Don’t follow these presentation tips

Whenever I read a top 10 presentation or public speaking tips post, I often find at least one tip that makes me cringe. And I’m not talking about the obviously stupid presentation tips like “Imagine the audience naked” or “Look at the back of the room”.

So here’s my list of the top 10 tips presentation tips that you should not follow.

1. Anything starting with “Must”

For example, “You must grab attention at the start” or “You must tell stories”.

Must is a very strong word. It’s simply not true that you must do these things. No single piece of advice is that critical.

And it can be counterproductive to use the word must. As in:

“I must be interesting”

“I mustn’t make any mistakes”

By speaking to yourself in this way you’re putting pressure on yourself to perform. And paradoxically (and annoyingly) if you pile on too much pressure you may end up  performing less well:

pressure-performance-curve

For more on how to combat the pressure-performance curve see this post There’s no such thing as the perfect presentation.

2. Your presentation should have a beginning, middle and an end

A queue of people lining up at the bank has a beginning, middle and end. It doesn’t help you to plan what you want to say in the beginning, middle and end of your presentation. For more useful advice on how to plan a presentation see my Presentation Planning Guide.

3. Throw away PowerPoint

A number of presentation and speech experts bring this up on a regular basis. They point to accomplished speakers like Obama and say if he can go from virtual unknown to President in a few short years without PowerPoint to deliver his message, so can you.

They’re missing the point. Obama delivers inspiring and moving speeches.  And I agree if your purpose is to move and inspire your audience then PowerPoint may not help.

But most business presentations are not principally aiming to move and inspire the audience (although it’s great if they do). They’re about communicating complex concepts, or persuading the audience of the merits of a particular solution. And often using a diagram, image or chart will help with that.

The question to ask yourself whenever you’re contemplating whether to use PowerPoint or Keynote is whether a visual will help the audience understand and remember your content better.

4. Slow down

If you naturally speak fast and try and follow this advice, you’re likely to lose some of your energy. And audiences love speakers with energy. I’ve written a whole post about this: You don’t have to slow down to be an effective presenter. Here’s an example of a gifted professional speaker Scott McKain. Notice that he talks very fast at times but you don’t have any trouble understanding him:

I think people who offer this advice are lumping two separate issues together:

  1. Poor pronunciation eg: garbled or swallowed words.
  2. Speaking fast.

They blame the poor pronunciation on the speaker talking too fast. But they are separate problems. If you garble your words, you will need to work on pronouncing clearly. It will take discipline and effort, but you don’t have to slow down to achieve it.

5. Your delivery of your speech will make or break it

This is inspired by the famously misinterpreted Mehrabian research that your words count for only 7% of your message. This phrase is far too black and white. I don’t think that delivery can make a presentation – if the content is poor. People may be engaged at the time – but a few hours later they’ll wonder “what was the point of all that”. I call this a “meringue” presentation. Lovely at the time, but it disappears into nothingness.

And most of the time I don’t think that delivery can break it- although it may detract. In most business presentations, the audience is there for your content. If you have prepared a logical and organized presentation with information that your audience finds valuable, then most people in your audience will forgive less than stellar delivery. It’s your content that counts. It’s very rare that a speaker’s delivery is so bad that the message does not get across at all.

So, I don’t think the phrase is an accurate representation of reality. I also think it’s not useful. Thinking that your delivery can make or break can lead you to not putting enough emphasis on preparing valuable content for your audience, and can make you more nervous.

6. Relax

Yeah right. Public speaking and presenting are inherently edgy experiences. The audience has expectations of you, you’re the one in the spotlight. It’s absolutely normal to feel nervous. You may interpret this as excitement, anticipation, slight nerves or downright fear. If you’re in the latter category, there is something you can do about it. But telling yourself to “relax” is not it. Your fear is produced by the pressure you’re putting on yourself to perform up to expectations and your thoughts about blowing it. To reduce your fear, you need to manage these thoughts.

7. Breathe

This advice is closely related to “Relax” and about as useful. Most of us breathe during presentations – or else we’d drop down dead. The advice-giver really means breathe more deeply and slowly. And it is useful to do that. But when you’re heart is beating as if it will explode out of your chest and all you really want is to get your presentation over and done with – you’re not going to remember to breathe deeply and slowly. Learning how to manage the thoughts that made you nervous will be far more effective.

8. A presentation is a performance

Yes, there are parallels between perfoming and presenting, but you do not need to be a performer to be an effective presenter. The most important part of presenting is being yourself and connecting with the audience in much the same way that you would if you were speaking one-on-one. That is not performing.

This also means that you do not need to be entertaining or funny (if you’re naturally funny, lucky you – exploit your talents). But if you’re like me and don’t find humor comes easily to you, don’t force it. Be yourself.

9. Only use keywords on your slide

It’s true that having screeds of text and bullet points on your slides is not useful. But that doesn’t mean that the opposite extreme – only one or two keywords – is most effective. The keywords may mean something to you, but they may not mean anything to your audience. For an example of this style see Laura Bergell’s post The creepiest PowerPoint design trend of 2009.

A short and succinct sentence which makes your point can be very effective on slides. This is backed up by research by Professor Michael Alley.

10. Save questions till the end

This advice is speaker-centered. It doesn’t take into account the needs of the audience. If an audience member has a question about what you’re talking about, it will be much more useful to answer at the time, rather than ask them to save it till the end. Taking questions throughout shows respect for your audience.

Now, I know this won’t always be practical (eg: a very large audience) and does require some skill to manage. But consider taking questions throughout as an ideal to aim for. For more suggestions how to do this see 8 tips for encouraging questions from the audience.

So those are the top 10 presentation tips that have me cringing. What are your pet hates in presentation and public speaking advice?

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19 Comments

  1. the concept of rules to follow is about as wise as suggesting that the PPT auto content wizard is a great way to build a presenttion. it’s about story, nothing else.

    • Hi Bruce

      Is your last sentence tongue in cheek :-)?

      Olivia

  2. I love #6. I used to get very bent out of shape over speaking (like many people), and then would try to relax, fail, and get even more bent out of shape over failing at trying to relax. Wash, rinse, repeat, and eventually I was a nervous wreck.

    One day, I somehow managed, in a “fake it ’til you make it” moment, to pour all that nervous energy intro the presentation, and it worked magic. One great thing about energy is that, at least to your body, it’s all the same – instead of trying to bottle it up, put it to work.

    • Hi Dr Pete
      Your point that energy is all the same to our bodies is very true. The feelings we get when we’re nervous or excited are both the product of adrenalin. So channeling that energy to help you with your presentation is a great way of thinking about it. Olivia

  3. Olivia, you’ve outed me! Actually, I do give some of this advice some of the time to some of my clients, because everyone is different. And some of these tips actually work, depending on the individual and their needs. I say, whatever works for my client works for me! And some of the things I work on with clients make it to my blog. I hope you don’t hold it against me. ;-)

    • Hi Lisa
      I totally agree with going with what works – and particularly with my last two points (only keywords on slide and saving questions till end) there will be situations when those tips are appropriate.

      Some of the tips that I’ve listed above do work to some extent or may work for some people. For example, telling someone who speaks fast to slow down, may work to some extent. And it was advice that I used to give. But chunking is so much more effective, that I can’t imagine ever needing to tell someone to slow down again.

      So some of the tips I’ve listed above are not wrong, but simply superseded by what I think are more effective ways of helping people.

      And I would never hold anything against you :-).
      Olivia

  4. I think it’s very important to differentiate between keywords and “keywords with slow fade” in number 9.
    Many presenters have very effectively used mostly keywords in lieu of sentences or bullets. But ONLY keywords with a slow fade on every slide is definitely creepy.

    • Hi Nathan

      True – the slow fade is annoying. What I’m really ranting about though is the people who say “only do this” as if it were the only way of doing it. Using keywords can be effective, but is not the only way. Olivia

  5. Can’t but agree with the choice of tips to avoid. #5 is right to the core. Certainly, the delivery matters but not that much as to make or break the presentation. Thanx for sharing.

  6. Olivia, how true. For every “do this” there’s the corollary, of yes, but not always. Each person and each situation is so different. That’s what I liked best about your post, its suggestion that we need to be more fluid, more open to what works for us and not locked in by absolutist “musts” or “shoulds.” The real key as you mentioned is to be ourselves, but our best selves, which is the trick. I just discovered your site and look forward to hearing more.

    • Hi Michael

      I love the way that you’ve expressed that. You’ve put it better than I have in the post. Olivia

  7. The problem with taking questions mid-presentation is two-edged don’t you find? I’ve found on several occasions that where the clients have specified a strict time limit – in a pitch or a competitive bid for example, then questions can seriously divert or overweigh a presentation meaning so that your full message doesn’t get across. The problem then is that it skews what’s remembered in favour of what might have been a minor point in the larger perspective. In a relaxed presentation, I agree entirely with you, but in some situations I think it can be helpful to defer questions. That way at least they get both the full representation of your presentation and the opportunity to ask questions at the end. It may of course be that later content will answer your question anyway. Just another example of no “musts” but “fluid” based on the type, circumstances and nature of presentation. It’s all in the set-up maybe.

    • Hi Andy

      Yes, I agree that taking questions throughout your presentation can be a two-edged sword and does need careful management. And there are no absolute rules…

      For example, with a pitch presentation I could argue that the best strategy is in fact to take questions throughout your presentation. If the prospective client asks lots of questions and you get into discussing the specifics of your solution and how it will meet the client’s needs that can often be the best result. Yes, there’s a risk that the questions could take the presentation in the wrong direction and derail the message that you wanted to get across. But what if those questions are just the outward manifestation of the client’s concerns. If you didn’t allow questions till the end then you wouldn’t know till then that the client had those concerns, and by then it might be too late to resolve the concern.

      Of course, as you’ve pointed out there are arguments against taking questions throughout in this situation. The issue is something to consider before each pitch, taking into account what you know about the prospective client.

      Olivia

  8. Some speakers seem to be afraid of reading what is on their slides because they have heard others criticized for “just reading the slides.” I work for a company that does a lot of seminars (web and in person) on complicated legal compliance issues. It is all about detail and we struggle with slides that are just too crammed with information. I try to convince my colleagues to keep the detail but keep massaging and shaving it so that there is never a bullet longer than two lines and the words used really capture the “concept” of the particular rule under discussion. Once i have a set of well-crafted slides, most of what I say in a presentation is indeed read from the slides.But I add 20% to 30% more in the way of comments that are not on the slides (clarfications, little stories or observations, warnings not to confuse this rule with another one, etc.). I always bring it back to the slides however because I think that with a complicated, technical subject it reduces wear and tear on the audience and reassures them that we are all still on the same “page.”

    • Hi Brigid
      I did a law degree so I understand some of the issues with getting across legal concepts and indepth discussion of legislation and other compliance documents. However, I did my degree before PowerPoint was commonplace.

      It does seem like you’re doing the best you can with the material that you have to transfer. But it would be interesting to test different methods. For example, what happens if you just let your audience read the point on the slide while you stay quiet, and then discuss the point once they’ve finished reading it.

      All the best with your presentations
      Olivia

  9. I came across a small study comparing the relative influence of rate and articulation style on intelligibility:
    http://www.utdallas.edu/~assmann/aud6306/krause_braida02.pdf
    http://scitation.aip.org/getabs/servlet/GetabsServlet?prog=normal&id=JASMAN000112000005002165000001&idtype=cvips&gifs=yes&ref=no

    Admittedly it has only 15 participants, but it showed that intelligibility was determined by the style of articulation, NOT the rate (at least up to 200 words per minute).
    I think this supports your theory!

    • Thanks John for posting your find here. I found the paper quite hard going to read and dig out the conclusions. I’m happy to believe that it says what you say it says!

  10. Olivia, I think this is one of your best articles! And that’s saying a lot.

    For awhile I told myself that I “must” have more variety in my body language when I speak. But I noticed that the harder I tried, the worse I did. So for my last presentation, I didn’t worry about my body language at all — and surprise, I was more natural and varied than ever before.

    Two experienced Toastmasters suggested I try speaking without PowerPoint — but the feedback I consistently get from people is that my slides look great and that they make it easy to follow my main points. And I never read from the slides, either.

    So if PowerPoint helps, then why not use it?

    I’ve made the mistake of speaking slowly so that my audience could absorb my message. But I just came across as having low energy — and maybe sounding like an automaton.

    Now I talk with high energy and at a reasonably fast pace. I pause when I need to. It seems to be working.

    Nothing is worse than a speech that is all delivery and no content. It’s like getting a burger with a huge bun — only to discover that there’s hardly any meat on the inside. “WHERE’S THE BEEF?!”

    When I started speaking, I unconsciously started performing instead of connecting. But then I met this guy who seemed like more of a talk-show host than a speaker. Whenever he spoke to anybody, he was only interested in making sure that you knew how funny and clever he was.

    I acknowledged his wit — but I couldn’t stand him. He only saw you as a means to further swell his ego.

    I had a professor who only used keywords on her slides. She would take 5 minutes to verbally explain a complex concept. But the only visual aid we had was some text like “Cognitive Dissonance.”

    That slide really elucidated your point, professor. Thanks.

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