5 mistakes that kill medical presentations – and how to fix them

Gemma Williams, Medical Writer

01 November 2016

Make medical presentations your secret weapon by using these 5 tips. 


✔ How to limit your content to increase its impact
✔ The essential building blocks for creating powerful messages and visuals
✔ How to maximise message retention by engaging all 3 information-processing channels
✔ The proven PowerPoint slide formula that organises your messages for maximum persuasive impact

Let’s face it.

Medical presentations can be punishing.

If you’ve ever spent a whole day at a medical congress, you’ve probably witnessed a seemingly unending stream of slides with bulleted lists, illegible graphs and complex, unreadable tables.

And if it was boring and forgettable for you, it was boring and forgettable for rest of the audience, too.

According to scientific communications expert and international speaker Dr Jean-luc Doumont, scientists and researchers attending international conferences understand only about 10–25% of the content presented, and remember even less of this information once they return home [1].

Given the high cost of hosting a conference or symposium, our job as medical communications experts is to press for a better ROI.

“Scientists and researchers attending international conferences understand only about 10–25% of the content presented.”

The good news? Well-written presentations are one of the most effective ways to engage the medical community.

This is because:

  • More physicians will listen to a medical presentation than read a paper on the same subject.
    As proof, just look at the rising attendance at medical congresses across the globe. In 2015, the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) Annual Meeting welcomed over 30,000 oncology professionals from more than 100 countries [2].
  • People are more likely to remember your messages if they are presented rather than read.
    Why? Because presentations can more effectively engage the reader by engaging all three learning channels: visual, auditory and kinaesthetic.
  • Presentations are more personal, and therefore more memorable.
    Presentations also enable the audience to connect with the speaker. The speaker can better convince the audience of his or her viewpoint through the use of visuals, body language, tone of voice, humour, personal stories and interaction.

So let’s stop blaming PowerPoint for the thousands of bad medical presentations that physicians are subjected to each year. Instead, let’s aim to improve the use of the tool by recognising the biggest mistakes when it comes to writing and designing presentations – and learn how to fix them.

How to avoid the 5 biggest presentation mistakes and make medical presentations your secret weapon

Mistake #1: Using slides as a memory aid

There are two types of PowerPoint documents:

  1. Presentations that support a speaker
  2. Standalone documents that must communicate information on their own

Medical presentations usually fall under the first category. Their purpose is not to be read as a standalone piece, but rather to support what the speaker is saying.

Despite this, medical slides are almost always crammed full of data. This is because slides are either:

  1. Used as a memory aid for the speaker, rather than as a visual aid for the audience; or
  2. Intended to double up as a written report.

Medical presentations usually have to communicate complex data, information and ideas. However, if you project all this information in front of the audience, they will struggle to take in all of the details.

Strategy #1: Reduce the visual load by moving text off-screen and narrating the content

The purpose of a presentation is not to show all the data, but to communicate conclusions and insights. Medical presentations should therefore focus on the presenter and the ideas and messages they want to communicate.

The slides should reinforce the key messages of the presentation, and not create distraction with background information and data sets. Content should be strictly selected, and all information that is not directly relevant to the key messages should be deleted.

To help the presenter remember what to say, create notes for them in the slide notes section. That’s what it was designed for. If you have to show the audience complex data, use your slides to reference handouts.*

*Handouts should be given at the end of a presentation to avoid distractions and rustling!

“Content should be strictly selected, and all information that is not directly relevant to the key messages should be deleted.”

Mistake #2: Too much text

Medical presentations traditionally consist of complex slides full of bulleted text.

However, this is a hugely ineffective way to convey a message. Instead of listening and learning, the audience is struggling to read.

This is because listening and reading are conflicting activities. The human brain cannot process two channels of communication – written and oral – at the same time.


The audience will either pay attention to what is being said or read the slide – not both.

Whether words are spoken or written, they are processed in the same part of the brain. So when a presenter has slides that contain a lot of text, the audience will either:

  1. Read the slides, or
  1. Listen to the presenter.

They can’t do both!

Strategy #2: Replace text with visuals, and communicate the message orally

Here’s a PowerPoint slide formula that’s an effective and simple way to organise your presentation for maximum persuasive impact:


  • The slide title should be a concise, complete sentence headline that states the key message (i.e., what you want the audience to know).
  • The body of the slide should consist of visual evidence for the claim(s) made (i.e., graphs, tables, images, text, etc.). Your message should be conveyed as visually as possible, limiting text to whatever keywords will help the visual stand alone. Special effects such as animations and slide transitions should be used sparingly.
  • The speaker’s job is to get the audience to understand a message. Instead of stating what is on the slide, speakers should explain what this information means (its message).

Use this presentation formula for maximum persuasive impact.

Mistake #3: Too much data

You do not need to show the whole data set. 

The audience will never remember huge data sets, so why include them?

If the speaker shows a slide crammed full of numbers for 20 seconds then moves on, what has the audience gained from it?

Strategy #3: Display key data visually

“What would I like the audience to remember about these data?”

The answer to this question is the point you should highlight. The audience cannot possibly take in mountains of data – and if you present it all, you lose the opportunity to communicate your key messages.

Mistake #4: Untargeted content

You have to focus your messaging on what’s important to your prospects, which is not necessarily what’s important to you or your client.

Physicians don’t come to a presentation to hear what a pharmaceutical company wants to say. They come to find out what’s in it for them.

To connect with and engage your audience, you have to show why your ideas matter to them.

“Physicians don’t come to a presentation to hear what a pharmaceutical company wants to say. They come to find out what’s in it for them.”

Strategy #4: Know your audience

To engage your audience, you have to create content that’s important to them, solves their problems, entertains or inspires.

Knowing what stimulates physicians in your target segment will help you identify what messages will mean the most to them and drive them to take action – whether that is changing their prescribing behaviour, asking for more information or questioning existing treatment options.

For example, during my medical writing career I’ve found that…

  • Dermatologists value patients’ opinions and quality of life
  • Cardiac surgeons like to do things their own way rather than follow protocols
  • Nephrologists value data and statistics.

Once you know what drives your audience, you can craft your presentation around various sequences. One of my favourite formulas is to:


  1. Make physicians (more) aware of a problem they have (e.g., side effects associated with existing drugs)
  2. Explain what makes your solution so great (e.g., drug X delivers the same efficacy, but with fewer side effects)
  3. Show how life could be different if they took action (e.g., they could use higher drug doses, treat older patient populations, reduce costs associated with side-effect management, and improve patient quality of life and outcomes)

“To engage your audience, you have to create content that’s important to them, solves their problems, entertains or inspires.”

Mistake #5: Poor design

Below is a typical ‘medical’ slide (sigh).

There is a high level of background noise (template, footer, logos, frames, etc.), a lot of the text is illegible and there is a high density of information.

When designing slides, you have to think from the audience’s perspective. They have probably travelled, are tired, hungry, bored from other sessions, and might not be native English speakers.

Do they really want to see slides like this?


Typical medical slides: not exactly easy on the eye.

Strategy #5: Think like a designer

Message visualisation

Our brains were built to process and respond to visual images with great speed.

One of the reasons we can process images faster than text is because of how the brain handles information – it processes data from pictures simultaneously, but processes text in a sequential, linear manner.


The brain processes images far quicker than it can process written text.

Size and amount of text

If the audience needs text, make it large enough so they can see it. If they don’t need it, move it to the notes section.

Sometimes, there’s no getting around the fact that some slides need a lot of text. If this is the case, have the text build sequentially to prevent the audience from reading ahead. If they can see the text, they already know what the speaker is going to say. They’ll only get agitated waiting for the speaker to catch up with them.

Animations and slide transitions

The eye is innately drawn to:

  1. Movement
  2. Size
  3. Contrast

Each strategy should be used only to draw the eye to the information you want the audience to focus on.

Pointless animations and slide transitions are distractions that should be filtered out. If the audience is focussing on movement, they are paying less attention to the content or speaker.


When designing slides, avoid the following colour contrasts:

  • Red and blue combinations cause eye strain
  • Some colour blind people cannot distinguish between black and red
  • Others cannot distinguish between red and green

Learning channel theories 

While human beings have different information-processing channels (visual, auditory and kinaesthetic), the theory that each person learns best through one particular channel is long outdated.

So rather than worry about the preferred ‘learning style’ of our audience, we should concern ourselves with the medium that best suits the content.

For instance, which of the following is more powerful?


Visuals are not always better. Here, a bulleted list describing the recommended treatment sequence is much clearer than showing the whole treatment algorithm.


Here, it is much more powerful to see photographic evidence of how a patient´s psoriasis has cleared up versus a graph showing the reduction in PASI (measurement of psoriasis severity).

Extra reading


  1. Jean-luc Doumont. Trees, maps, and theorems. Principiae bvba. Kraainem, Belgium
  2. ASCO 2015 Attendee Demographics. Available at:


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