4 rules for making your first lecture a success

Joseph Alpert, MD, has a presentation he gives to trainees on a semiannual basis. It’s entitled "What I have learned from more than 40 years in clinical medicine." It takes 50 minutes to deliver. 

In those four decades in medicine, Dr. Alpert, professor of medicine at the University of Arizona Sarver Heart Center, has refined his strategy when it comes to public speaking. At some point during their training, whether it be a case presentation or in grand rounds, a medical resident will have to give a lecture. Here are some tips Dr. Alpert offers to first-time lecturers to help them give concise, effective presentations. 

Understand the topic, and organize your thoughts 

Knowing the subject matter is key, but so is understanding how you are going to convey the details of it to the audience. Dr. Alpert advises residents to go back to the original research rather than consulting an aggregation of several articles available from services such as UpToDate.  

As for the presentation itself, creating an outline can be useful.  

“When you first start you want a little introduction, then you want to phrase what you’re going to be doing, your objectives, and what you want to have done by the time you finish,” Dr. Alpert said. “If you’re going to talk about a specific disease, you want to start with the epidemiology data and so forth. ... You are going to want to talk about its transmission or lack of transmission. Then: how you make a diagnosis, what laboratory tests are effective. You also may want to talk about which therapies are available toward the end.” 

Know your audience 

Audiences are going to vary in terms of their knowledge of a given subject. If you’re presenting to colleagues in your specialty, extreme detail will likely be understood and appreciated. However, a general lecture probably isn’t the best time to show those in attendance the breadth of your knowledge. Instead, Dr. Alpert tells presenters at grand rounds to treat it as though they are talking to a group of fourth-year medical students.  

“One of the biggest mistakes [unseasoned lecturers make] is trying to tell you everything,” he said. “It needs to be condensed. The audience can’t remember every single detail. It has to flow, and it has to flow at the level of the audience.” 

Slides are not be-all and end-all 

Dr. Alpert recommends keeping slides to five or six lines and using the largest possible font. In terms of your communication, reading right from the slide doesn’t do much good.  

“Make eye contact,” he said. “Don’t look down and mumble. A lot of speakers will turn to the screen and talk, but then half the audience can’t hear you. When I’m giving a talk, I can tell the people who are focused—they are nodding. You want to connect with the audience.” 


Do a dress rehearsal. Even if it’s just you, speaking in front of a mirror, it will help your recall and enhance your comfort with the material.  

“Giving a talk is like playing a musical instrument or participating in sport,” Dr. Alpert said. “Practice helps. Even today, 40 years into doing lectures, the night before I’ll always run through the slides and go over what I’m going to say.” 

Dr. Alpert believes learning how to effectively present is a skill that can aid physicians throughout their careers.  

“A lot of people have anxiety about speaking publicly,” Dr. Alpert said. “We try to get our trainees to present to help get over that fear. … Accurate oral communication is tremendously important in what we do today, which is why there’s an emphasis on it.”