Friday, September 14, 2012

How to put delegates to sleep at a medical conference - Coma By PowerPoint

I recently attended a medical conference. I met many colleagues and made lots of new friends but was very disappointed by how little medical conferences have evolved over the past few years. Most conferences still use the traditional format where an expert stands up and goes through a deck of slides,  while his audience sits and listens. This is the old-fashioned chalk and talk method of delivering information , and multiple studies have shown that it's an extremely ineffective way of communicating information. Most people in the audience are either dozing or chatting with each other. There is very little audience interaction ; and most participants seem to be far more animated during the tea break then during the actual conference itself.

Why are we still stuck in a rut ? Why do we continue to use this outdated format of giving lectures in order to teach doctors ? This seems to be a hangover from our days in school , when we were locked up in a classroom , and the teacher droned on and on while we were forced to sit and listen to her.
Doctors are adult learners and have very different needs. It's high time medical conference organizers learned to respect the needs of the conference delegates , and organized conferences in order to maximize the transmission of information to the participants.

A major problem seems to be that most conference organizers do not respect the delegates. A lot of conferences are organized by medical associations and societies , which do this as an annual function. While the purpose of these conferences is supposed to be continuing medical education, most of the time they just seem to be platforms which the society office bearers use in order to talk about their feats and scratch each other's backs.

A lot of time is wasted in introductions and inaugurations. Speakers are usually selected not because of their expertise or their ability to give a presentation , but simply because they are friends of the conference organizers. The rule seems to be - if I invite you to give a lecture at my conference , you will invite me to yours, as a result of which the merry-go-round with the same set of boring speakers carries on year after year.

While some experts are extremely articulate , the sad truth is that most professors are not very good at giving lectures. They do not take the time and trouble to prepare their lectures ; and will often use the same deck of slides which they carry around with them from conference to conference. They will dim the lights; and then start to read out the contents of the slides. Not only does this induce boredom, it’s very disrespectful of the needs of the participants., who soon end up in a coma after the post lunch session.

This is actually very insulting to delegates and wastes an inordinate amount of precious time. Sadly, most delegates put up with this partly because they have very low expectations ; and partly because they do not know any better . Since most conferences seem to follow the same stodgy format , they aren’t aware that there could be a better way of learning.

The biggest tragedy is that medical conference organizers refuse to learn from what other industries are doing as far as organizing conferences goes. Most medical conference organizers have not heard of the concept of unconferences; and since there seems to be very little pressure on them change or improve , I guess this sad state of affairs will continue for a long time.

This is a tragedy, and medical conference organizers could learn a lot from successful conferences such as Ted Talks. Rather than put the lecturer first , we need to put the needs of the delegates first , and I think if they established their priorities correctly, they would be able to do a much better job.

If I were organizing a medical conference, how would I do it ?

I’d start off by asking attendees what they wanted to learn. I'd ask them who they would want as speakers ; and what topics they would like covered. In this day and age of instant electronic communication, this would be easy to do online ; and it would be possible to catalyze the process by putting up a list of frequently asked questions, to which the delegates could add their own.

Interested doctors could be asked to register online on the conference website; and then send in their doubts and queries by email. This will allow speakers to provide fresh insights , rather than a hodge-podge and re-hash of the same old topics. The conference would be special because it would be tailored to the delegate’s needs !

I would then identify the experts in the field ; and tell them that the purpose of the talk would be to answer these questions. While experts may know a lot about the technical details of their area of specialisation, many do not know much about how to present this information . I would spend time and energy helping them to polish their presentation , so that they can actively engage their audience and do a better job. I’d provide them with a template for their presentation – and encourage them to use a Q and A format for their lecture. This means that rather than just display slide after slide, they ask the audience a series of topical pertinent questions; wait for the audience to provide an opinion ; and then answer this question  ( using published data ) in their subsequent slides.

Most experts are quite happy to engage in a dialogue , and while this does occur informally during the lunch sessions ( when delegates get a chance to interact informally with the experts ) it's possible to get the audience out of their coma and interact with the speaker using digital technology while the lecture is going on. Delegates could use their smart phones to send SMSes to a particular number in order to ask questions  and clarify their doubts. These messages could then be displayed on the screen , and the expert could actually tailor his presentation so that these questions are answered properly, while the talk was going on .

While conference organizers do provide time for a question-and-answer session after the presentation, most delegates are quite reluctant to stand up and ask questions , as a result of which many of them leave from the conference with many unanswered questions. Many burning issues are never addressed because these slots are often monopolized by loudmouths who want to show off how much they know.  Even worse , since lecturers often overshoot their allotted  time , they will cannibalize the time devoted to the question-and-answer session , and since all the questions are lumped together towards the end of the presentation , many delegates forget their questions.

It's high time medical conference organizers turn the traditional model on its head , and instead of putting speakers first , they learn to put their listeners first . This would actually be very good for speakers as well , because it would put keep them on their toes ! Experts are likely to learn a lot from intelligent questions asked by audience members , because they have a lot of collective experience and expertise, which organizers and speakers need to respect !

This is actually a win-win situation because every speaker knows that he can improve , and would be happy to use professional help in order to do so. More importantly , with this kind of format , the audience is likely to actively participate, as a result of which the conference is likely to be lively, so that not only do people learn a lot because they are actively engaged , they will be happy to come back for the next conference !


  1. Dear Dr,

    That’s a very funny title : ) ‘Coma by power point’ : D I will remember it when I hear some boring presentations : )

    What you have said is very true! Being a biologist I have to attend scientific conferences and after hearing a couple of talks my brain gets too tired and it loses the capacity to imbibe any information. Sometimes even the most exciting data loses its attractiveness because of the presenting person’s delivery style. The solution you have put forward seems to be attractive. Hope we could come out of the traditional way of conducting conferences very soon!

  2. That is a very witty title : ) ‘Coma by energy point : D I will remember it whenever I hear some dull or boring presentations : )
    What you have got said is very true! Being a biologist I need to enroll in scientific conferences as well as soon after hearing a few of talks my brain gets too tired as well as it loses the capacity to imbibe any information. Sometimes perhaps the the vast majority of exciting data loses its attractiveness due to the presenting individuals delivery style. The answer you have put ahead appear to be attractive. Hope you could come from the traditional method of performing seminars extremely shortly!

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