Preparing and delivering presentations are important skills that can be developed in medical school, and refined throughout your career. The MDU's Dr Beth Durrell Potter and James Godber share their top tips.

Why are presentation skills important for doctors?

Communication is a key component of a doctor's work. Doctors will communicate with patients and relatives at ward rounds, in clinics and in A&E, sometimes at times of urgency and when emotions are running high. Poor communication makes consultations less satisfying for the doctor and patient, and increases the risk of misunderstandings and complaints.

In addition to communicating with patients and their relatives, doctors are required to communicate effectively with nursing staff, administrative staff and numerous other colleagues on a daily basis. Junior doctors will be expected to present new cases to their consultants in daily ward rounds, clinics and 'post-take'.

At times, doctors will also have to present an account of their care to a non-medical audience, such as at a coroner's inquest, or in court. Doctors are also expected to participate in the teaching of peers, junior doctors and students. This can involve formal presentations, small group tutorials, PBL sessions and bedside teaching.

Presentation skills are an important aspect of communication skills.

Why are presentation skills important for students?

In order to get the most out of your studies, you will want to communicate effectively with doctors, tutors and peers – to ask questions, clarify misunderstandings and share your own knowledge.

As a future doctor, it is important that you spend time talking to patients and their relatives, and learn how to take a clear history. You will also learn how to provide clinical information to patients, the importance of obtaining informed consent, and how to break bad news. No doubt you will already have seen examples of such communication, and will have noted the different approaches used.

Of course, you need no reminder that students also need to pass their exams. OSCE-type exams are common, and require you to communicate with simulated patients and doctors in a number of different scenarios. You will need to demonstrate your knowledge and skills in the way you approach asking questions, and in the way you convey information at the various stations. Some stations will ask you to present your findings from an assessment of a simulated patient or particular investigation results.

Often, students are also required to give presentations to their peers. These may be formal project presentations, case presentations, or brief informal presentations in a PBL setting. Learning how to make these presentations informative, clear and interesting is time well spent.

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Preparing well

When you are to give a case presentation to peers or senior doctors, preparation is key and it is wise to begin your preparation as early as possible. Consider the information you want to convey and which points are the key ones. A case presentation is easier to follow and more helpful to the audience if it is well structured. Make sure that you have any relevant investigation results to hand. Consider what questions you may be asked, and how you might address them.

Presenting well

It is normal to feel nervous before giving a presentation, whether this is a PowerPoint of your research findings at a conference or a post-take ward round case presentation of a complex patient to an unfamiliar consultant. Take a moment to slow down your breathing before you start to speak, make eye contact and speak clearly.

In the interests of speed, a bedside case presentation may need to focus on the key points of the history and examination, including important negatives, rather than reading out every word of your documented assessment. However, do be prepared for the consultant to ask for more information.

Top tips for presenting well

1. Think practical.

Think about where you are standing. Can everyone in the room see you? Check that you are not standing in front of a projector or casting a shadow on a screen.

2. Know your audience.

Find out in advance as much as possible about who you'll be speaking to. The tone of your presentation depends on whether or not they are senior members of staff, decision makers, peers or patients, and you should adapt accordingly.

3. Adapt to your numbers.

Presentations to smaller numbers (up to 10 people) can be more informal; you can sit at a table and maintain eye contact with your audience. For larger audiences, it is advisable to stand so that you can be seen.

4. Reflect the environment.

If you're not sure what to wear, look at what other people in the organisation wear. If you don't know, wear something smart-casual which can be adjusted to 'smart' with minor modification.

5. Remember your lines.

Make notes in advance. Avoid holding A4 sheets of paper, as this can emphasise any nervous shaking. Create cue cards to prompt you; holding the cards will make your hands feel more comfortable, too. If you have a glass of water handy, you can take a sip and use the time to check your cards.

6. Never go over your time slot.

This is the cardinal sin of presentations. If you go on too late, someone after you might be delayed or have their time cut short; or worse, they might have to leave whilst you are talking.

7. Engage your audience, but don't hand over control.

For smaller groups you can ask the opinion of your audience. For larger groups, if you want to solicit opinions, take a show of hands.

8. Cut off the fat.

Check your material; everything should contribute to your overall goal. If it doesn't, cut it.

9. Always have a backup.

Technology can fail, the projector can be broken, the internet might be down. If you are relying on Powerpoint, always have a printed copy in case of a tech fail.

10. Questions?

Make it clear if you want questions during or after the presentation. If after, ensure that you have built in sufficient time for it.

In summary

Presentation skills are an important aspect of communication and will be used in a number of different situations in your career as a doctor. The more presentations you do, the easier they tend to get, so consider volunteering to present cases or projects as a student in order to make the most of the opportunity to practise and develop your skills.

Further information

Medical schools and deaneries will often run presentation skills courses. Consider registering for one of these.

We also run seminars for foundation doctors on communication skills.

This page was correct at publication on 15/02/2017. Any guidance is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.