Public Speaking Tips

By Gordon Schiff, M.D.

Emphasize 2-3 key points
They don’t have to be all that you talk about, buy you need to identify key “take away” points and ensure that you convey them so strongly that no-one leaves without understanding these well enough to describe them themselves.

Say things that the audience would be interested in learning
Don’t remind them of what they already know and agree with. Take them higher and farther on the topic.

Keep a bin to collect and prepare for your next talk
Keep a folder or file where you toss or cut-and-paste any interesting article/clipping from newspapers, PNHP mailings, quotes from meetings, etc. This way, your next talk will be continuously incubating itself. The pile will be ready for perusal when you are about to give your next talk; you’ll be amazed how many of the articles and points you would have otherwise forgotten.

Make the talk timely and serve as a learning experience for yourself
Talks are for you as much as your audience. Giving a talk is an opportunity to get caught up on this latest news and force yourself to read or master that stack in your “bin.” Check The New York Times, The New England Journal of Medicine, your local paper, AMA News, PNHP, the Commonwealth Foundation or Kaiser Health Policy websites, and etc., for three days prior to your talk. They will always have a relevant article.

Over-prepare rather than under-prepare
There’s only one Dr. Quentin Young in PNHP – only he can give a great talk off the top of his head. For the rest of us, good talks are not born, they’re efforts of perspiration and preparation. Ensure that your preparations are cumulative (i.e., keep notes, computerize, etc.).

Although we learn in high school to prepare an outline before writing a paper, I do the opposite. I shovel bits of information and ideas onto a paper/computer first, then organize them into the key points I want to make. Thus the outline comes later, but you’ve ensured that you have all the content you would like to include. (However do what works best for you, as we all work differently.)

Remember that your audience probably hasn’t heard you before
Don’t forget that although you may have given the same or a similar talk a dozen times before, it will still be new for your audience. Don’t be inhibited from refining and repeating yourself.

Don’t talk down: Always err on the side of “overestimating” your audience
People are intelligent, and it doesn’t take too much to connect with their understanding of the health care situation.  Don’t assume that they know the details you do, but do assume that they will catch on to what you are on about if you explain it well.

Inspire your audience with your commitment and enthusiasm
Each of us should take pride in ourselves: an inspiring clinician, a dedicated physician, a nurse, and etc. Modestly playing off this by connecting our activism with our jobs helps audiences connect with us as colleagues and appreciate where we’re coming from. This always contrasts favorably with a drug or insurance company hack or bureaucrat.

Learn opponents’ arguments: Know them better than they do
Become an expert on your opponent’s arguments so that you can better refute them. There is no need to introduce them yourself (though sometimes that may prove useful), but be prepared to catch them when they are pitched – even rephrase them more articulately that your opponents. You can then hit a home run through your carefully planned responses.

Use both rational and emotional appeals
Both data and moving anecdotes are important: mix them freely.

Keep a cheat sheet of key sound-bites
Whether participating in a debate, doing a radio/television interview, or just giving a standard talk or presentation, ensure that you keep a 1-2 page sheet of key points, data figures, and quotes ready for immediate citation. This will also remind you to address all of your main ideas.

Don’t fear debate
The best and brightest opponents on the other side are no match for the truth and data of our case. I recall attending a series of debates with national managed care medical directors, absolutely terrified of the opposition. I however wrote up a “12 points” article (later reprinted in the ACP Observer) in preparation, and argued these so well that my opponent in one of these debates said “I pretty much agree with what Dr. Schiff said.”

Don’t allow yourself to get thrown off by them. Keep cool and listen to their points so you can respond to them by rephrasing their contentions and refuting them. Don’t get defensive or take them as personal attacks. You should shield your self with many of the above weapons, especially by drawing on your personal commitment and experience. Use each instance of a heckler or an opponent as a learning and surveillance opportunity to be better prepared for the next.

Visual props
Use props (e.g. a hat advertising “American HMO, a foreign-owned plan marketing to poor people on Chicago’s West Side, where they had no providers; hospital bills; health security cards).

Don’t pretend to be the all-knowing expert
It’s fine to acknowledge what you don’t know about; there’s no reason why your audience would expect you to know everything (you’re a doctor just like them.) Talk about what your understanding is and what makes sense to you (and allow them to do the same.)

Revised 5/05 Gordy Schiff, MD. Revised 11/09

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