Journal of General Internal Medicine

, Volume 16, Issue 5, pp 308–314 | Cite as

Learning oral presentation skills

A rhetorical analysis with pedagogical and professional implications
Original Articles


OBJECTIVE: Oral presentation skills are central to physicianphysician communication; however, little is known about how these skills are learned. Rhetoric is a social science which studies communication in terms of context and explores the action of language on knowledge, attitudes, and values. It has not previously been applied to medical discourse. We used rhetorical principles to qualitatively study how students learn oral presentation skills and what professional values are communicated in this process.

DESIGN: Descriptive study.

SETTING: Inpatient general medicine service in a university-affiliated public hospital.

PARTICIPANTS: Twelve third-year medical students during their internal medicine clerkship and 14 teachers.

MEASUREMENTS: One-hundred sixty hours of ethnographic observation, including 73 oral presentations on rounds. Discourse-based interviews of 8 students and 10 teachers. Data were quanlitatively analyzed to uncover recurrent patterns of communication.

MAIN RESULTS: Students and teachers had different perceptions of the purpose of oral presentation, and this was reflected in performance. Students described and conducted the presentation as a rule-based, data-storage activity governed by “order” and “structure.” Teachers approached the presentation as a flexible means of “communication” and a method for “constructing” the details of a case into a diagnostic or therapeutic plan. Although most teachers viewed oral presentations rhetorically (sensitive to context), most feedback that students received was implicit and acontextual, with little guidance provided for determining relevant content. This led to dysfunctional generalizations by students, sometimes resulting in worse communication skills (e.g., comment “be brief” resulted in reading faster rather than editing) and unintended value acquisition (e.g., request for less social history interpreted as social history never relevant).

CONCLUSION: Students learn oral presentation by trial and error rather than through teaching of an explicit rhetorical model. This may delay development of effective communication skills and result in acquisition of unintended professional values. Teaching and learning of oral presentation skills may be improved by emphasizing that context determines content and by making explicit the tacit rules of presentation.

Key Words

medical education professional communication feeback language socialization social sciences 


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Copyright information

© Blackwell Science Inc 2001

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.From the Medical Service, San Francisco General Hospital, Department of MedicineUniversity of California, San FranciscoSan Francisco
  2. 2.Centre for Research in Education at the University Health NetworkUniversity of Toronto, Faculty of MedicineTorontoCanada

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