chat function is all you have, then plan to ask questions and allow time for the audience to type in answers as you read a few of their submissions out loud and comment. If time and platform capability allow, utilize breakout rooms or ask a participant to share their thoughts and experience.


Andy Rich presenting at the WMS 2021 Virtual Winter Conference

AP: Please make sure you know your software and try it out beforehand to work out the bugs.  Tech delays can really break up a good presentation’s flow. Use more breaks, humor, and audience interaction.  The normal ways you can engage an audience in person (eye contact, moving through the room, etc.) don’t work over video conference and a lot of people zone out more easily online.  Beyond that, it’ll take some trial and error, but broadly, people like innovation!

TM: This is difficult!  Audience participation is much more difficult in a virtual format - you have to build in more time to allow participants to unmute and answer questions, so I do take out some of the interactive elements or build it in a more structured way (a multiple-choice question that they can answer in the chat, for example).  I also do put a bit more written information in my slides (still sticking to my one sentence per slide rule mostly), knowing that audio may cut off.  I also make sure there are more interesting visuals since participants may have my video feed very small in the corner of the screen or may not have my video feed up at all.

MC: Novice lectures often speak too fast, forget to engage the audience, and/or end up just reading directly off their slides. Do you have any advice on how to practice and perfect public speaking skills?

AP: Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. Some other speakers would suggest writing out an entire script to get a feel for your talk - if that works for you, great! I actually don’t do that.  I tend to prioritize repetition;  I practice until I know my material cold.  The whole process of making a talk can take several times the length of the talk itself - outlining the talk, doing research, making slides, adding humor or other tangential things, rehearsing.  I think novice lecturers usually really need to give the process more time.  As to the speaking skills, you’ll get better with practice. Keep in mind that your audience has chosen to attend your talk and they want to hear the insights you have to offer.  As such, they’re usually both appreciative and welcoming; knowing that can take your stress level down a lot.

TM: Make sure you are very comfortable with the material you are discussing.  If you feel uncertain about your topic area, research it more so that you are comfortable talking more freely and “off the cuff” and answering questions about it.  The more expertise you have, the easier it is to impart the information in an intuitive way rather than just reciting what you have memorized. Watch the faces of the audience.  If they start to glaze over or look confused, pause and try saying your point in a different way or break it up with a question to the audience.

NM: Remember to take a breath before speaking, this can help tone down the autonomic rush of being in front of a crowd. Pauses in your lecture are usually not as long as they feel, so don't freak out about them. I found that being able to name a few folks in the crowd and engage them on a one-on-one level (briefly - don't make this awkward - just an appropriate quick comment or joke is fine) brings the whole audience in a bit more.

VC: If you don't have anyone to practice with, at least record yourself and watch yourself lecturing.  You would be surprised at the little quirks you do subconsciously and how fast you're talking. Make sure your lecture fits in the time allotted so you are not rushing.  Ensure you're in a good mood when you lecture, listen to your favorite music, be fed and caffeinated.

MC: Any techniques or advice on how to give a great summary of your topic and take-home points at the end of presentation?

AP: Make your whole talk with these points in mind. If you hit them in your introduction, cover them in more depth in the main talk, and reiterate them again in the conclusion (hopefully not verbatim), your audience will likely retain those points better.  Adult learners really do need the repetition. Keeping your main points clear and succinct helps, too.

TH: An adequate and effective summary is just that, a summary.  Have one slide that maps the learner’s journey or a bulleted list of key points and then verbally review each point briefly in simplified language to aid assimilation.

VC: I like to wrap up with a case or two about the topic to help the audience realize the application of the topic.  I think people remember the topic better when they can see how it applies to their adventures or their practice.  Always leave time for questions and comments.

Thanks to all the contributors!  Best of luck to new presenters and looking forward to seeing even more high-quality talks from the WMS community (both in person and online)!

For more on this topic, be sure to attend the 8/23 Fireside Chat, Delivering an Effective Wilderness Medicine Presentation

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