Speakers’ training meetings are conferences organized by pharmaceutical or device manufacturers, designed to bring together and train a group of key opinion leaders on the company’s product or disease state so they can speak at various events organized by either the company or medical associations. Typically the meeting convenes for a day-and-a-half with arrival on Friday evening; a full day of scientific presentations and Q&A on Saturday; followed on Sunday by a presentation from the company’s legal, regulatory, or compliance department.

For those of you familiar with the process, think of the last speakers’ training meeting you attended, or perhaps organized. The obligatory pre-meeting binder with draft presentations and key references were shipped before the meeting, and attendees were expected to have at least reviewed the materials on the plane en route to the meeting. As attendees scurry to catch their planes on Sunday, hoping to salvage some of the day with their families, clutching their “binders of knowledge,” notes, and perhaps a flash drive of the approved presentation, company personnel heave a sigh of relief that the training is accomplished. Let the programs begin!

But wait, are these speakers really ready to deliver the information, weave a story, and leave behind the message the company has worked so hard to create? Countless hours go into developing the content from company personnel involving medical, marketing, regulatory, legal, and perhaps other departments. Additional agency hours go into making it presentable — choosing background colors of the slide template, reworking scientific charts and tables so they can be seen across the room, and perhaps incorporating animation to demonstrate the mode of action of a drug. But will it be memorable when it is delivered? More importantly, will the audience retain the information and change their behaviors? How many hours have gone into ensuring this?

Studies have shown that the effectiveness of spoken communication is based on the following:

  • 55% of meaning is in facial expressions and other body language
  • 38% of meaning is paralinguistic or the way the words are said (voice quality and tone)
  • 7% of meaning is in the content or words

The bottom line is that communication is more often about performance or delivery of the content than the content itself. Scientific audiences will no doubt pay more attention to the content than Mehrabian’s model of 7%; however, his model should be a red light for us to stop and rethink how speakers deliver the content, and how little time we spend training them on these skills. Why don’t we include these skills more frequently in speakers’ training? Do we just assume that they have been trained because they have spoken for other companies or have delivered presentations at medical congresses? Are we afraid a training session may embarrass or insult them?

We have all experienced how the same content can dramatically differ depending on the speaker’s enthusiasm and level of engagement with the audience; yet, we give little credence to training our speakers on these presentation skills. Recall the presentations that stand out in your mind; maybe the speaker began with a provocative question or polled the audience, included his or her own experience, or engaged the audience by asking for their opinions. Most likely we remember it because of the way it was delivered.

Based on Mehrabian’s model, over 90% of meaning is derived from the speaker’s delivery of the content. Judging by that logic, shouldn’t the amount of time spent on delivery be commensurate with content? When speaking skills are included in the training meeting, usually only 1 hour or 2 hours are allocated to the topic. In this short period of time, speaking consultants skim through the various presentation skills, including:

  • Pros and cons of standing behind versus aside the podium
  • The importance of posture, body language, maintaining eye contact with the audience, and speaking slowly
  • Development of a message map to ensure the core message is delivered succinctly
  • How to summarize the key points of a complex slide
  • Use of “trigger phrases” to bring back a wandering audience

Hopefully, after covering all of this information, the opportunity remains for each speaker to present and be critiqued on a few slides.

If greater focus is placed on basic speaking and presentation skills, I am sure we will have betters speakers, more interesting programs, higher attendance, and a change in behavior in the attendees. And after all, isn’t that our ultimate goal?