Medical Affairs presentations need improvement.

Are you a doctor or a medical affairs representative? Then chances are you have visited a company/satellite symposium lately…and got bored or distracted pretty quickly. And unfortunately HCPs are getting bored as well.

Scientific communication in the industry these days doesn’t work as well as it should. No, this is not the case at big scientific congresses like ESC or AHA, where speakers are coached and instructed properly, but rather at smaller symposia. And it is at small symposia where we engage most of our customers and where we need to be highly effective in terms of communicaiton. Otherwise, we will not keep up with the internet. The internet provides information in a flexible and easily “digestible” manner.

In the pharmaceutical industry, medical affairs representatives and external speakers can improve their presentations by following the simple rules of communication. But let’s find out what is wrong in the first place.

Overloaded presentations

In 99% of presentations I have watched over the last decade, the speakers fail to transport a clear main message. Many speakers, medical affairs or external, try to cram as many messages into their presentation, try to cite as many studies, as possible. Unfortunately, this is very ineffective. We know from neurological studies that we have a limited span of attention, which has usually faded after 20 minutes into the presentation. Also, it is widely accepted, that only after several repetitions we are able to retrieve information actively from our memory. Therefore, as a presenter, you have about 20 minutes to display, explain and repeat your message. With every additional message you are trying to convey, your chances of reaching your audience decline massively.

In line with the urge of “multi-messaging” in the global context of the whole presentation, 90% of presenters overload their powerpoint slides with too much “ink” (pixels nowadays). The visual display genius Edward R. Tufte speaks of the data-ink ratio, which can be calculated like this: data-ink/total ink in graphic. An ideal graphic, i.e. an ideal powerpoint slide, should contain only ink that conveys data or items that are necessary to convey your message. On an ideal slide, nothing can be erased without losing information.

Multiple messages

Rarely do headlines on slides transport a message, but they remain generic. That is a waste of ink and time, as the headline does not help the audience to understand the message quicker. You could write: “Distribution of the number of sleep hours for adults”. Or, giving your audience a clue, you could write: “Only 28% of adults sleep the recommended 8 hours”. Which heading helps your audience to understand more effectively?

A message as titel helps understanding charts. Adapted from “Trees, Maps and Theorems – Jean-Luc Doumont”


I remain puzzled why these issues remain. Probably some presenters, the minority I hope, are trying to impress the audience with complexity. Some might simply not have the time to word their main message. Some might simply not be aware of the basic principles of communication. However, I am certain, that some medical affairs representatives fear legal consequences of wording clear messages onto canvas.

The basic principles of effective communication

How can medical affairs representatives improve their communication?

MSLs, Medical Advisors, Medical Manager and most importantly their medical affairs managers, need to understand the most important principles of effective oral communication. They need to understand and apply them.

  1. Focus on one topic only. Twenty minutes are short and science has proven again and again, that our span of attention mostly doesn’t last longer than 20 minutes.
  2. Find that one sentence that says it all. Find your main message and drive it home. If your audience can recite your main message after it leaves the auditorium, you won.
  3. One slide – one topic – one message. Keep it simple and have distinct, easy messages as main sentences.
  4. Keep reducing the ink on your slides until you can’t reduce it any more without losing content. The usual graphs and tables have too much non-data ink, which only creates distraction. Eliminate all logos, text etc. if your marketing allows.
  5. The industry needs to provide better education to their MSLs, Medical Managers and to external speakers. Nowadays, with the internet providing flexible coaching solutions, every customer facing function should know how to structure communication properly.

In the pharmaceutical industry there is still room for improvement in regards to proper scientific communication. Many presenters still overload their presentations with too many messages, too much ink and generic headlines. We can render our communication much more effective, by remembering the basic principles: 1 topic – simple slides – high data/ink ratio. We just need to make sure our MSLs, medical managers and external speakers apply them. Now.


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Further Reading:

Effective communicatio for rational minds:

Edward R Tufte: Visual Display of Quantitatve Information: Edward R Tufte – Display of Information

Graphic by