5 common ways to commit presentation blunders

Even if you’re a great storyteller, how you look and the words you use could spell disaster.

There is plenty of advice out there on how to create a great presentation. Most of it centers on two common pieces of advice:

  1. Tell more stories.
  2. Use bigger fonts.

Neither is always easy to do, but the more events I attend, the more I realize something that still surprises me how people connect with you as a speaker: Having a good story is not enough.

Presenting in front of an audience, whether it’s to three potential investors or 3,000 conference attendees, requires some kind of story. And your presentation style, along with the visuals you use, will surely make a difference.

But the speakers who completely lose their audiences are often not the ones with endless bullet points or monotone delivery. Those are the obvious things to fix.

After listening and taking notes on hundreds of presentations (including my own), I’ve learned there are specific landmines that can sabotage anything you say, no matter how well-crafted your presentation. With most, the end result is that you lose the attention or trust of an audience member immediately—and it becomes nearly impossible to get it back.

There are a few common mistakes I often see speakers make to lose their audiences. Yes, I’ve learned some of these the hard way, but hopefully sharing them will help you avoid making them the next time you give a presentation or make a pitch.

Mistake 1: Preamble overdose

Tip: Don’t give an introduction that lasts forever.

Just about every listener’s least favorite words to hear at the start of a presentation are “let me tell you a little bit about myself.”

Most of the time audience members already have your bio. Even if they don’t, the last thing they need is a five-minute recitation of it. Wasting your audience’s time with it puts you in a credibility hole that is tough to dig out of.

Skip the self-serving bio, or at least move it to the end of your presentation.

Mistake 2: Toxic words

Tip: Avoid loaded buzzwords or stereotypes that show ignorance.

Every industry and audience has hot-button words or issues. Entrepreneurs who work from home hate the implication that they have plenty of free time. PR pros hate the assumption that all they do is write press releases. Most psychologists hate to be called shrinks, accountants don’t like to be bean counters, and so on.

If you’re presenting to a group that has its own lingo—and most do—learn what words to use and avoid.

Mistake 3: Personal disconnection

Tip: Don’t share beliefs that can evoke passionate disagreement.

There is rarely an upside to including anything about religion or politics in a business setting, unless your audience is comprised of people from one setting or the other.

But we sometimes forget there are other hot topics that can be just as polarizing.

For example, Puma and Adidas are huge rivals. Mentioning one to the other will evoke a passionate response. The same goes for local or national sports teams. If your talk has nothing to do with these outside influences, it’s always better to keep them to yourself.

Mistake 4: Experience blindness

Tip: Find a way to empathize with those whose experiences vary from yours.

One of the easiest things to do is look at the world of business from your own perspective. This may mean from a geographic point of view, but can also include industry biases. What is permissible varies from industry to industry, and across geographies, as well.

You don’t need to be an expert in how religion affects banking in Muslim countries, but recognizing that your experience doesn’t always work everywhere in the world can go a long way to establish credibility with a group that has a background unlike your own.

Mistake 5: Demographic mismatch

Tip: Gather information on the tone, language, clothing and level of formality your audience expects.

Two of my least favorite words are “business casual.”


It can mean different things to different groups.

One time I spoke in front of a large group of managers from the travel industry on digital trends. I wore black jeans and a sports coat. Afterward I got an angry email from an audience member who couldn’t believe I didn’t wear a suit.

I’ve never been a fan of dress codes, but now I always ask event organizers what “business casual” actually means.

The same goes for using potentially offensive language—some audiences think “crap” is a bad word. Also consider if English is actually the first language for the majority of the audience.

Rohit Bhargava is the award-winning author of “Likeonomics,” a frequent keynote speaker on PR and the future of media, and adjunct professor of Global Marketing at Georgetown University. He also blogs at Influential Marketing Blog, where a version of this article first appeared.

This article originally ran on Ragan.com in March 2013.

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