6 common yet avoidable presentation flaws

Speaking to group of any size can seem daunting, but overcoming these mistakes can put you at ease and land your message—once you’ve identified it—with your audience.

“There’s this one guy at my company who…”

So began my in-flight conversation about presentations and presentation mistakes. 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.

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 common—and avoidable—presentation mistakes:

1. Your presentation covers too much.

I have facilitated more than 200 workshops in the past five years.

In every single one, I have asked: “What happens in a bad presentation?”

Every time, someone responded, “Too much information.”

That’s right—every time. You couldn’t get that many people to agree on what day of the week it is.

It’s difficult to explain how much information you need in a presentation, but it’s probably less than you think. 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 future ramifications are. We call that balancing information with insight.

I love sharing David Epstein’s TED talk. He walks you through only the essential information and then tells you why that information matters.

An excerpt:

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? The problem is that acronyms work only when everyone knows them. If you haven’t memorized or assimilated a term, your brain spends extra time and energy figuring out what it means. It’s a distraction.

The average rate of speech is about 130 words per minute. Five seconds to decode an acronym means I’ve missed out on 10 words, basically a whole sentence. Don’t do that to your audience.

3. Presenting irrelevant information guarantees a bad presentation.

I once hosted a 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 attendee said: “It will allow us to remain compliant.”

Is a salesperson motivated by remaining compliant? Probably not. So, we stopped and thought like salespeople.

Eventually, we came up with a different motivator: “It will help us avoid an Enron situation.” That’s something a salesperson would listen to.

Make the audience the hero of your presentation.

4. Your call to action is confusing or vague.

It’s amazing how many presentations, even good ones, end without telling the audience what they should do next. Some give direction, but it’s vague (e.g., “I need your support,” which could be asking for money, a pat on the back, or an inspiring cat poster).

Picture your audience loving your presentation. Now that they’ve bought in, what specific action do you want them to take once they leave the room?

At one terrific productivity seminar, the presenter asked everyone to pull out their phones. Once everyone had done so, she asked them to schedule a reminder one month from that date. Call to action, answered.

5. Your style is soporific.

Speaking confidently doesn’t come easily, especially if you’re not a naturally ebullient person. It can feel awkward and scary, and it can seem that your audience is judging you. Here’s the deal, though: If you don’t seem excited by your talk, there’s no chance the audience will get excited.

Record yourself: Pull out your phone, open your voice memo app, and talk about your topic for a minute. It’s likely that the expressiveness you feel internally does not match how it sounds externally. A monotone presentation 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 to help a participant 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 about how the team could get better? Was there a particular mistake the team ought 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 cotton or wool.
  • Not many people speak Greek anymore.

He is not alone. Many people have trouble expressing a point of view. They have plenty of facts. Facts are safe, but a point of view is a huge undertaking.

You must give your audience an idea to adopt, which includes risking that they’ll disagree with you. Use your data to back up the opinion; that’ll keep it dynamic, and it’ll separate you from the pack.

So, after all those presentation mistakes, we need a happy ending, right? The good news is that the bar for presentations in your organization is probably low. If you can avoid making even a few of the very natural presentation mistakes above, you can 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 him up. Not once have I encountered that person in the corporate world. Maybe that person exists somewhere. If it’s you, consider yourself lucky. You have the opposite concern from most presenters.

Mike Pacchione facilitates presentation workshops around the world for Duarte. A version of this post first appeared on the Duarte blog.

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