Most addiction programs make use of patient education– to impart new knowledge, but also to clear up the many misconceptions about recovery that addicts bring with them to treatment. That’s also true of other chronic diseases, such as diabetes or depression. And that education is often delivered by counselors in classroom-type settings.

Therein lies the problem: People don’t go into social work or counseling because they love to stand up in front of groups and deliver presentations. 75% of us experience measurable anxiety just thinking about it, and for others, it’s much worse (technical name: glossophobia). Thus the Seinfeld joke about how at any funeral there’s someone who’d rather be in the casket than delivering the eulogy.

Still, the ability to deliver meaningful information in a class format helps us not only in treatment but outside it: Delivering valuable stigma-reducing information to community groups, for instance. That can be part of a counselor’s job as well.

Some practical suggestions for becoming more effective as a presenter of patient education:

  1. Know your material. Take the time to think about and study and practice your presentation, in front of a mirror, or perhaps with a recording. Suppose you were in the audience listening to someone else deliver the talk. What would get your attention? What would you enjoy learning about?
  2. Talk mostly to one or two people in the audience, not the audience as a whole. Pick someone who looks reasonably receptive. See if you can get them nodding appreciatively as you talk.
  3. Use questions. Even rhetorical questions (where you don’t really expect an answer) are a way of involving people in your talk. Example: “How many here have experienced vivid dreams of drinking or using? Anybody have a particularly powerful one to share?” That gets people involved. Keep audience contributions brief, though. Extended discussions with one person can be sleep-inducing.
  4. Aim for clarity. Patient groups, particularly in primary treatment, can become confused by too much information. Figure out in advance the ideas that genuinely need to be emphasized. Introduce them early and make sure you repeat them right before the end.
  5. It’s not about the graphics. In fact, an overly complicated Powerpoint can actually distract from your message. Focus instead on what you say and how you say it. Graphics are a support, not a substitute, for an interesting instructor.