The practice of public health leadership often centers around serving as a source of inspiration to others. Clear and inspiring messages are particularly needed in these times of uncertainty and conflict for those who practice public health on the front lines.1 In this column, a few guiding principles and best practices are offered that public health leaders might consider as they attempt to fashion messages and deliver presentations that are inspiring and clear.
- Know yourself: As one prepares to develop a message that is clear and inspiring, the process can begin with a pause in the daily routine along with an effort to ground oneself in one's core values and sense of purpose. Why was I drawn to this problem in the first place? What bigger problem are we solving together? From this vantage point, one may then focus on the purpose of the presentation and the audience. Much then depends on the cultivation of presence as well as the ability to be really present when delivering inspiring messages, a very challenging task in light of the many distractions faced by leaders but made easier if the “why” can be drawn into focus for your audience and yourself. To be “really present” is a fundamental leadership challenge.
- Know your audience: As much as possible, seek to understand the values, knowledge, and experience of your audience. Where are they coming from? What might the attitude of the audience be to you as the presenter and to what you will be presenting? How will the presentation address the needs of your audience? What do you wish the “lasting benefit” to be for them? Meeting people where they are at ensures your message will resonate with their outlook and challenges.
- Know your purpose: What is the purpose of your message? Do you want to inspire, inform, persuade, or motivate your audience? It is essential to discern what your audience needs to hear and feel rather than just what you might want to say. All too often, speakers simply say what they want to say (as if thinking out loud) rather than striving to communicate in ways that touch on what the listener needs to hear. Some suggest that a presenter be clear on the S.O.C.O. (the single overriding communication objective) as a starting point for creating an inspiring and compelling presentation.
From these central questions, one can then begin the process of organizing the ideas for the presentation. Research has shown that for most presentations, whether short or long, the listener will typically retain only 3 (or at most 4) central points. Therefore, it is incumbent on the speaker to be very clear on what those 3 key points are!
Then, the presenter can fashion the presentation using the following structure:
- The opening: The audience must first care about what you are saying before they can really hear what you have to say. Therefore, the opening is crucial in establishing a connection with the audience. Tonality is very important in that the audience will form an immediate impression of the speaker in the first few minutes. Humor and a simple story can serve the purpose of connecting speaker and audience. Furthermore, keep in mind that the listener will recall how the speaker made them feel long after they may have forgotten what was said. Therefore, attention to making an emotional connection can enhance the impact of the presentation. Remind yourself and your audience about the “why” from your preparation.
- The body: The body of the presentation should be constructed around 3 key points. These points can be developed with evidence that supports the point along with meaningful and memorable personal stories; the audience is likely to recall the stories long after the facts and figures are forgotten. The use of metaphor and analogy is a key leadership skill that will enrich any presentation and add to the power of a personal story. Other tools include sharing expert opinion and research findings. Seeking, and seeing, nods and other body language from your audience is a way to encourage real-time feedback during the presentation to know how you are doing, connecting with your audience's understanding and perspective of each point you make.
- The conclusion: A strong conclusion must be well structured and carefully delivered. Succinctly summarizing the 3 key points is essential and should be “fine-tuned” using a few well-chosen words. Often a public health leader wishes for the audience to act in some way based on the presentation; therefore, a clear “call to action” may be appropriate. If so, the action should be presented as simply and concretely as possible such that the listener can act with intention and focus. Finally, the presentation must end with a strong final statement that captures the essence of the message in a clear and inspiring way. Avoid a weak ending or else the impact of your message will be reduced. Connecting back with the “why” again, if only briefly, reminds the audience that the key messages are embedded in shared values and vision, which will help them resonate long after your presentation.
Preparation and Practice
- Visual aids: Once the presentation has been organized along these lines, the presenter must prepare and rehearse the presentation. This may involve the development of visual aids, which should be simple and clear. The purpose of a visual aid is to help manage the attention of the audience rather than to convey large amounts of information; therefore, a slide should be simple and clear, with no more than 3 points. Good visuals can serve both the presenter and the audience by helping both to maintain their focus.
- Practice: Since most presentations will take longer than originally planned, the presenter should rehearse and time the presentation to avoid going over time. An actual presentation may take 10% to 20% longer than the time taken during a practice session. There is no penalty for ending a presentation in less than the allocated time. You could ask a trusted friend to listen to your rehearsal to simulate your delivery conditions and to provide feedback.
- Context: Much of the suggestions noted here apply both to in-person presentations and to virtual presentations. In some respects, virtual presentations represent special challenges, which are beyond the scope of this column. Therefore, both modes of delivery are covered here by emphasizing common themes.
- Presence: A presenter is first presenting herself or himself before actually sharing information. Too often, presenters focus on the information that they intend to share, particularly in technical presentations. A presenter who first conveys a bit of her or his own personal story and passion for the subject is much more likely to connect in the initial stage of the presentation.
- Tone and pacing: Presenters should be aware of their tone as they deliver a presentation along with the pace of delivery. Tone should be managed as if in a conversation—speak with the audience, not at the audience. Varying the pace by using pauses can assist in maintaining the attention of the audience.
- Projecting: It can be helpful in a face-to-face presentation for the presenter to imagine that she or he is throwing her or his voice over the head of the most distant audience member. Even in a virtual presentation, this tactic may have value. In either setting, maintaining eye contact is also essential.
- Closing: As noted earlier, the closing of a presentation should be strong and clear, with a “call to action” if appropriate. Summarizing one's 3 key points at the end is often a very good practice. Be aware of the importance of the emotional connection with your audience as you close the presentation.
Responding to Questions
After most formal presentations, time is reserved for a few questions. Audience engagement can be a very valuable component of a presentation, whether during or after the formal remarks, both for the audience and for the speaker. For the speaker, questions can be considered feedback for your next presentation. What in the presentation might have been clearer? Which topics—either discussed or undiscussed—resonate most with the audience? Listening intently for both the substance of the question and its context allows the speaker to both connect with individual audience members to gain a better appreciation of their perspective and clarify or emphasize points from the presentation.
You might consider a few best practices as you formulate your response:
- Make sure you understand the question and even paraphrase the question by asking, “Do I understand you to say...?” This not only acknowledges the person asking the question but also gives you time to formulate a response.
- Your response should reinforce the key points of your presentation. If the question takes you into unknown territory, feel free to simply say, “That's a good question, but I'm afraid I have not given that much thought,” and move on.
- Finally, maintain your tone and presence during the Q&A session. Often, this will be your last time to connect with your audience in a positive way. Do not hesitate to end your session by thanking your audience for their interest and engagement.
The suggestions noted previously relate to a formal presentation that can be prepared and practiced in advance. From time to time, one can be called on to speak extemporaneously. In that situation, a few structures may be useful in helping one to organize one's thoughts on the spot.
- Rule of three: As noted earlier, research seems to show that the listener will often recall only 3 points from any presentation or message. Therefore, you might begin to collect your thoughts and preface your remarks by stating that you have 3 points to share.
- Chronological: At times, it may be helpful to discuss past, present, and future aspects of the topic. For example, you may emphasize what has worked in the past, where things are at present, and your hopes for the future.
- PREP: Another structure to consider begins with you stating your key point (P) or recommendation, then giving the reason (R) why you are making the recommendation, followed by an example (E), and finally reinforcing your point (P) at the end of your impromptu remarks.
Preparing, practicing, and delivering inspiring presentations are a central leadership skill. To be most effective, leaders should develop their own disciplined approach following the suggestions noted here and then commit to regular practice in applying that approach. Over time, skill will improve along with the impact of one's presentations. As a result, public health leaders can become more competent and also more confident as they seek to inspire and influence others in the service of the public's health.
1. Wiesman J, Baker EL. The public health worker mental health crisis—a major leadership challenge. J Public Health Manag Pract. 2022;28(1):95–98.