12 Most Common Presentation Mistakes

12 Most Common Presentation Mistakes


I’m on a mission to help people avoid the 12most common presentation mistakes.

If you have to give a speech, whether elevator, PowerPoint, or impromptu, remember to avoid these 12 pitfalls:

1. Failure to prepare

Unless you are Robin Williams, it’s a good idea to think through your material.  Williams was famous for not following the script during his early days in TV, and why should he?  He’s Robin Williams!  But, abandoning your material (or not having any) is the cardinal sin.   If you’re wondering where to start, ask yourself this question:  What one piece of information do I want people to remember after this presentation?   Start there, and even if your presentation is complex, you know how to point everything back to your theme.  The slides, the smiles, the gestures all serve to support that main takeaway.  Don’t just ‘wing it’, even if you are a seasoned pro. When the conversation matters, take time to prepare your ideas.

2. Disconnection

If you are saying, “I’m so thrilled to be here”, with the enthusiasm of a turtle after a long nap, you are not going to capture anyone’s attention.  Match your mood to your material, and put some energy into the delivery!

3. Apologizing for Things Beyond Your Control

Why do people start with “I’m sorry…”  for things like the traffic on Route 53?  Or the weather?  Or my haircut?  None of those things can be helped!  Now, if you are late, or the room is 92 degrees, you need to address it – those are legitimate concerns that deserve acknowledgement.  But  “Sorry for the ______” starters don’t make you appear concerned. These remarks are purely a distraction, and your listener interprets it as

  • A stalling tactic
  • A propped-up delay for a disconnected speaker
  • Permission not to pay attention, cause you haven’t gotten anywhere near what really matters
  • Asking for pity, a feeble attempt to connect with an audience on the weakest possible level.  (Not where you want to be!)

4. A poor opening

“Hi, I’m Tina and I run the accounting department.”  Wow – – BORING!  Sorry Tina, but every presenter that wants to put you to sleep starts with their name, rank and serial number.  How about putting your attention on the audience, and talking about what matters to them?  Your name is important, but it’s not gonna change during your presentation.  Start with your topic and your audience, those two things are most important.  “I don’t have control over the state of our industry, but in the next 30 minutes I’m going to outline our plans for new sources of funding.  The answers to overcoming the current economic crisis could be right in front of us, and your input matters to me.  My name is Tina…”

5. A Worse Opening

Starting with a joke that falls flat.  If you aren’t that funny, don’t try to start a new career.  Better to be sincere and authentic than try and create a comedy routine.  But DO remember to smile.  Even if the news is hard to hear, does it really hurt to acknowledge your audience with a positive gesture?

6. The Worst Opening, EVER

Start with a weird metaphor.  “Hi, I’m Fred, and I’m the Joe Montana of Marketing.”  Fred, what does that even mean?  You’re a retired clutch player who enjoys wearing Skechers?  If your opening is a confusing metaphor, better go back to the drawing board.  And be careful of sports analogies.  If someone needs ESPN to “get” you, you risk alienating a large part of your audience. Explain the connection to your material; don’t assume that your group knows every hall-of-fame quarterback in Canton.

7. Choosing Snoozing

If you believe that your material is boring, insignificant, or tired, your audience will reflect all of that back to you. Remember, your listener has never heard this stuff before.  Even if your topic is the Q4 inventory report, or the new ERP system, there must be a reason why you are discussing these things.  Find a reason to make it matter, if you want people to care.

8. Condescending to Your Audience

I worked with a guy named Stan.  Stan always thought he was the smartest person in the room. If you wanted to know how smart Stan was, all you had to do was ask him.  Do you know Stan?  Or…are you Stan?? If you are so fantastic that you are bombastic, your message doesn’t matter.  Relate to people on every possible level, even if (or especially if) you are delivering a difficult message.  Respect is the key to effective communication.

9. Pacing Like a Madman

A little bit of movement is a good thing.  Sometimes it’s a great thing, and it can ‘fire up’ an audience.  But make sure your movement matches your message.  Dancing because you are nervous means you need a little more practice.  Or, perhaps some decaf. Check out Steve Ballmer’s magic, it’s a classic.

10. Failing to Videotape Yourself

You know what everyone has these days?  A video camera. On their phone.  If you have a major presentation, or even just an elevator pitch, you need to see what others are seeing.  Before you see it on YouTube.  Don’t be a Ballmer.

11. Not Putting Your Audience First

I’ve been guilty of all of these sins, but especially this one!  Don’t start with selling something, instead of addressing what really matters: YOUR LISTENER.  Acknowledge (but don’t apologize for) the mood in the room.  Start off with what really matters to your audience, if you want to matter to them.  As the old saying goes,  true leadership is about finding out where people are going, and then getting in front of them.

12. Cryptic Slides

It always gets a laugh in a technology presentation when I say, “You know, I’ve gone through 14 slides and – did you notice? – there hasn’t been a single spreadsheet so far!” Spreadsheets are necessary, but spreadsheets are only part of the story.  For presenters that want to make an impact, take time to INTERPRET the NUMBERS.  Don’t let the numbers speak for themselves; explain the trends and the implications to the audience.  Make what matters matter.  Numbers are only the raw materials; you have to make something out of them, if you want to be remembered.

So, there you have it.  12most common presentation mistakes.  Have you ever made any embarrassing mistakes in a presentation? What tips do you have, when it’s time to step up and tell your story?

Feature image courtesy of Alex Dunne under creative commons license.

Chris Westfall


Chris Westfall is the national elevator pitch champion, a professional speaker and entrepreneur. He is the author of Five Great New Elevator Pitches. His next book, The NEW Elevator Pitch will be released in Spring 2012.

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