You Don’t Need a Personality Transplant

I believe that scientific medical presentations need to be more dramatic. After all, doctors are talking about life and death. Yet many doctors speak like test pilots: flat as a mashed potato sandwich.

It’s the culture of intrepidness, as if all medical professionals were Steady Eddies who stuff fear and face cold, hard facts with hardly a hiccup.

I recognize the need for distance and reserve in the professions, but the content of medical presentations can be structured to create drama without demanding dynamic, table-thumping enthusiasm from the speaker. We can avoid the need for a personality transplant.

If the speaker is skilled, he or she will not only use data to demonstrate an unmet need, he will also employ stories about particular people, particular cases, and particular suffering.

Only then should the speaker introduce the protocol, the subjects, the data, and finally his or her opinion on what the data mean.

Medical talks lack drama because they begin with something procedural, e.g., “I am going to talk a little bit about the following nine things.” Or they begin with the protocol, the study design, or the objectives of the study.

This approach is traditional and widely accepted, even expected. Unfortunately, it gives science a bad name, and causes audiences to lose interest because they don’t know why they should care.

Medical speakers need to understand that drama holds interest because there is tension and anxiety in drama. Cicero said that, “Tickling and soothing anxieties is the test of a speaker’s impact and technique.” To remove this profound psychological insight from scientific presentations does a terrible injury to the most important endeavor of the modern era.

I recommend that after a speaker has defined the unmet medical need and illustrated it, not simply with data, but also with concrete examples, he or she should ask a rhetorical question, such as, “Given that these patients have an urgent need, what is our study revealing about the progress we are making in this difficult-to-treat disease?” Then and only then should the speaker begin the description of the protocol, the study design, the subjects, the data, and her opinion as to what the data mean.

This creates drama, holds attention, helps listeners remember, and makes the speaker look good.

Finally, I have to say that because medical science has become a forest of highly specialized silos, even world class experts in adjacent fields have trouble understanding their colleagues. There are two ways that doctors from diverse backgrounds can understand one another:

  • Creating drama–tension and anxiety–in their talks and
  • Making it clear why a message is so important .

I am a communications coach and consultant. I learned a long time ago–and I have to learn it over and over again–that if we want to be understood, remembered, and believed, we must speak to our audience in the language of the audience about what the audience cares about.

Solving a problem is both an intellectual and an emotional enterprise. In medicine, problem solving is driven by caring.

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