Effective Communication

CME’s Deeply Ingrained Assumption

I was once asked by a pharmaceutical company to provide one-and-one-half hours of presentation skills training to a group of urologists. These physicians had gathered to put the finishing touches on a continuing medical education (CME) program.
Stethoscope wrapped around an apple

As a presentations skills consultant, my role was to help them understand how they could effectively communicate their knowledge when they later fanned out to conduct workshops across the country. I was scheduled to speak from 10:30 to noon.

From 8:30 to 9:15 a.m., one of the urologists who was leading the content stood at the front of the room and took 30 or so of his peers through the information they would later be asked to present. To my very pleasant surprise, he was a brilliant communicator. He didn’t use slides. He showed two short videos.

He created a conversation with 30 of his colleagues. In 45 minutes, he provided incredible insight and answered close to a hundred questions. It was a case study in communication effectiveness. Everyone was engaged.

During a short break after his talk, I circulated through the room and noticed that people were talking in small groups. There was a buzz in the room. Everyone was commenting on how much they learned, and how the session was one of the best (if not the best) they had ever attended.

After the break, they broke into groups to put the finishing touches on their slides.

This exercise took longer than anticipated. When they reconvened at 11:40 a.m., I had twenty minutes remaining for my session before we had no choice but to break for lunch. I could have given a short version of my presentation, but I didn’t.

These are highly educated individuals, I thought to myself. I’m going to challenge them a bit.

I focused their attention on the presentation we had witnessed earlier. They agreed it was brilliant. Everyone learned a lot.

I then asked how many slides were used. This caught them by surprise. It took a minute before they realized their colleague hadn’t used any, which he verified (he was still in the room).

Then I asked if they were going to use the slides they spent the past two-and-a-half hours working on when they delivered their own CME sessions. They said yes. I asked: “Why?” At first there was silence. Then they pushed back.

To say that this evolved into a spirited conversation would be an understatement. Anyone watching would have thought I had refuted the holy grail of urology without a single shred of evidence.

“That’s the way CME programs are delivered,” one physician commented. Another told me that CME programs had been delivered that way since speakers actually carried carousels of 35-mm slides from presentation to presentation. That’s the way it’s done, and that’s the way it’s always been done.

Perhaps, I said. But is that the best way? Wouldn’t it be better to re-create what we all witnessed earlier?

My parting thought was that I hoped they would bring a similar analysis to the communication process that they bring to their profession.

There’s no doubt that communication is an art. But make no mistake, there’s a growing body of social science research around communication. Three credible studies have shown that you can increase communication effectiveness by up to 30 per cent by delivering the same information without showing a single slide.

This research needs to be understood and properly applied, because it clearly shows what we all know in our heart-of-hearts: that slides impede communication.

The bottom line on communication effectiveness is simple. What someone says to an audience is less unimportant than how the audience applies the information or takes action on it.

I have no doubt that the 30 urologists I observed learned things they will be able to apply to their practice by participating in their colleague’s 45-minute presentation.

But could their audiences do the same? If they showed the slides they spent all day developing, the research is actually quite clear.

Probably not.