The Six Biggest Mistakes to Avoid When Giving Presentations

Mark DiamondI spend the better part of my week listening to and giving presentations. Great presentations move people, make them want to listen and engage with the speaker. Poor presentations are a waste of the audience's time.

What should be avoided in a presentation?

Too Much Text, Too Little Information

Chances are pretty good that your audience can read faster than you can speak. But nevertheless, many presenters feel the need to write their slides in bulleted, verbose and complete sentences-- often as a crutch in case they forget what to say. The audience has usually read the entire list before the presenter has finished reading the first bullet. Good slides are chock full of information, including text, graphs, illustrations-- whatever it takes to best communicate. If you are still worried about forgetting what to say, create your own speaker's notes.

Mixing a Presentation Slide Deck with a Informational Slide Deck

Many presenters justify an overly wordy slide deck by claiming it will be understandable by those not attending the presentation. I think there are two types of slide decks. A presentation slide deck is to support a speaker. An informational slide deck as an easy-to-read document that stands alone without the support of a speaker. These are different media. It's okay to use a presentation deck when presenting, and then later supply an informational deck.

Slides Aren't Your Story

Litigators know that people understand and respond to facts better when they're presented as a story. The same is true of corporate presentations. Every good presentation has at its heart a story and should address three questions: 1) What is the problem and why should we care? 2) How do we fix the problem? 3) What will happen when we do? Even the driest subject matter can be woven into a story that will resonate with the audience. I present on records management and litigation readiness, topics some might see as dry. Yet even these topics can be made to tell a compelling story. Sometimes it's better to think like a screenwriter than an attorney. Tell a story.

Lance Armstrong wrote "It's Not About the Bike" about his cycling career. For speakers, it's not about the slides. Slides only support the story and the speaker. Unfortunately, most presenters take the opposite approach, collecting a series of slides and having these form the narrative, with the presenter becoming simply a voiceover to the slideshow. Audiences are more likely to listen and respond to a speaker, and slides should simply be tools to enhance the speech. Outline your narrative first, then create your slides.

The More Senior the Audience, the Fewer the Slides

I believe the more senior the audience, the fewer slides you should use. Senior executives want to understand the issues and your recommendations quickly. Some, when presenting to senior management, want to justify their recommendations with more data and detail in slides. Keep the main presentation short, and then, if you're still worried, create a "backup slide" section of containing the extra slides with the additional data, citations, etc. More doesn't always mean better--some of my most effective presentations have been ten minutes long.

Chartjunk

Some presenters feel compelled to add small cartoons, pictures or icons to every slide, believing it will be more interesting for the audience. Visual communication research Edward Tufte coined a term for this: Chartjunk. Chartjunk looks pretty but adds little to the information being presented. Chartjunk is usually an indication that the presenter does not have enough useful information to present, and feels he or she needs to "entertain" the audience with something else. Resist using Chartjunk, and instead add real information. Your audience will enjoy it more.

Failure Spend Enough Time to Prepare and Practice

Winston Churchill, perhaps one of the most accomplished orators of the last century, would spend 40 hours preparing and practicing for a one-hour presentation. Good content and delivery take a lot of time and a lot of practice. I have found that the more experienced I have become as a speaker, the more time I spend preparing. It's worth it. A good presentation will not only win over your audience, but may propel your career.

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Mark Diamond

Mark Diamond, Founder & CEO of Contoural, Inc., is a regular contributor to Inside Counsel on Litigation Readiness and Records Information Management. You can e-mail...

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