5 presentation habits you must unlearn

Preparing to deliver a speech? Steer clear of these common errors that will preclude you from engaging with your audience and landing your message.

College students come into my classroom not only with a flurry of fears and insecurities, but also with bad presentation habits they have developed.

My students’ bad habits didn’t happen overnight. These habits develop through years and years of watching terrible presentations. Though most of us can recognize a terrible presentation, we don’t yet have the tools to make our own presentations great.

In a class called Professional Communication and Presentation, I teach my students how to break their bad habits. These lessons apply to all presenters: teachers, conference presenters, business executives—anyone who has a speech to deliver.

Read on to see how you can unlearn these habits:

1. Turning the lights off during presentations.

The first presentation day in my classroom can be scary. Students are expected to weave together the material they’ve learned in an engaging, dynamic way, and those public speaking fears often rear their ugly heads at the last second. Students will sometimes ask right before they start speaking, “Can I turn off the lights?

This question is often couched in some kind of excuse like, “I really worked hard on my slides, and I want my audience to be able to see them.” My answer is always, “The lights stay on.

If your audience can’t see you, you won’t be able to connect with them.

People feel much more comfortable with the lights off because the audience is looking at the slideshow instead of looking at them presenting.

How to unlearn this habit:

Turning the lights off during presentations is a bad habit that must be broken. The focus should always be on you as a presenter. If your audience can’t see you, you won’t be able to connect with them, and you certainly won’t be able to effectively engage them.

Audiences who can’t see you are also less likely to participate and answer questions and more likely to sit back and disengage as they would in a dark movie theater. Though slides are important, your slideshow’s job is to support your message as a presenter, not to be center stage.

2. Relying too heavily on one leg of the “presentation stool.”

Jim Endicott sees presentation as a three-legged stool comprising the following:

  1. speech content/message;
  2. delivery; and
  3. visual presentation.

Because there are three legs to Endicott’s presentation stool metaphor, people are plagued by three bad habits:

  • Sometimes, presenters will put too much focus on content, while ignoring their delivery and visual presentation.
  • Other times, presenters will spend so much time on their visual presentation that content and delivery fall by the wayside.
  • For a few charismatic folks, delivery is the primary focus, and they don’t develop content or a slideshow because they rely on their wits instead of a message.

All three legs must work together successfully for a speech to resonate with audiences. If a presenter relies too heavily on one of these legs, the speech will not connect.

How to unlearn this habit:

You might be a delivery superstar, but relying solely on your dazzling personality to get you through a presentation will make your audience believe you are an unprepared, disorganized mess. You could be the most informed person in the world about a particular subject, but if you write out your entire script on your slideshow in bulletpoint format, your audience is going to sleep through your speech.

Focus on learning the importance of all three legs of the presentation stool, and work on developing a strong presentation that stands equally on all three legs.

3. Believing that an informative topic will inevitably bore the audience.

Informative speeches are often difficult for my students, because they forget the importance of creating engaging speech content. For example, for one presentation, my students are assigned to watch a TED Talk and then analyze that talk in five minutes by answering five questions. This is often the worst batch of presentations, because students forget that informative speeches don’t have to be boring.

As Nancy Duarte tells us, pure information should always be layered with storytelling, just like layers of a cake. We often forget that story is important and stick to matter-of-fact reporting of information.

Benjamin Zander’s On music and passion and Sir Ken Robinson’s Schools kill creativity are two of my favorite TED speeches, because both presenters repeatedly weave stories into their talks. By traditional standards, 18-minute talks about classical music and public education would be considered boring, but watch both to see how storytelling works.

How to unlearn this habit:

The most important way to improve your next informative speech is to realize that a good presenter can talk about a ham sandwich and keep audiences interested. To improve informative topics, follow Duarte’s advice. Use storytelling, but, like Zander and Robinson, make certain all your stories relate to the focus of your speech.

You can also incorporate audience participation and interaction into your presentation. It’s also important that you select an amazing topic that you are fired up about, as your passion will shine through.

4. Choosing bad topics.

Bad Habit No. 3 leads directly into the fourth thing presenters must unlearn. Examples of bad topics include overdone subjects such as capital punishment, abortion, fast food, violence in the media, gun rights, etc. These tend to be bad topics, because we’ve been hearing the exact same arguments (for or against) for 20 years, and the presenter rarely offers anything new to the audience. Thus, the message is boring.

Another example of a bad topic would be a topic the presenter isn’t personally invested in or connected to. Passion in delivery can only come through when there is a true connection between the speaker and the topic.

A student last month ran her persuasive topic by me two weeks before presentation day. She wanted to discuss the importance of water. I immediately yawned, but pressed her to find out why she was interested in this topic and how she planned to make it engaging for her audience.

Because of her passion for the topic, and because she wove in storytelling, the stale topic came alive on presentation day. She didn’t rely on clichés and instead put personal, authentic experiences into her speech. Her presentation was one of the best on speech day, because she refined her topic from “the importance of clean water” to “how a water purification plant could help Haiti recover from the earthquake and become a first-world nation.”

How to unlearn this habit:

Sometimes we can’t help it. We’re assigned a topic to talk about, and we have to make it work. If you think you have a bad topic before you start developing a presentation, your audience is in trouble. If you’re standing in front of a crowd with slumped shoulders and defeated nonverbal communication, your audience will mirror that negative attitude.

Don’t choose a bad topic, and don’t let a bad topic defeat you. Instead, use storytelling—and sprinkle in a little humor.

A Pew Research Center study revealed that Daily Show and Colbert Report viewers are the most informed and have the highest knowledge of both national and international affairs. Nothing can be as dry and boring as the news. Remember that humor helps audiences retain information, and funny stories are a great way to help people retain the information you’re communicating with them.

5. Writing and then reading a script.

Delivery should be as natural as possible. Why, then, do presenters write out an entire script and read that script for their presentation?

Consider why TED Commandment No. 9 exists: “Thou shalt not read thy speech.” Ironically, last month, a student wrote a script and read it from start to finish for his TED analysis speech. This student explained to us that one great thing his TED presenter did was follow TED Commandment No. 9.

My jaw actually dropped when the student read the following lines: “My TED presenter didn’t read his speech, and Commandment No. 9 is a really important lesson to learn. When you read your speech, you bore your audience.

This lesson is important for more than just my students. I am confronted with presenters reading a script even in professional venues. For example, in February 2012, I was excited to attend a PechaKucha night in my hometown. Unfortunately, I was let down when one-third of the presenters looked down at a script and read their presentations from start to finish.

How to unlearn this habit:

Remember that overly slick, forced, or artificial presenters fall flat for audiences. Reading a script from start to finish makes an audience feel cheated. The best way to plan for a speech is to use an outline. Your outline will include main points to keep you on track, but this outline will allow you to speak naturally and from the heart. Still nervous that you might forget something? Practice. The only way to remember your information is to practice your speech until you know it well.

Alex Rister is author of Creating Communication, a blog about effective communication and presentation practices. She teaches Professional Communication and Presentation to business students at Full Sail University. A version of this article originally appeared on Six Minutes.


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