Fear and the medical lecturer

Conway McLean, DPM

Most of us, being human as we are, have fears of one sort or another. Perhaps it’s a fear of spiders or snakes. Some have a fear of heights or enclosed spaces. Many of these are quite understandable, and some are perfectly appropriate. (Falling from a height can be dangerous and is something to be avoided!) Generally, most would say that fears are something to be conquered or overcome.

A fear of public speaking is certainly a common one. Having to speak in front of an audience can bring some grown men to tears. Surveys have shown public speaking to be the most common fear. People fear it even more than death. Consequently, comedian Jerry Seinfeld put it this way, “This means, to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.’

Public speaking is not something required of every physician, but many do have the opportunity. What is required of all doctors is to continue their education, even after completing their post-graduate training. This is usually achieved by attending seminars directed toward an appropriate topic, related in some way to the physician’s field of medicine. These seminars are held all over the world, and, for the most part, the lectures provided are given by physicians.

This process of ongoing medical education consists of educational activities which serve a very specific purpose: to maintain, develop, or increase the knowledge and skills that a physician uses to provide services for their patients.

In most countries, this is a necessity in order to maintain their licensure. This continuing medical education is the purpose of nearly all medical seminars, which are a big business. Predictable, since every medical specialty, every type of physician, must obtain a certain number of education credits per year.

As you may have guessed, these seminar lectures means speaking in front of a large audience, a nerve-wracking process to some. I had the good fortune of giving my first medical lecture in front of a small, supportive audience as part of my residency program.

These were the attendings of my residency, the physicians who were overseeing the program. I don’t remember being particularly nervous due to the small size of the group and my familiarity with the topic. In fact, I enjoyed it, and subsequently went on to lecture at my residency even after completing the program, speaking to the residents that followed me, as well as the attendings.

I must have gotten “the bug” since I have gone on to lecture numerous times, to a great variety of audiences. As the head podiatrist for a large, 50 doctor medical group in the city, I was asked to give a lecture on behalf of the company I worked for. I’m assuming I did fairly well since I was subsequently asked to become their designated lecturer. In my years with this corporation, I gave dozens of lectures to a variety of groups, from administrators to nurses, doctors to senior citizens.

When some people learn about the lecturing I’ve done, I am met with consternation and disbelief. How can I voluntarily, willingly participate in this kind of activity? To some, this would have to require the use of a gun. But what’s the worst thing that can happen? You might be embarrassed slightly if you were to stumble over your words. If you screw up, or you panic and bolt, so what? Really, that’s not likely to happen. But what if it does? Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and live to fight another day. Failing is part of business and life.

I have learned some basic recommendations that seem to work wonders for many people. One helpful principle is to face your fear. The first step to resolving any problem is to admit it exists. Have faith that you will get over it. You’re far from alone and in very good company. Some very successful and famous people have had stage fright. If you’re brave enough to be honest with yourself and face your fear, you will overcome it.

Perhaps the most important suggestion I could make is to know your material thoroughly. It helps your confidence immensely to know your material backwards and forwards. Don’t memorize, just be clear on the information you want to get across, your key points and messages. People who look calm and relaxed at the lectern – who think well on their feet – are confident because they’re prepared. You have to know your stuff.

When lecturing, everyone in the room is there, not to judge, but to hear the material, hopefully to learn. While everyone may be looking at you, probably half of them are distracted by their own lives and dramas. And it’s likely about a quarter of the audience has the same fear of public speaking, that’s a lot of empathy.

Another way to win over an audience is to interact with them. It doesn’t have to be an opening joke, but perhaps a story they can relate to. This can serve to relax the attendees, as well as relieve your feelings of isolation. Another tactic is to ask leading questions relevant to your topic. You’ll instantly feel more comfortable and so will your audience. Ironically, that will also make you a more dynamic and engaging speaker.

My next speaking engagement will be in New Orleans at a medical seminar at the end of the month. My topic will be on venous disease. As you may have guessed, this will be given to other physicians, but most of my speaking engagements over the years have been given to the lay public. Obviously, these are very different presentations. My preferred topic when speaking to the public is on diabetes.

Educating people about the dangers of diabetes, especially how to prevent infection and amputation, is a passion of mine (as regular readers have likely surmised). At this point, I will admit to still having some nervousness when speaking in public, but I think of it more as adrenalin. Experience is a great teacher; I at least have that on my side.

Editor’s note: Dr. Conway McLean is a physician practicing foot and ankle medicine in the Upper Peninsula, with an upcoming move of his Marquette office to the downtown area. McLean has lectured internationally on wound care and surgery, being double board certified in surgery, and also in wound care. He has a sub-specialty in foot-ankle orthotics. Dr. McLean welcomes questions or comments atdrcmclean@outlook.com.