The 10 most important lessons for speakers

How do you give the best presentation your audience has ever seen? Toss out your clip art, beware of cheesy slide transitions, and end with a bang, among other things.

I recently came across a fantastic video titled “Every Presentation Ever.” This parody, brought to you by Growing Leaders Inc. and Habitudes for Communicators, includes nearly every blunder and annoyance that creeps its way into so many presentations.

Watching it makes me cringe, because I know these mistakes aren’t a product of PowerPoint or the speaker’s content-some presenters just don’t know the basics of effective presentation design and delivery.

I don’t want you to watch the video just to get a chuckle. I want you to learn from these common mistakes. Here are 10 lessons that will help you become a better presenter:

1. Arrive early to prepare.

You’ve seen the presenter who fumbles with his notes and computer as attendees walk in. You’ve heard him admit he doesn’t know what to do on stage.

My rule of thumb is to show up at least 60 minutes early to allow myself enough time to set up, give my presentation a technical run-through, and make any last minute changes before anyone even shows up. That way, when people start to arrive, I’ve freed myself from the confines of technical preparation and I can greet my audience, get to know them, and even create some allies who can be useful later in the presentation.

2. Craft a strong opening.

The first few minutes—even moments—of your presentation are crucial. This is the only time you will have the entire audience’s attention.

Be very careful how you treat your opening. Humor can be a good way to open a presentation, but it’s a bit dangerous, especially if you use a joke with a punch line. Consider turning the joke into a humorous yet relevant story.

Don’t use the opening of your speech as time to talk specifically about who you are and why you’re important to the audience. Trust me, no one cares. It’s all about your audience. Feel free to spice up your opening, but make sure it adds value.

3. Don’t make fun of audience members.

This is obvious, right?

4. Don’t use juvenile slide transitions.

I’m against nearly all animations and slide transitions. “Fade” and “wipe” are on my good side, but I think most other transitions are a bad idea. I don’t see the need for them. If you want to reveal different parts of your slide, “fade” is all you need. If you want to create the appearance of motion, “wipe” is good.

Your text doesn’t need to “spiral” or “boomerang” in. Remember, simplicity is key to effective PowerPoint design.

5. Don’t read your slides.

You’ve seen the presenter who reads his slides word for word with his back to the audience. I’ve walked out on presentations I paid to hear when I saw the presenter read his slides.

I can read just fine on my own, and so can your audience. The presenter makes it look like he doesn’t know what he’s talking about when he reads his slides.

If you read your slides, here are a few tips to help you stop.

6. Practice, practice, practice. Then practice more.

Notice how the presenter in the video forgot his fourth bullet point? That’s because he didn’t practice and didn’t know his content inside and out. This is a slap in the face to your audience who took the time to listen to you speak. Know your content and know what’s on each slide.

7. Don’t use clip art—ever.

My eyes! They’re burning!

8. Prepare for technical difficulties.

If you fail to prepare, prepare to fail. No presenter is perfect, nor is any presenter’s laptop. Things break all the time. Don’t worry about these mistakes, but make sure you recover from them professionally and as quickly as possible. Don’t allow them to derail your entire presentation.

Also, switch your desktop background to something clean or generic. We don’t want to see a picture of you and Santa.

9. Be careful with lists.

Lists are tough. They can be useful, but they can cause you to read off your slides, cram a list onto a single page, or forget what comes next. If you have a list, separate each item onto its own slide with its own visuals. Give each item its time to shine.

10. End with a bang.

“In like a lion, out like a lamb” doesn’t apply here. It’s actually the opposite. In a presentation, you want to come in like a lion and go out like a lion as well. How do you do that? There are a number of options.

I know I’m lucky if my audience remembers at least a few things at the end of my presentation. To help them remember the content, I review the most important takeaways from my presentation at the end. If they remember nothing, hopefully they’ll remember those few things. I’ve also concluded with a video or story.

Don’t end your presentation with a question and answer session. It’s important to field as many questions as possible, but always prepare a few closing remarks so your audience members leave with the content you want them to leave with.

Are there any presentation lessons I missed?

Jon Thomas is the founder of Presentation Advisors, and the Director of Communications at Story Worldwide. He blogs at, where a version of this article originally ran.

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