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The Journey of an Unlikely Public Speaker
By Debi Nelson

Following a state or national HIM gathering, did you ever think, “I would like to present at one of these meetings”? Upon further reflection, the excuses for not doing so can pile up quickly. There are too many people in the audience; you’re not educated enough; you don’t sport the requisite credentials.

If you have had that conversation with yourself, don’t resign yourself to being a permanent member of the audience. Instead, let me share my story of how an unlikely candidate wound up speaking at several national meetings.

I come from a small town of fewer than 3,000 people. An average student, I wasn’t the class president or even a member of the student council. After I attended a small college and received my ART, I began teaching the finer points of the quality monitoring process to small hospitals. At each facility, I was required to present to a small group (usually three or four people). I thoroughly enjoyed the experience; I believed in the process and knew the material well.

Several years later, I became involved with my regional medical record association in Wisconsin. I was passionate about a few topics, so I read everything I could find and tried a few of the recommended approaches within my department. When something worked, I was eager to help my colleagues with the problem. This behavior lent itself to being asked to speak to HIM colleagues as well as nursing and physician groups.

Following a move to North Dakota, I began to speak at the state’s HIM meeting, a gathering that was approximately the same size as the regional Wisconsin get-togethers.

When I attended the inaugural Electronic Health Record Summit, there were presentations about the theories, legal implications, and best practices of EHR implementations. However, there were no presenters from hospitals or clinics that had started the real-life process of planning and implementing an EHR. Because my facility was quickly moving toward an electronic record, I reasoned that others likely would be interested in learning about that process, both its successes and pitfalls.

Despite my passion for the topic, what could an RHIT from North Dakota possibly share with these esteemed colleagues? But there was something: I could talk about my experiences in the trenches and how my coworkers and I dealt with several difficult issues.

The next year, when the summit announced its call for speakers, I e-mailed conference coordinator Michelle Dougherty, MA, RHIA, CHP, who provided support and encouragement during the application process.

There are several steps that will help first-time public speaking hopefuls clarify exactly what they wish to communicate during their presentation. List your objectives, create a session outline, and briefly describe the overall presentation. If your idea is selected, you will be assigned a mentor and a time frame detailing the various submission deadlines.

I bounced my idea past a few trusted colleagues to help determine whether I had the ability, skills, and material to present to a national audience. Eventually, I received the good news that I would be able to share my story about how my facility developed its EHR strategy and its successes and failures. I was fairly comfortable sharing my passion. The audience was appreciative, and the event became a true highlight of my HIM career.

To make speaking in front of a crowd truly enjoyable, it’s important to focus on the fact that you’re helping colleagues. After all, as I told one of my colleagues, “It isn’t like I’m cooking for 300 people, just talking with them and trying to help.”

Speaking in a smaller setting gave me the confidence to pursue the national arena. Does this sound like your situation? Have you presented on topics within your HIM department? Perhaps you could ask to present at a physician or nursing meeting at your facility?

If that’s the case, don’t hesitate to expand your reach. If you have been involved with speaking to various groups at your facility, consider volunteering to speak at a regional or state HIM meeting. Take your current presenting experience and build on it to fit the setting. AHIMA offers numerous speaking opportunities on various topics at a range of venues. For example, from the comfort of my office, I presented a webinar on red flag alerts to a national audience of attorneys.

Should you choose to take a step up to speaking on a larger scale, lean on a trusted colleague for feedback, including having him or her review your PowerPoint slides. It helps to have an outside perspective to determine whether the presentation moves logically from beginning to end and whether its points are clear. It’s important to note that constructive suggestions are equally as valuable as positive comments.

If you’re applying to speak on a national level, you may want to obtain letters of recommendation from administrative staff involved in the project. For example, if the topic is medical-legal risk areas, a hospital attorney would make an ideal reference. This will not only lend credibility to the application but also will be something tangible you can review and refer to when you start to get nervous about the upcoming opportunity.

Another important preparation tip is to rehearse the presentation until you’re comfortable with the material. This also will help you pare down the number of PowerPoint slides. If you include 30 slides in a 45-minute presentation, the audience may not be able to digest all the information. Rehearsing allows you to relax, know exactly which slide will come up next, and pace the presentation so you won’t end too soon or run out of time. This is another instance when a trusted colleague may help by listening to the presentation and viewing the slides.

One final tip: No matter how well you prepare, you likely will be nervous. To combat this, you may want to place a symbol or a photo in the presentation that has special significance. When you get to that slide, take a deep breath and smile. For example, I use the word AND (in capital letters) in a few slides.

Your background, education, facility, or home state don’t define you; your expertise does. If you would like to be a speaker on a larger scale, this year could be the time to share your experiences. Bring your passion and be well prepared. Others will be glad you did.

If you would like further encouragement, don’t hesitate to contact me at starrbright@midco.net.

— Debi Nelson was an RHIT and director of HIM for more than 30 years, with her last position being the corporate privacy officer at Trinity Health in Minot, North Dakota.