7 common public speaking blunders—and how to avoid them

Your presentation is your chance to reach many minds, as well as the many other minds that your audience might share with. That can fall apart, though, if you undermine your own efforts.

In “Confessions of a Public Speaker,” Scott Berkun tells about his life as a professional presenter and testifies about embarrassments and triumphs he’s experienced when speaking.

Over the past two decades, I’ve crafted and delivered many presentations. Below is my list of the seven cardinal sins every presenter should avoid. I have committed all of them, but no speaker is perfect. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

1. Your presentation is too long.

Fidel Castro, the former Cuban leader famous for delivering long-winded speeches, addressed the 1986 communist party congress in Havana for seven hours and 10 minutes.

Still, El Comandante‘s listenership may have called itself lucky because PowerPoint launched officially in May 1990. By extrapolating the slideware generating habits of some of my colleagues at work, I estimate that El Caballo’s oration might have been good for about 750 slides.

Some sources claim you need at least one hour of preparation for each minute of presentation; this would have taken El Jefe Maximo a mere 430 hours (almost 54 working days) of crafting.

Your audience may be spending valuable time and money to attend a presentation. Don’t waste it. No speech should take longer than necessary.

How long should a slideshow be?

There’s a simple formula formulated by author and Canva evangelist Guy Kawasaki called “The 10/20/30 Rule of PowerPoint.” It says a PowerPoint presentation should have 10 slides, last no more than 20 minutes and contain no font smaller than 30.

If your time slot is longer or shorter than 20 minutes, here’s another easy formula for calculating the number of visuals you should use:

Begin by deducting one-fifth from your speaking time, and reserve it for interruptions, questions and answers. Then, assuming the average presenter spends two to three minutes per slide, divide the remaining minutes by 2 and 3. The results of this simple calculation will give you an upper and lower limit for the number of visuals you can comfortably include.

2. Your presentation has too much detail.

Some time ago, I went shopping for a wristwatch. I’m still into analog, and I don’t intend to buy a smartwatch anytime soon—at least not as long as the device’s battery life is comparable to my smartphone’s.

Trying to convince me about the superiority of his merchandise, the jeweler tried to explain me that the oscillator in a quartz clock functions as a small tuning fork and is laser-trimmed to vibrate at 32,768 Hz.

Huh? Didn’t I enter his boutique to buy a new timepiece? Why did I need to know about the internal mechanism of a watch? Was this guy really that smart that he knew all these nitty-gritty details, or was he just trying to impress, persuade or mislead me by dropping numbers and citing trivia?

Here’s some advice for the jeweler, every salesperson and anyone delivering a presentation:

  • Not every person is interested in the nitty-gritty of your product. Keep your presentation short and to the point. Limit your content to the essential information.
  • Even if you’re an expert, don’t overload your audience with all your knowledge.
  • Stay within your comfort zone. Don’t introduce topics you know hardly anything about. If your listeners have had a bad day, they might start asking you more difficult questions for which you might not have a good answer ready.
  • Don’t present everything you know about a topic. For every minute you talk, you have about three minutes of backup material (more information, related topics, anecdotes, etc.) available.
  • Always be prepared for detailed questions and discussions. If you don’t know the answer, don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know,” or, “Let me look this up and get back to you.”
  • Know your audience. Be able to change your style, your presentation flow and your level of detail. With the right tone of voice and a good story, you will convince them that you are an authority on the topic and have the “right to speak” (or to sell quartz wristwatches).

3. You don’t have a story.

I recently attended a famous researcher’s presentation. Although his topic was interesting and his slides loaded with stunning facts, I noticed many audience members playing with their phones and tablets. I’m sure many of us left the room with a “so what?” feeling.

As a computer scientist who started his career in R&I, I know it’s not obvious for an engineer to present a complex research topic and cover the necessary technical details while keeping the undivided attention of an (often mixed) audience. That’s why I’ve embraced storytelling.

Telling stories is a way to create a tension with audience members and make them connect emotionally or ethically. Stories produce mental images. They stimulate higher-level thinking and let the audience come to their own conclusions. A good story enables individuals to understanding complex products, services and solutions.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle formulated his theory of storytelling on the three persuasive appeals: ethos, pathos and logos.

Aristotle’s theory has become a foundation of public speaking, and a blend of the three ingredients should be considered a prerequisite for any well-told story.

  • Ethos means ethical appeal. We tend to believe people whom we respect. We trust in products with a good reputation. We go to places recommended on Yelp or TripAdvisor.
  • Pathos translates to emotion. We all like stories about the good versus the bad. We prefer presenters who are passionate about their topics. We make decisions motivated by love, admiration, fear or disgust.
  • Logos stands for reasoning and argumentation. We believe in what we can see and touch. We want statements supported by facts and figures.

If you think about it, ethos, pathos and logos are present in almost every area of our daily lives. They determine how we experience situations, interact with people and make decisions.

4. You don’t have a call to action.

In Web design a banner, button, graphic or text often prompts a user to enter a conversion funnel. By clicking on it, the user confirms his interest in the content and may take the next step toward buying a product or service.

Because the primary purpose of most business presentations is to move the audience to action, make sure your talk has a similar mechanism.

Never end your presentation with just a “Thank you for your attention,” or, “That’s all, folks!” Dismiss your audience with clear instructions. Tell them what you want them to remember, what they need to do and how they can do it.

  • Leave ample time for questions: You should reserve around 20 percent of your allotted time for Q-and-A and discussion. Make sure you’re prepared for provocative or weird questions, and remember that a poor Q-and-A may ruin your entire talk.
  • Summarize your main ideas and key points: End in agr eement with at least most of your audience, and make sure they are ready to take the next step with you.
  • Invite your listeners to engage in the next step: Always end your speech with a call to action. Give them homework (such as visiting your website, or reading a handout), make them agree on having a follow-up meeting (don’t forget to supply them with your contact details), or simply encourage them to use the products or apply the material you presented (such as the tips I am sharing in this post).
  • Finish your presentation memorably: Don’t stop cold; instead, try to surprise them one last time before you exit the stage.

5. Your message is unclear.

Even worse than a bad closing is when you let your audience go home with a “What has this guy been talking about?” feeling. The way you present may either help or hurt to make your point. Make your message strong and memorable, and deliver it in a catchy, captivating way.

In his MacWorld 2008 keynote, the late Steve Jobs presented the world’s thinnest notebook, the MacBook Air. He introduced it with a photo of an envelope, told the audience the new device was “so thin that it even fits inside one of those envelopes you see floating around the office.” He then opened a real envelope containing the new, ultra-thin laptop computer.

Finding the right pitch for your presentation often boils down to pinpointing a sticky story to tell. With the right mix of ethos, pathos and logos, you can appeal to the hearts and the minds of your listeners.

  • A good story must be compelling, credible, concrete, clear, consistent, customized and conversational. If you remember these seven C-words, you’re already one step closer to a great pitch.
  • When defining your value proposition, never forget that value is in the perception of the beholder. Adapt your pitch to address your audience’s concerns, and give them something in return for listening to you.
  • Building a message house is a great and simple means for defining, simplifying and structuring your messages to make sure your audience will remember them. When properly constructed, a message house is a nice outline for your presentation.

  • Put your pitch to the elevator test. Can you sell your message in 30 seconds? Can you summarize your story on the back of a napkin? Can your mother-in-law understand it?
  • As shown in the MacBook Air example above, a strong opening can make a difference. Most people decide within the first few seconds of a presentation whether a speaker is worth listening to. Grab the audience’s attention by surprising, intriguing or provoking them.

6. Your slides are boring

Look and feel do matter. If you want your audience to perceive you as a professional, never compromise the layout of your slides.

  • Don’t overdo. Beware of creating slideuments. Apply the same template to all slides. Use plenty of white space. Limit the amount of bulleted slides as well as bullets per page.
  • Colors should contrast with the background. Don’t use too many. Avoid using red text on a white or black background.
  • Fonts must be readable from the back of the room. Be consistent in style throughout the whole deck. Don’t mix too many typefaces. Avoid script fonts. Bold and italic are good to emphasize text; underlining isn’t.
  • Images: Use visuals that complement or accentuate your message instead of standard clip art, which adds no value. Avoid mixing line art and photos.
  • Vocabulary: Consequently use the same terminology everywhere. Beware of acronyms and abbreviations. Don’t use jargon or slang.

7. You’re making the wrong pitch.

Even the most beautiful slides may be irrelevant to your listeners. It’s important to understand who will be in your audience. Conduct research to tailor your pitch and customize your presentation to your audience’s knowledge, beliefs, feelings, needs and expectations and establish an emotional connection with them.

  • Make yourself familiar with Robert Cialdini’s principles of persuasion: reciprocity, liking, authority, social proof, commitment and scarcity. These will help you to appear convincing, credible and trustworthy in front of your listeners.
  • Tune your content by creating personae and asking questions about them such as: “What is their role in the organization?” “What does an average day in their job/life look like?” “What do they value most?” “How do they get motivated?” and “What could be their most common objections to your product or service?”

Marc Jadoul is marketing director at Alcatel-Lucent. A version of this article originally appeared on Business 2 Community.

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