The 6 Most Common Reasons Your Presentation is Bad

(This is a popular excerpt from the bestseller, Confessions of A Public Speaker).

Should you discover that a talk you are preparing to do, or one you’ve given before, sucks, this is for you. While some books on public speaking have long checklists of little things, this is my short checklist of big things. If I see a presentation that’s bad, it’s for one or more of the reasons below.

1. You make it look like your first time

You don’t want to have a rookie perform brain surgery on you. When you step to the front of the room, make sure you don’t behave like someone who has never been in the front of the room before, even if it’s true. People who are baffled by their own laptops, confused by how their remotes work, or who spend most of their time looking at their own slides, confused by them, with their backs to the audience, are telling their audiences they are doing this for the first time. No audience wants to feel they are your dry-run, unless somehow your experimenting makes it fun for them, which it probably won’t.

Solution: Practice until it feels good. Anything you plan to do in your talk must be practiced. If you get a new laptop, remote, or presentation software, give those things trial runs well in advance. Do a dry run in the lecture hall to get used to the space. And work hard on the transitions between slides and points, since this is often where it’s easiest to seem lost. When you practice, look to eliminate things that make it seem like you’ve never done your presentation before (see Chapter 2).

2. You are a turtle on drugs

Turtles are slow. Turtles on crack are still slow, but they’re also unpredictable. They stumble, they stop, and they no longer move in a straight line. Trying to follow a turtle on crack is extremely frustrating. If the pace of your presentation is unclear, or you’re not sure what direction you are going in, you are a turtle on crack.

Solution: Provide a rhythm the audience can follow. Have a well-defined, simple, uniform pace. Divide your time into the number of points you want to make and spend an equal amount of time on each one. You can subdivide each point into individual arguments, which should also have a clear, simple rhythm to follow. Top-10 lists and frequently asked questions are easy formats to use because they create natural rhythms for your presentation (see Chapter 6). No one is timing you, so if some points need to be longer that’s fine. Just make sure your pace and rhythm makes sense to your audience and not just to you.

3. Obfuscation of fractured bilateral rhetoric

People love to sound smart. We love to use the biggest words we know, and say the fanciest most cryptic jargon and acronyms. Doing this makes us feel superior. And when intimidated by an audience, as many professors and experts clearly are, superiority seems to be the best defense. The problem is no one likes feeling like an idiot. There are 10 million bad, obscure ways to say something for every clear, direct one. If you choose one of the 10 million, no matter how proud it makes you feel to be obscure, you are inviting your audiences to start daydreaming. The presentation is now about your fear of making a clear point, rather than about the audience’s experience. They should not be doing the hard work—you should. You are up there to share, persuade, or teach, and that means you have to drop the defenses, think clearly, and be at the level your audience wants.

Solution: Your points are clear. Find simple, clear ways to make your points. If you are a quantum physicist or have 12 PhDs, your arguments and details might be very complex. But are you sure your audience has 12 PhDs as well? Do you know why they are in the audience and what they hope to learn? If you are speaking to serve your audience, and not yourself, every point you make should be understood by most of the room. They might not agree with your points, and they may miss the nuances, but few should be confused about the points you are making and why you are making them (see Chapter 5).

4. You make sex boring

Most of us like sex quite a lot. It’s a natural fact since we come from an ancestry of people who were required to have sex to get us here. It’s the most interesting and exciting primal drive we have. Yet it is still possible for a presentation about sex to be boring. Anyone can kill a topic by speaking in monotone, looking disinterested, picking uninspired examples, and behaving like he doesn’t care about what he’s saying. If you are not excited and energetic about your message, how can you expect your audience to be?

Solution: Take an interesting angle from the beginning. If you choose your topic and your opinion, pick something interesting. Take a stand. Force a point of view into the title, and let it grow into the points you make. Even if your topic is only interesting to you, if you express your passion well, the audience will want to follow simply because of your enthusiasm (see Chapter 6).

5. Your slides make me hate you

Slides are dangerous. There are so many ways to annoy an audience with slides. Ugly, overloaded, confusing slide decks are common despite how little knowledge they convey, and how much they distract speakers from making their points. There are many kinds of information that cannot be given in a presentation. We have documents, reports, websites, and movies for good reason. No one wants to read 10 point text off a projector screen. No one wants to try and interpret the 50-element flowchart you’ve made. It’s the wrong medium. Unless slides are essential and the clearest, simplest way to make your point (which they almost never are), use fewer, of them. If a prop does not support your point, it has wasted your audience’s time.

Solution: Do not start in PowerPoint. Start by thinking and understanding your audience. Use visuals and pictures to support the points you want to make. If you put notes in your slides so you don’t feel scared, do it in a way that does not annoy your audience. Or instead, have an outline that surfaces in your talk, or bring simple notes on stage with you (see Chapter 5).

6. You are afraid of the crowd

We have good reasons for being afraid of audiences. But if fear is the primary thing you feel while speaking, the audience can’t get the content you have. Averting your eyes, hiding behind the lectern, and pacing the stage, all indicate you are afraid of the audience, which makes them mostly not want to watch you.

Solution: Find a way to enjoy yourself. Bring giveaways to warm the audience up to you and get some easy, early smiles, which may help you relax. Get there early so you can meet some of the crowd, making them less intimidating. Pick topics you love, so the pleasure of sharing it with others can give you some positive energy to balance out the natural fear you feel.

Medium list of little things

These are definitely small things, but people are picky. If you do an annoyance often enough, and people notice it, it can distract from all the good things you’re doing. No one ever eliminates these issues completely, which is why I keep this list around. If everything else is good, don’t worry much about these. But if you want to seem polished and avoid people missing your message for superficial reasons, this list is for you.

There is no way to catch these annoyances unless you watch a videotape of yourself or have someone track these for you while you speak.

  • Umms and uhs. These are verbal placeholders. They make sense when talking casually, but when speaking to an audience, they’re annoying. You can overcome the habit by learning to simply pause in silence. It’s unnerving at first to be at the lectern in a silent room, but it creates a new kind of power that is free and easy to get at any time. When the room is silent, all eyes will return to you.
  • Distractions and tics. Little gestures you repeat can be distracting. If you keep rubbing your nose or putting your hands into and out of your pockets, eventually this draws attention away from what you are saying. My nervous tic, as odd as it sounds, is itching the second rib on my right side. Watch enough presentations where I’m talking, and you’ll see it at about 30% of the time. No idea why I do this, but there it is. I do it less now that I used to, but sometimes I still do it.
  • The audience is behind you. You should always avoid showing your back to the audience. If you need to look at your slides, do it from an angle so your audience can still see your face. This is one of the reasons confidence monitors are useful.
  • Repetition. We all have pet phrases we use too much, like saying, “This is about,” “So now…,” or “And here we have” to introduce every slide. There are always alternative ways to say the same thing, but first you have to notice which phrases you rely on more than necessary.
  • No eye contact. Where are your eyes? Rookie speakers look at their shoes, at the same person the entire 60 minutes, or into outer space. At least look at the back of the crowd so that people in the audience will believe you are looking at someone else. The ideal is to look at different parts of the room at different times, paced long enough that it seems natural, even though it never entirely feels that way.
  • Discomfort. Some people seem very comfortable with their hands in their pockets. Most don’t, but so what? Everyone experiences comfort differently. The point is you need to appear natural enough that people can focus on what you’re saying, and you seem happy to be up there. If you constantly stare at the pitcher of water on the edge of the lectern for fear of it falling over, you will seem uncomfortable. So, move it. Don’t wear a suit if that makes you miserable, but dress with respect for your crowd. Always err on the side of what will make you more comfortable. If you don’t take time to breathe or give pauses for people to consider what you just said, no matter how strong your powers of denial are, you are not yet comfortable speaking.
  • One of the basic lessons of the Dr. Fox story in Chapter 8 is that enthusiasm matters. The more you seem to care, even if you don’t make sense, the more people will want to understand what it is you’re trying to say. Most people err on the weak side of passion. They think they’re being passionate, but really they come off as reserved. Watch the video of a passionate speaker (MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech is a good choice), and then watch a video of yourself. Take notes on how to close the difference while still being you.
  • Referenced data. If research or a study is quoted, it better be referenced somewhere. Saying, “Studies have shown…” but not being able to name at least one means you are making things up, or don’t really know what you’re talking about.
  • Inappropriate for this audience. Have the right assumptions been made about who is in the crowd, what they want to know, and what they need to hear?

Feedback you get for free

If you’re giving a presentation in five minutes and you don’t have time to videotape yourself, you can still get feedback. As a general rule, what people do matters more than what they say or write on feedback forms (and depending on how the survey was constructed, it might be useless anyhow; see Chapter 6).

If my audience does any of these three things, I know I did at least something right:

  • They make eye contact with me. Every culture has different etiquette about laughter, applause, and even asking questions, but eye contact is universal. The litmus test: if you were to say, “I will give $10 million away to everyone who is looking at me in five seconds,” and count down from five to one, you will always get 100% of the audience’s attention every time. So it is possible to win the war against people playing solitaire on their cell phones, typing on laptops, or daydreaming if what you say is interesting enough. It’s good to re-establish the attention of the room every 10 minutes just to get a baseline of who is still with you. Give away a prize or ask a trivia question to reset the room.
  • They ask questions or comments of any kind. All feedback is good. Even if it’s to tell you how much you suck, it means they cared enough to fill out the form or write you an email. Any effort expended to respond to you, be it criticism, questions, suggestions, or references, are all indicators you chose the right topic and had enough attention to generate a response. If they give advice or correct something, thank them, even if you disagree. It’s a sign of respect they invested any energy in you at all.
  • The hosts invite you back. The organizer’s feedback is sometimes different from the audience’s, but as a rule of thumb, if you get invited back you did better than most of the other people who spoke at the event.

If you found this short chapter useful, you should get the whole book: Confessions of A Public Speaker.