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Learning from Bad Speakers in Radiology: Three Things to Avoid in a Lecture


This author emphasizes keys to being engaging and informative during a lecture.

I love learning by bad example.

Early on, you don’t get to do it much. As a kid, you are just told or shown things, and expected to absorb them. Get a little older, and you are told to go learn stuff by reading about it, or worse, by doing it so you can feel the pain of getting things wrong.

Gradually, however, you gain enough experience to notice when others do things the wrong way. Recognizing the consequences they reap, you have the luxury of never hitting those pitfalls yourself. You learn not to do what they did.

You can still learn by good examples, whether it is through mentors you admire or other successful people with efficacy you want to adopt. However, as you grow more capable, the frequency of others doing things better than you diminishes. By contrast, bad examples are ever abundant.

I am not a fan of public speaking. If you told me I had to convey anything but the simplest of messages to a group, I think I would prefer to meet each of them individually rather than do it en masse. I simply find myself more effective that way, even if it takes me way longer.

Still, especially if you’re in anything resembling an academic setting, you might occasionally have to show that you can non-disastrously stand behind a podium. We don’t tend to get any formal training in that. Med schools and residencies don’t partner with the Toastmasters or the Dale Carnegie people. So, if you see someone giving a “less than” talk (and you have to sit through it no matter what), it’s a fine opportunity to learn from their bad example.

I recently encountered a small goldmine of bad examples about how not to give a talk. The tippity-top bit of advice I would give to this speaker (and thus took to heart for myself): Don’t bury your message.

He had some valuable points to make but he was speaking to a group accustomed to short sessions, and someone else had already spoken before him. When he proceeded to speak for a full hour, cramming in every point he could think of, it was a bad move. You could be the most interesting person in the world, talking about the most fascinating subject (neither of which was true in his case) but no audience has that kind of attention span. Even if their minds don’t go wandering for a huge chunk of your time, they’re not going to optimally absorb all of your valuable messages in that one dense sitting.

Instead, choose just one or two points, the ones you think are most important, and focus on them for a fraction of the time. If these points hit home, it is guaranteed they’ll want you to speak again (and let’s be honest, in health care, people come back to mandatory lectures regardless of personal preference). Hit your other points next time. Perhaps you could make it a lecture series.

Hand-in-hand with that is my second observation: Try not to be Ben Stein (as the teacher from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off). This is especially the case if you have decided to try holding an audience’s attention for an hour or more. Making your voice the only thing they hear is far from the most engaging thing you could do. To reiterate, the Most Interesting Man in the World—and you ain’t him—would start to sound like he was droning after too much uninterrupted speech.

Interact with your audience. Ask them questions. Invite comments. If you can get them to do something physical, like standing up or coming on stage to assist you with something, it’s infinitely more interesting. If you have any kind of A/V setup, pepper your talk with some fun pictures, even sound effects or video clips if they can be worked in.

Also, if you remember the Bueller movie at all, you probably remember ben Stein droning “Anybody? Anybody?” when trying to get his students to show signs of life. While the attempt at interaction was a good notion, repetitive usage of the same words and phrases is not. That can be borderline hypnotic, fast tracking your audience to sleep.

If you notice yourself saying the same things over and over (it might be a blind spot for you so asking a friend can help), work on carving them out of your verbal repertoire. Some common examples: “You know,” “like,” “basically,” “again,” “et cetera.” The words themselves aren’t bad. Using them repeatedly in the same talk, however, does you no favors. I won’t bother telling you the words/phrases my bad-example speaker repeated, I will just say there were a few.

Don’t annoy the audience. This might seem like a borderline impossibility these days with much of the population ever ready to take offense at the merest imagined slight. Still, at the very least, refrain from poking any bears. Even avoid things that might seem like poking. There are a lot of ways that can happen.

For example, this speaker was trying to give a “best practices” kind of talk. That can be great. Hopefully, everybody is interested in ways to improve their game. A nice, safe way to showcase your ideas is with the general theme of “How I Do It.” A variation could be “How I Try to Do It” if you want to seem humble. “How I’ve Seen It Done and Hope to Do It Myself” is another humble approach. This way, you are sharing positive ideas and perhaps inspiring others to adopt them.

The speaker did some of that. Unfortunately, he also worked in the dangerous “Bad ways I’ve seen it done” approach. While this can be entirely valid in learning from other people’s bad examples, when you’re speaking to an audience, you have no idea how many of them might have done exactly what you’re publicly proclaiming to be bad/dumb/whatever. Any given negative you throw out there might tweak people and immediately turn them against you. Why risk that? Keep things positive. People will likely have a harder time finding fault with it.

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