5 common presentation missteps—and how to avoid them

It’s easy to see and hear the flaws when someone else is delivering a talk, but many of us lapse into those very miscues when we’re speaking. The first step is identifying the problems.

5 presentation mistakes

We easily spot the flaws—too long, boring, indecipherable—when others speak.

Yet when we take the stage ourselves, many of us fall into those same pitfalls.

Here are five common presentation mistakes, along with tips on how to avoid them:

1. Failing to engage emotionally

You risk losing your audience when you just “state the facts,” even in a business setting. No presentation should be devoid of emotion, no matter how cerebral the topic or the audience. Speak to people’s hearts as well as their minds.

Look for ways to add emotional texture to your exhibits, data, proofs, logical arguments and other analytical content. Try opening with a story your audience can relate to, for example, or including analogies that make your data more meaningful.

To unearth the emotional appeal of your ideas, ask yourself a series of “why” questions. If you’re requesting funding to pay for cloud storage, for instance, start by asking, “Why do we need cloud storage?” Your answer might be, “to facilitate data sharing with colleagues in remote locations.”

Then ask why you need to accomplish that—and you’ll eventually get to the human beings who will be affected by your ideas. Suppose your answer is “to help remote colleagues coordinate disaster relief efforts and save lives.” That’s your emotional hook. Once you’ve found it, it’s easier to choose words and images that elicit empathy and support.

2. Asking too much of your slides

PowerPoint can be a great tool, but know what you’re trying to accomplish with it. Do only that, nothing more. Problems crop up when you place too many elements in a slide deck. If you cram in all the points you’re going to cover so you won’t forget anything, you’ll end up projecting entire documents when you speak. (Garr Reynolds aptly calls these hydra-headed beasts “slideuments.”)

No one wants to attend a plodding read-along. It’s boring, and people can read more efficiently on their own, anyway. So don’t try to spell everything out bullet by exhausting bullet. Keep your teleprompter text hidden from the audience’s view, in the “notes” field, and project only visuals that reinforce your ideas. What if you want to circulate documents afterward? Create handouts from all that text you’ve pulled off your slides and moved into “notes.”

3. Trotting out tired visuals

Want your presentation to stand out (in a good way) from the others? Brainstorm lots of visual concepts—and throw away the first ones that came to mind. They’re the ones that occur to everyone else, too. That’s why you’ve seen them a million times in other people’s presentations. Generate several ideas for each concept you want to illustrate, and you’ll work your way toward originality.


4. Speaking in jargon

Have you ever listened to a presenter who sounded super-smart, but you have no idea what she really said? If so, the presentation was probably full of jargon. Each field has its own lexicon that’s familiar to experts but foreign to everyone else. Unless you’re speaking to a group of people who are steeped in the material themselves, you’re better off avoiding highly technical or industry-specific language.

Use words that will resonate with those whose support and influence you must earn. If they can’t follow your ideas, they won’t adopt them. Consider whether your presentation passes the “grandmother test”: If your grandmother wouldn’t understand what on earth you’re talking about, rework your message.

5. Going over your allotted time

A great talk goes by quickly. People in your audience will never scold you for ending early, but they certainly will for ending late. Treat your assigned time slot as sacred, and keep in mind that people have a 30- to 40-minute presentation tolerance. (They’re conditioned by TV shows with creatively produced commercial breaks). Go longer than that, and they’re sure to squirm.

Nancy Duarte is an author, speaker and CEO of Duarte, Inc., the largest design firm in Silicon Valley. Nancy has written six best-selling books, and her new book, DataStory: Explain Data and Inspire Action Through Story, is available now. Follow Duarte on Twitter and LinkedIn.

A version of this post first appeared on Duarte’s blog.


2 Responses to “5 common presentation missteps—and how to avoid them”

    Bill Spaniel says:

    The first duty of any presenter is to entertain. By that I don’t mean cracking jokes or doing a song and dance. No. The presenter must show enthusiasm and creativity in regards to her topic. She needs to figure out how to present it in an interesting, compelling way. Study TED talks. They are always entertaining.

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