It doesn’t matter how many presentation skills training courses we’ve been on or how many truly terrible presentations we’ve seen, we all end up falling into the same old traps when we present, pitch or speak in public. From overusing bulletpoints to mumbling into your script, here (in no particular order) are the top ten presenting sins and how to avoid them:
1. Opening with an apology
“Before I start, I just want to apologise for my slides/my croaky voice/the fact I’m running late/the temperature in here.”
Too many presentations start with an apology. An apology immediately puts you on to the back foot and into low energy mode. Occasionally when presenting we do need to acknowledge something (like the fact that a cold means you’ve got a husky voice) but don’t make it your opening. Deliver your opening with confidence and impact and then, if absolutely necessary, go back and explain why something is the way it is. Start on a bum note and you’re telling your audience that this isn’t going to be worth listening to – so they won’t.
2. Reading your script
No one wants to sit and watch someone read a script. It’s dull, unengaging and guaranteed to send your audience to sleep. NEVER go on stage with what you plan to say written out longhand because you will end up reading it verbatim, or if you try to look up at your audience, you’ll then lose your place. By all means take some prompts such as cue cards with bulletpoints on them on with you, but you need to know your stuff. If you’re just going to read your script, you might as well just email it to all the delegates and save us the bother of being bored to death by your presentation.
3. Relying on your slides
If you’re using slides, who are they for? Clue: It’s not you. Slides are there for the audience, to bring your messages to life and make them easier to understand and remember. They are NOT your script! Two reasons this is problematic. First, if you’re relying on slides to prompt you through the talk, you’ll end up turning away from the audience to read them. Second, what happens if the projector fails? It’s not that uncommon. You need to be able to deliver your presentation without slides – then the slides just add to the experience for the audience.
When a slide of bulletpoints appears on a screen during a presentation, doesn’t your heart just sink? They are without doubt the dullest way of presenting information. If you create a slide by starting with a bulletpoint, you’re about to create a boring slide. So don’t do it. Look for other ways to present the same information because bulletpoints are the sign of a lazy presenter. How about 6 images instead of 6 bullets?
5. Having no structure
An audience likes to know what’s going on. Where are we in this presentation? Are we still in the first section or have we moved on to the second? Outline what you’re going to cover in your presentation (preferably without just putting up a slide saying ‘agenda’) then use ‘signposts’ in your slides, your speech and your actions to highlight when you’re closing one topic and moving on to the next. Perhaps use these junctions between sections to ask if there are any questions before you move on. If you’re not sure how to structure your presentation, ‘Past, Present, Future’ is always a good bet.
6. Not setting objectives for yourself or your audience
Before you start planning your presentation, you need to be clear in your mind what you want to get out of it. What do you want the session to achieve? What do you want the audience to do differently afterwards? Do you want to create behaviour change, inspire them or motivate them? Likewise, you need to understand what your audience want to get out of the session and accept that their objectives might be very different to yours. Are they looking for motivation or actually for reassurance? Do they really want to know about future plans or are they more interested in how to achieve their bonus? If you don’t meet their objectives in your presentation, you’ll never meet your own.
7. Not tailoring your presentation to your audience
No two presentations should ever be the same, as no two audiences are ever the same. Any stand-up comic will tell you that they can perform exactly the same set of material two nights running and have the audience in stitches the first night then die horribly the next night, and the same is true of your presentation. You need to know who your audience are, what their circumstances are, what they’re looking for from your presentation and what type of presentation they’re expecting. You then need to tweak (or if necessary completely rewrite) your presentation as needed. If you’re just rolling out the same presentation every time, you’re doing your audience a disservice.
8. Not rehearsing
No actor, musician, comedian or other performer would expect an audience to give them their attention without having rehearsed what they’re going to do first. Why would a presentation be any different? It’s partly a matter of respect for your audience, this body of people you are expecting to give you their precious time and attention. It’s also a matter of self respect, of wanting to do your best and make your presentation as good (and as effective) as it can be. Even the shortest or most informal of presentations should have been rehearsed at least once, and crucially out loud. Reading through your notes or flicking through your slides isn’t a rehearsal. Practice saying the words you want to deliver and ideally rehearse in front of someone you trust to give useful feedback to make the presentation – and your delivery of it – as good as it can be. The ‘gold standard’ is to film your rehearsal, even just using your phone, so you can watch it back and see how you come across to an audience.
Thankfully the days of ‘stand and deliver’ presentations when a presenter just drones at an audience are coming to an end. Always view your presentation as a two-way process, a conversation between you and the audience. Audiences now expect engagement and interaction during a presentation. Ask questions, set exercises, encourage interaction via a hashtag on social media. There is a huge range of tools at your disposal to engage your audience. If you’re doing all the talking, there’s something amiss.
10. Petering out…
A final classic (and completely avoidable) mistake I see in so many presentations is that there’s no sense of ending or coming to a conclusion. Too often people simply peter out and say ‘that’s it’ or click past their last slide so suddenly we’re looking at their computer’s desktop on screen. Your presentation should build, if not to a crescendo, then certainly to clear and strong ending. Recap your main points and spell out your call to action; what do you want people to leave the room and do differently? What’s the next step? Then leave them with a final thought – perhaps a strong image, a video or a final quote. Something that means your presentation ends on a high and leaves the audience feeling that they’ve just seen and heard something of value to them.
Needless to say these aren’t the only presenting sins you’re likely to see (or commit). What are the mistakes and habits that annoy you when you see them? What would you add to this list – and how do you avoid them yourself? If you can eliminate these ten no-nos from your own presentations, you’re well on the way to being a great presenter.
About the Author
Steve Bustin is an award-winning public speaker on media and communication issues. He is the author of The Authority Guide to Presenting and Public Speaking (bit.ly/AuthorityGuide) and was named UK Speaker of the Year 2015 by The Professional Speaking Association. Find out more about Steve and his speech coaching and presentation skills training on www.stevebustin.com.