“There’s this one guy at my company who…”
So began my in-flight conversation about presentations and presentation mistakes. This happens a lot. The surprising thing about this conversation was the rest of the sentence.
“…is way too exuberant when he presents.”
Wait, what? Nobody says that.
We talked for a while. I explained how to fix the problem. Then we talked about how rare that problem is.
See, for the past four years, I’ve flown all over the world to bring Duarte methodology to companies via our storytelling workshops.
When I started, I assumed every company would have its own set of problems. So, I began every workshop by asking attendees to jot down presentation challenges at their company. Turns out I was wrong. People across all companies repeatedly make the same presentation mistakes. It doesn’t matter what industry, the age of the company, or the caliber of employees, a bad presentation is bad for the same reasons.
The following list includes all the most common presentation mistakes, which are easy to avoid by the way.
I have facilitated 211 workshops in the past five years.
In every single one, I have asked: “what happens in a bad presentation?”
In literally every single workshop, someone responds “too much information.”
That’s right: 211 times out of 211. You couldn’t get that many people to agree on what day of the week it is.
It’s difficult to give instruction on exactly how much information you need in a presentation – but it’s probably less than you think. Put simply, the more facts we hear, the less any of them stick. Choose wisely.
A good, yet seldom implemented tactic is to focus on what the facts mean rather than the facts themselves.
Instead of just reciting the results or the data, give me an analysis; explain why something happened, and what the ramifications are in the future. We call that balancing information with insight.
A data presentation I love sharing is David Epstein’s TED talk. He is so good at walking you through only the essential information, then telling you why that information matters.
“Take a look at the record for the 100-meter freestyle swim. The record is always trending downward [information] but it’s punctuated by these steep cliffs. The first cliff, in 1956, is the introduction of the flip turn [insight].”
2. You Distract Your Audience with Acronyms, Abbreviations, and Jargon
This one is tricky. To save time, most people at most companies have a slew of acronyms they regularly use. Saving time is a good thing, right? But here’s the problem: acronyms only work when everyone’s been brainwashed to memorize them. If you haven’t memorized a term, your brain spends extra time and energy figuring out what it means. That leads to distraction.
Example: I sat in on a rehearsal for a company’s big marketing presentation. They kept using acronyms like PPC, but never explained what it meant, probably because they use the term 79 times a day. I, however, don’t live, eat, and breathe marketing acronyms. It took me a few seconds to remember what that meant (pay-per-click).
That might not sound like a big deal, but do the math. The average rate of speech is about 130 words per minute. Five seconds to decode an acronym means I’ve missed out on ten words, basically a whole sentence. Every time the presenter used an acronym, it was the equivalent of me putting on earmuffs for the next five seconds. Don’t do that to your audience. Pretty please. As good as it may seem, I promise, it’s a presentation mistake.
3. Presenting Irrelevant Information Guarantees a Bad Presentation
A couple years back I hosted our 1Day Visual Story workshop for a compliance department that presents to the company’s sales team. I asked them to think about the stakes of their presentation. What is in it for the audience? Almost every single attendee said the same thing: “it will allow us to remain compliant.”
Can you see the problem here? Is a salesperson motivated by the goal of remaining compliant?
So, we stopped and thought like salespeople. Eventually, we came up with different stakes: “it will help us avoid an Enron situation.” That’s something a salesperson would listen to.
Make the audience the hero of your presentation. Everything must be catered to them because if they do not adopt the idea you propose in your presentation, your idea dies. At the very least, consider what motivates them, what they already know about your topic, and what a walk in their shoes looks like.
4. Your Call to Action (CTA) is Confusing or Vague
It is amazing how many presentations, even good ones, end without telling the audience what they should now go do. Or, they do give direction, but it’s vague (i.e., “I need your support,” which, depending on how you hear it, could be asking for money, a pat on the back, or an inspiring cat poster). To fix this, picture your audience loving your presentation. Now that they’re bought in, what specific action do you want them to take when they return to their desk?
The best call to action I’ve seen in person was at a productivity seminar. The presenter asked everyone to pull out their phone, she waited until everyone had done so, then she asked them to schedule a reminder one month from that date. Boom. Call to action, answered.
5. Your Monotone Presentation Style is Soporific
Most of the time, this mistake is paired with another classic: the presenter reading their slides to the audience. Just in case the audience couldn’t handle that by themselves.
Look, speaking confidently doesn’t come easily to most of us (though, shameless plug alert: we’ve got a great workshop if you’d like help with that). It can feel awkward, it can feel scary, it can feel like your audience is judging you. It’s not easy, especially if you’re not a naturally ebullient person. But here’s the deal: if you don’t seem excited by your talk, there’s no chance the audience get excited.
Ridiculous as this feels, one of the best things you can do is record yourself. Pull out your phone, open your voice memo app, and talk about your topic for a minute. Odds are the expressiveness you feel internally does not match how it sounds externally. A monotone presentation is a presentation mistake that pretty much guarantees a bad performance.
6. Your Presentation Lacks a Clear Point or Purpose
In one of my first presentation workshops, I sat down with a participant to help him with his point of view.
“What do you have so far?” I asked.
“The team made a lot of mistakes,” he said.
“That’s not a point of view,” I said.
He looked confused. I explained the difference between a point of view and a fact. Let’s try again.
“The team keeps making mistakes.”
Round and round we went. Did he have an opinion as to how the team could get better? Was there a particular mistake the team needed to stop making?
Eventually, he came up with something. But, for the rest of the day I pictured him going through life making factual, opinion-less statements:
- Green is a combination of yellow and blue.
- Socks can be made of either cotton or wool.
- Not many people speak Greek anymore.
You know what still surprises me the most about this?
He is not alone. An incredible number of people have trouble expressing a point of view. They have plenty of facts. Facts are safe. But a point of view is a huge problem. You give your audience an idea to adopt, that often includes taking a chance that they’ll disagree with you. Use your data to back up the opinion, that’ll keep it dynamic, that’ll separate you from the pack.
So, after all those presentation mistakes, we need a happy ending, right? The good news is that bar for presentations in your organization is probably low. If you can avoid making even a few of the very natural presentation mistakes I described, you can easily avoid giving a bad presentation and even stand out as good presenter.
As for that exuberant guy at the beginning of this post? I made that up. Not once have I encountered that person in the corporate world. Odds are that person exists somewhere. If it’s you, consider yourself lucky. You have the opposite issue from most presenters in the world.