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Public Speaking Tips for Dentists

I Have Been Asked to Speak, Now What?
Public Speaking

Jerry Seinfeld said that “According to most studies, people's number one fear is public speaking. Number two fear is death . . . That means at most funerals the person delivering the eulogy would rather be in the casket.”

Indeed, many people dread having to speak in front of an audience, and dentists are no exception. Yet public speaking can be enjoyable and rewarding. As a dentist, you may find yourself speaking in a number of capacities: at a dental conference to your colleagues, at a health fair with potential patients, at a town hall meeting to your neighbors, or at the state or federal legislature with your congressman.

By developing basic presentation skills, you can become an effective public speaker, and a stronger advocate for oral health.

There are three key components to success: knowing your audience, knowing your content, and preparation.

Content and Composition

Know your audience

When you agree to present, stop and ask a few questions about to whom you will be speaking. Tailoring your presentation to your audience will make your message much more effective. You might ask:

  • Who are they (age, profession, attitude, interests)?
  • What do they know already?
  • What do they want to learn?
  • What’s in it for them?
  • What message do you want to convey?
  • What are they interested in hearing?

You might also ask about the setup of the room where you will be presenting:

  • Is there a podium?
  • Is there a microphone?
  • Will there be a stage?
  • How bright will the lights be?

Know your stuff

Expand your knowledge in the particular topic of your presentation. Research trends, controversies, future projections. Freshen your content with the latest stats (i.e. Last year XX number of children had cavities). Remember that not all the information needs to be in your presentation, but may be helpful to have on hand in a follow up question and answer session. As you prepare your presentation, think about the following:

  • What are you trying to communicate?
  • What is your purpose – inform, persuade, problem solve?
  • What constitutes success?

The more information you can find out in advance will help ease your nerves and make you appear more relaxed.

Developing the "body" of your presentation

Once you have completed your research, note everything you want to cover. You might put all the information into a Word document, or straight into presentation slides.

Winnow it down - You’ll want to prioritize the most important points. Try distilling your remarks down to three key messages. Think about what will be relatable for your audience. What are the key messages you want them to remember?

Make it personal - Something about you will resonate with your audience, and this can help build trust. Think about your medical expertise, your family life, or where you live and practice. Do you have any of these things in common with your audience? Establishing a connection will make your audience more inclined to listen to what you have to say.

Practice makes perfect

Once you've written your presentation, practice delivering it. Decide if you would like to read from a script or use note cards. If reading from a script, be sure to use large font and double space between lines. Don't use staples for multiple pages, simply slide the pages to the side as you move forward in the speech.

Remember that you're the expert, but it's also ok to be nervous. Enthusiasm and confidence will grow as you develop your skill set through repetition. There are many effective practice methods to consider:

  • In front of a mirror
  • Before a live audience (spouse, family, friend, etc.)
  • Into a video or audio recording device for playback (cell phone, tablet, laptop, etc.)

Delivery: Pacing & Movement

Focus on remaining positive and energetic. Smile, make eye contact, take a deep breath and pause before beginning. Vary your speaking pace to your advantage - fast can energize, slow can dramatize.

  • Aim for a speaking pace of 120 - 140 words per minute
  • Don’t point with your finger. Use a laser pointer or pen for emphasis.
  • Use gestures consistent with style, venue

Move freely, but have a destination. If you prefer to move around the room while you are presenting, try this: Walk to one side of the room. Stop and make your point (a pause in your pacing will help emphasize what you are saying). Then walk back to the other side of the room. Repeat. 

Don’t forget to time yourself. If you have agreed to speak for 10 minutes, and you know you speak fast when you are nervous, aim for 10-12 minutes of content. Conversely, you will start to lose the attention of your audience if you go over your allotted time.

Delivery: How we absorb information

Studies have found that people listening to a presentation only take in and retain 20% of the words spoken. In contrast, 50% is sight and sound.

  • Keep it simple on PowerPoint slides - only a few words. Less is more!
  • Use slides to visually enhance and reinforce key points of your presentation. You might use graphs, key phrases or images.
  • Don’t read your slides (it’s boring) - Use handouts if you want to provide information that audience members can take home.
  • Don’t show your back to the audience – If you do need to reference your slides, have them in front of you on a laptop or in hard copy, along with any notes you need.

Don’t wish you were the person in the casket. Try to have fun. After all, you’re the expert! You can do this!