Clinical Editor's Corner: Kern

Brevity, Clarity and Wit: 10 Commandments for a 10-Minute Talk

Morton J. Kern, MD, and Jeannie Yu, MD, Associate Professor of Medicine, University of California, Irvine, and Director, Cardiac Imaging, VA Long Beach, Long Beach, California

Morton J. Kern, MD, and Jeannie Yu, MD, Associate Professor of Medicine, University of California, Irvine, and Director, Cardiac Imaging, VA Long Beach, Long Beach, California

“Brevity is the Soul of Wit”

– William Shakespeare

No one likes a boring talk (Figure 1). In all aspects of life, but specifically in cardiology and in the cath lab, it is essential to have good communication of ideas among physicians, nurses, technologists, and others (such as industry representatives) for best operations and patient care.

Being concise (i.e. brevity) is not as easy as it sounds. Mark Twain said, “I did not have time to write a short letter so I wrote a long one instead,” and it really applies to giving a very good 10-minute talk. We thought it would be appropriate at this time of the year, after having worked with fellows presenting cases and short talks, to review what it takes to give a good 10-minute talk. Researching online, no one should be surprised that the brief 10-minute talk is a big topic. In preparing our article, we found over 500 citations to learn how to give brief presentations in a wide variety of formats. With the intention of promoting good communication skills and with the knowledge that our trainees (fellows) and many cath lab staff will also have to give brief talks in various forums, here is my and my colleague, Dr. Jeannie Yu’s, suggested methodology. We call it “the 10 commandments of a 10-minute talk”.

Commandment #1:  Like a boy scout, be prepared (Figure 2).

To prepare for a talk, develop clear objectives and a roadmap for your presentation.

a. What is the scope of your topic? Why are you talking about it? Or, in other words, what is it about this topic that you want your audience to understand and hopefully retain?

b. Who is your audience? Be sure to tailor the material to their perspective and needs.

What materials or who do you need to assist you in preparation? You should have a brief, focused sheet for preparing your talk with the following four items: Purpose, Audience, Key Message, Take-Home Concept.   

Commandment #2:  “In the beginning, there was darkness…” Start your talk by enlightening your audience.

a. Introduce yourself. Tell them a personal bit about you to develop a rapport with the audience.

b. Introduce the talk. Tell them why you are here and also why they are here.

Commandment #3:  Let the information be transformational.   

After hearing your talk, the audience should leave with something that is new and important to them. The information should give them something more than they came with, something that would change or transform their thinking. It is often valuable to provide a key point to identify the most important concept you are presenting. Give a summary that should include actionable topics for your audience to go home with.

Commandment #4:  Know thy stuff.

In order to give a good presentation, you have to know your material. You have to practice your presentation. You should anticipate and know what to do with questions at the end.

Commandment #5: Control the audience’s attention.

One of the important aspects of a good presentation is to be able to communicate your learning points and keep the audience’s attention focused. You, your slides, and your content should be understandable to a broad swath of your audience. Because not everyone learns in the same way, you will have to be flexible, meaning make it easier by speaking clearly, slowly, and concisely so you don’t overwhelm the listeners.

As the speaker, be confident. A good starting point is to take a breath. Breathing during your talk will relax both you and the listeners. Comfortable breathing will reduce stress and convey confidence. Those natural ebbs and flows in the lecture can also provide a moment to check in with your audience, to see if you have their attention or conversely, if they appear lost. Don’t feel pressured or have ‘pressured speech’. Don’t be afraid of silence — applying pauses will emphasize teaching points.

How you present yourself is also part of the package, from your dress and appearance to your voice. Think of your voice as a musical instrument. It should be made into a strong, powerful, and tonal sound. To improve your voice, listen to yourself speak on a recording and consider your register, timber, cadence of speech, the application of silences, pitch, and volume. These are all techniques that good speakers employ to give powerful and impactful presentations.

Commandment #6:  “Twitter” and “Marie Kondo” your slides.

In composing your talk, strongly consider the following:

  1. Edit intensely. Make the talk fit into the time limit you have.
  2. Identify the most important point(s) you want to convey. It is not effective to communicate 100 points, none of which will be retained. It is better to give 3 take-home points, all of which are clearly absorbed and understood.
  3. Given the normal speed of speech, you should consider a 10-minute talk the same as a 1500-word paper. Rule of thumb for the number of slides is 10 slides for 10 minutes, and many speakers will vary between 20 to 30 seconds or a minute per slide. Create only 10 or 12 slides to be used during this 10-minute period.
  4. Information on the slides should be able to be immediately absorbed. Reduce the verbiage to an outline format. Less (text) is more (comprehension and retention).
  5. Be concise. Make slides extremely tight, word-wise, and visually uncluttered.
  6. Use clear and easy-to-understand graphics.
  7. Keep the “glitz factor” low (this is a phrase from Dr. Paul Edwards [Table 1] from the School of Information and Department of History at the University of Michigan, in an October 2014 essay on how to give an academic talk. Dr. Edwards provides an excellent outline and tables on keys to oral presentations.) Table 1 displays his summary of characteristics of good and bad talks.

Commandment #7: Talk to me and know who you’re talking to.

Address the audience and not the screen. Find a person in the audience and talk to him/her. Capture the audience’s attention by looking at them. You can ask a question of someone and engage them. “Where are you from?” is a good opening question. It is okay to check in with members of the audience to see if they are following. In a conference room, be sure to stand up when presenting; it is part of commanding the room.

Don’t forget who you are talking to. Who is the audience? Are these cath lab nurses and technologists? Are they fellows and trainees, or is it a mixed audience? Is it a high-level scientific session? Is it a general medical audience or specific cardiology office audience, or worse yet, interventional cardiologists (just kidding)? What is the one key message you want the listeners to leave with?

Commandment #8: Remember to be on “Lombardi” time.

Vince Lombardi, famous coach of the Green Bay Packer football team, said, “If you’re not 5 minutes early, you’re already 10 minutes late.” Do not go over time under any circumstance. Audiences hate this, speakers who are waiting to give their talk hate this, the organizers hate this, and you will not be appreciated as a good speaker, but only as one who has put everybody else off schedule.

For many meetings, the organizers have the slides stop and go to a black screen at the end of the time. You should be very cognizant of not losing your last slides to a black screen. It makes you seem unprepared. Also, remember, improvisation at the last moment during your talk is okay if you are very practiced speaker, but in the beginning, you should have an idea of what you are going to say and address those points in a straightforward and casual manner. Do not invent things on the spur of the moment. Practicing your talk will help.

Commandment #9: Share the Questions

Addressing questions can be a challenging. You should repeat the question for your audience, since they may not hear the questioner without a microphone. Repeating the question also gives you a moment to think. If you are troubled or stumped by the question, you can always ask the audience to help. For example, “You know, I am not sure I understand the question. Can someone address this for me or help me?” You can always say, “I am glad you asked and even though I do not have a specific answer, it reminds me to mention that the coronary flow reserve is really the key to that issue,” or something to that effect.

Commandment #10: Remember that Mr. Murphy will be in attendance.

Murphy’s Law (“If it can go wrong, it will”) applies to all human activities, but specifically to you when you are going to give an important talk at a big session or in your institution. You should be prepared for problems: be prepared with your computer, be prepared with a backup presentation, be prepared that there may be no PowerPoint and that you could give this talk without slides. You should prepare notes, but don’t use them unless the absolute worst occurs. We thought this quote was particularly relevant: “It is just 10 minutes (the talk), not nearly enough time to do justice to the topic, but plenty of time to make a complete fool of myself.” Organize your thoughts carefully.

Tips for the New Presenter

  • Don’t read the slides verbatim.
  • Speak slower, a lot slower, than you think you are. Speaking fast becomes incomprehensive to some, and especially in a large room where fast speech will produce an echo of your words. You may end up talking over yourself and losing your audience. This applies even more for larger audiences with non-native English speakers.
  • Speak clearly. Think of what it is like to sit in an audience where you can barely hear and understand someone who is having pressure of speech. Short sentences with clear graphics make for a winning presentation.
  • Never present a bad slide. Don’t say, “I’m sorry you can’t read this, but it means ‘X’.”  If you can’t read it, they can’t read it; don’t use it.  That is the lazy man’s approach to presenting information.
  • Remember we have short attention spans. Do not try and cram in too much information. Avoid tiny details. Use one idea per slide and have only one good strong conclusion slide.
  • Tell the audience what you plan to tell them 3 times. Introduce the topic with a short outline. Remind them in the middle through logical and sequential building blocks and then tell them again with your final concept slide.
  • Less is more. Use less text and more graphics, rarely put a formula, spell check to eliminate errors.  An image is preferred to text when you don’t have other information to convey.  Each slide should have a short title so the audience doesn’t get lost. Using real photographs is very eye-catching and often makes a strong visual point. Minimize any animation of PowerPoint as it distracts from your main topic and suggests that you like glitz more than substance.

The Bottom Line

Remember use brevity, clarity, and wit (Figure 3). The goal of your talk is to give the audience a gift of knowledge. We hope the little bit of advice we offer in this article will be helpful to you in preparing a talk, no matter to whom you are giving it, when, or where. 

Disclosures: Dr. Morton Kern reports he is a consultant for Abiomed, Abbott Vascular, Philips Volcano, ACIST Medical, Opsens Inc., and Heartflow Inc.