Saturday, August 30, 2008

Jazz and the Art of Medical Presentations

As an ivory tower radiologist, I give and receive a lot of presentations. Over the years, I've really learned to really, really hate presentations that suck. For inspiration and tips on how to avoid presentation suckage myself, I frequently visit Garr Reynolds' excellent Presentation Zen site. Being a musician myself, I found his posting on Jazz and the Art of Connecting particularly interesting. In this post, Reynolds (who paid his way through college playing jazz) shares quotes from jazz greats that are relevant to non-musical presentations. Here's one:

Dizzy Gillespie: It’s taken me all my life to learn what not to play.
Amen. I'm frequently asked to cram way too much information into way too little time, e.g. 4 years of radiology residency into a 75 minute talk. Instead, I spend the time giving my audience a handful of concepts that they can then apply to many different situations.

Leonard Bernstein, on making jazz interesting:
In his book, The Joy of Music, Bernstein maintains that predictability is a key to making jazz interesting. Consider these two extremes:
1. if the audience can predict every note that you're going to play, it will be boring.

2. if they can't predict a single note, it will also be boring because the music now appears completely random.
A good lecture avoids these extremes. We've all seen way too many lectures read verbatim from a stack of PowerPoint bullet-point slides. (Tip: learn how to set off your own pager to help escape this special circle of PowerPoint hell.)

Handouts can be a similar pitfall if they follow the lecture too closely. Most performers instinctively avoid this like the plague. As a musician, I've learned to love the limelight, and am loath to share any of it with any handout -- even one of the excellent ones I create. My personal tactic is to put my handout on the web, and give the audience a URL to download it at the end of my talk.

Sign on wall in Preservation Hall, New Orleans jazz club:
It's easy to overdo even a great tune. I know how this feels -- at some meetings, I'm asked give the same freaking presentation to 9 different audiences. Viewing this as a jazz gig helps to keep me from going nuts. Even though I play the same tune (i.e same concepts and slide set) for each group, I do my best to customize the talk for each group in real-time, based on audience interaction.

Customizing a talk on the fly can be challenging, especially with large groups. Therefore, I use straw polls and audience response systems (ARS) as often as I can. For non-threatening questions, I use the flesh histogram technique, i.e. have them raise their hands. For other questions, I use the ARS, and their replies are summarized anonymously on-screen in a large graph. I find these graphs to be a great diagnostic tool for gauging their comprehension of a topic. Rather than rolling along monolithically through a slide set, I can add or subtract riffs until the ARS shows me that the audience understands a concept.

Charlie Parker: Master your instrument. Master the music. And then forget all that bullshit and just play.
It took me a while to learn to speak at large radiology meetings with an unclenched sphincter. The key, as usual, was lots and lots of practice. In this respect, music gave me a huge advantage over fellow faculty. Weekly musical gigs quickly gave me an order of magnitude more experience working in front of crowds. It has also helped me to practice many different variations of a tune, a talk or a topic. Once you've done that, the appropriate notes or words seem to pop out just when you need them on stage. At that point, as Bird said, you really can forget all that bullshit and just play.

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