numero rivista e pagine: HSR Proceedings in Intensive Care and Cardiovascular Anesthesia 2012; 4(3): 197-198
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Who on earth is this person talking to?

Authors: M. John*1,2

Head of Medical Humanities International MD Program, Professor of Biomedical Communication Skills,
Faculty of Medicine, Vita-Salute San Raffaele University, Milan, Italy

Corresponding author: * Corresponding author:
Prof. Michael John
UniversitÓ Vita-Salute San Raffaele
Via Olgettina, 48 - 20132 Milan, Italy
E-mail: michael.john@hsr.it

This is a question I remember asking myself some years ago when a student of mine, a medical school undergraduate, was carrying out a 10-minute presentation (I honestly cannot remember about what) during the end-of-course examination. It has to be one of the strangest professional experiences I have ever had.
The gentleman had attended my series of lessons on peer-to-peer biomedical communication, and was therefore quite familiar with what I expected from him and his fellow students for this congress-type simulation. It goes without saying that he did not meet the mark.
Quite on the contrary, he managed to give one of the worst, although quite fascinating, public-speaking performances I have ever seen.
Unfortunately, in the world of presenting he is not alone. It is quite common for those of us who need to speak in public for whatever reason, whether at an international mega-congress or during a simple lab meeting, to get things terribly wrong. We are all quite familiar with the need to have excellent data, well structured and elegantly laid out slides, active use of the laser pointer, positive body language and varied voice tone etc. Then, of course, there is the fundamental matter of eye contact. Let me tell you how things went with my student.
I previously said that the student’s performance was dreadful, yet fascinating. How might this be possible? Well, during a presentation you would expect a speaker to actually speak to you. The audience must always be addressed, whether there are 20 or 200 people in the room. Twenty people can be engaged directly with positive use of eye contact; indeed, you can actually look them in the eye while you are presenting. With 200 people, you can have real eye contact with only a relatively small number of them; with the rest, you look in their direction, taking in slices of the room as your gaze moves around, thus giving people the impression that you are speaking to them directly.
During the student’s examination I was the only person in the room. You might think, therefore, that eye contact would have been a pretty straightforward non-complicated act to carry out. Wrong.
For some strange reason, he was twisted and contorted and bent almost double, speaking to some mysterious entity in a specific area to be found in the corner of the room. Head bent down and back turned towards me, mumbling away; I began to get rather perplexed. Maybe the guy was having some kind of delusion, or else, which is hopefully the case, he was nervous to the point of no return, and was thus doing all he could to avoid and not engage eye contact.
Being nervous during an oral presentation in any kind of context is more than normal. It might even be considered rather positive, when the nervousness is not excessive and can therefore be controlled, as it gets the adrenaline pumping and enhances your final performance once you get over the initial hurdle. My student was evidently too nervous. I do not wish to make fun of anyone, but this was just too much.
Eye contact is fundamental to your success as a presenter.
Avoiding eye contact, and electing to speak with your slides, pieces of furniture, out of the window, or with mysterious entities lodged in the corner of the room will not help your cause.
Very often the audience will be tired after a long day of presentations at busy congress schedules and will take any opportunity whatsoever to have a little nap, or else fiddle with cell phones etc. rather than listen to a non-engaging speaker.
Positive eye contact will help the audience to focus upon what you are saying. It will also help show them that you are truly interested in the topic of your talk, and that you are not simply going through the motions. It is quite simple, but it is extremely effective.



'This is the fifteenth of a series of articles on this topic. Send any questions to michael.john@hsr.it who will answer them as part of this column'