Doctor's Orders: Presenters at medical and pharmaceutical meetings are industry thought leaders, not professional speakers. Here's how to make sure their talks are on target

July 01, 2006 - Successful Meetings

Margaret Hynes couldn't believe her ears.

Her speaker had just left the podium after a first-rate presentation, but now several audience members were snickering. And no wonder: From the audio system could be heard the unmistakable sound of bathroom use, followed by a roaring flush.

"We heard everything—it was embarrassing," says Hynes, an independent planner in Morristown, NJ, who has been organizing pharmaceutical meetings for 10 years. "This guy was no schmo," she adds. "He was a very prominent doctor, but he wasn't used to speaking, and when he went to the bathroom, he forgot he had on a lavaliere [microphone]."

Unfortunately, Hynes' experience is not uncommon. Doctors and other research experts hired by pharmaceutical firms and medical organizations to present at meetings may be outstanding in their field, but that field is not public speaking. And the attendees they're trying to reach are typically other physicians, who have no time to waste on a rambling, ineffective speech and won't hesitate to show their displeasure by walking out. That's why the planners who work with such speakers must take special care to ensure that the docs don't give a presentation that will leave the audience snoring—or, worse, giggling. Here are some hints from planning pros on working with medical and pharmaceutical presenters.

What's Up, Doc?

"I listen to some doctors and I'm like, 'Why did they hire this person?' " complains planner Brenda Leake. "Just this morning, I was at a breakfast meeting in Detroit and the doctor was not familiar with his slides. He'd have to read each one and concentrate before he could explain it. And when people asked him questions, he had to think a long time before answering—and then they'd still say, 'I'm not following you.' That's a poor speaker."

That's putting it mildly. In this particular case, Leake—an independent planner based in Lansing, MI, who handles more than 100 pharmaceutical meetings a year for the likes of Shire, AstraZeneca, Bristol-Myers Squibb, and Pfizer—was not responsible for the presenter (or he probably wouldn't have given such a poor performance). Generally, the pharma firms that hire her bring in pre-selected speakers, she says, and Leake always meets with them beforehand to fine-tune their presentations.

For instance, "This particular presenter had too many slides," she recalls. "Nobody wants to sit there while he goes through a hundred slides! It was getting to the point where the audience was walking out." She stresses the importance of taking the time to go over each slide individually with the speaker: "That helps him get familiar with the content and consolidate his information—he might say, 'Oh, I'm repeating myself in this one.' " It also gives Leake the opportunity to make sure the slide contains some sort of visual element that will hold the audience's attention.

Hynes agrees. "Make sure any graphics are big enough for attendees to see, and visually interesting," she suggests. And to avoid boring the audience, she urges her speakers to forgo the talking-stiff routine and give an interactive presentation. At the very minimum, they should offer a question-and-answer session at the end.

Much of Hynes' advice for working with physician-speakers applies to planners working with any speaker—only even more so: "[These researchers] are typically very confident in themselves, and they don't realize that it's not easy to get up and speak in front of people," she says. "Often they're very busy, and they'll say, 'I've done this [talk] before, and it's no problem.' But no matter what, don't let anyone go out there without a rehearsal first!"

Hynes recommends that planners work in tandem with a production company (she likes Jack Morton and Royal Productions) that will walk the doctors through their presentations, offering pointers, and making sure they know how to work any audiovisual equipment such as clickers or laser pointers. Often it's a good idea to just let the production company take charge of any AV elements, no matter how simple, she adds.

Whether you use a professional event producer or not, selecting the appropriate space is important, according to Leake: "These meetings are often held in restaurants, and the presenters don't like to be too cramped," she notes. "They want to be able to walk around so that the words flow freely." She also advises planners to book a private dining room, so that the attendees—and the speaker—aren't distracted by the sound of other diners eating and talking.

Vital Signs

As much as it's critical to prepare the speaker beforehand, it's also important not to forget about the other side of the equation: the attendees. As with any speech, make sure you've attracted the right demographic for whatever the subject is, says Hynes: "If you're holding the event at an exotic location, sometimes the audience thinks it's there for a vacation!" So be careful to select attendees carefully, and match them to the topic.

Finally, don't neglect that all-important tool: the evaluation form. Responses—especially the brutally honest ones—will help you decide what worked, what didn't, and how to do a better job next time. Without the after-speech sound effects.