I recently attended a local marketing related meetup of small business owners. I didn’t know much about the person giving the talk, but the event description looked appealing and I felt like I could get a lot of value out of it. Besides, it was a free event and it took place right near where I live, so signing up was a no-brainer. I entered the venue fashionably late when the presentation had already started. Everything seemingly looked great, refreshments were served, the sound and lighting were just right, and the room was full. This should be interesting, I thought. Little did I know, I was about to witness the WORST presentation I had ever attended, hands down. It was embarrassingly bad, so much so that about fifteen minutes into the presentation, the speaker had ended the session since there were no people left to present to. True story.
Let’s Save The World From Bad Presentations
What a waste of my time, I thought to myself as I was leaving the venue. It turns out I was not alone. Everyone I was talking to had felt the same way. But it wasn’t a total waste of time. One great thing that happened following this event was the inspiration I got to write this blog post. We are all presenters in one way, shape or form. Whether if in a job interview, talking to a customer or pitching an idea to our boss. Giving a good presentation is all about clearly communicating ideas and creating some sort of transformation in our audience. If I can save one person from giving a terrible presentation, I thought, this post is already worth writing. If you want to communicate your ideas better, keep on reading. There are some big mistakes you want to avoid.
What Makes a Bad Presentation?
I kept asking myself what was it about that presentation that made the audience so unease that they left the room as if they were running for their lives? This question has bothered me for days on end. So, like any curious guy with a WIFI connection, I turned to Google for some answers. I watched countless TED Talks and YouTube videos, took online courses and attended several lectures on the subject. I looked for that secret sauce that makes presentations great, and the common pitfalls that can destroy them. Although I didn’t find any magic formula, I did find a set of principles which, if applied correctly, will significantly increase the chances of you Killin’ It in your next presentation. But just writing about a set of principles is boring. It’s much more fun to write about that horrible presentation I attended, and reverse-engineer what went wrong there.
Before we dive in, a disclaimer: This post is not about bad-mouthing the people who worked hard to make this event happen. Their names are not even mentioned here. They made some critical mistakes which we could all learn from and be better communicators. I’m all in favor of getting things out there even if they are not perfect, and making mistakes is part of the process, but there is a fine line between launching things fast and being sloppy and unprepared. So here are my five mistakes that were carefully curated from the worst presentation I ever attended.
1. Put Yourself First
In the presentation I attended, the speaker spent the first few minutes talking on and on about how she had done so many things in her career and have such great achievements. All the while, the audience still had no clue about the topic of this talk and why she is telling us all this. Doing so, she created a sense of distance between her and the audience, and a feeling of ambiguity and unease towards the rest of the presentation. That is a common mistake among public speakers. They start off their presentation talking about their resume as if they are trying to prove their authority and convince the audience to listen to what they have to say. Talking about your credentials is really not necessary to convey your ideas, certainly not at the start of your presentation. When you prepare to give a talk, put your audience first. Ask yourself why they should spend their time listening to you. What’s in it for them?
Once you have this sorted out, think of your message, and try to draw a line that connects your message and their motivation.
2. Read Word for Word from Your Presentation (and make sure to use lots of bullet points)
In the presentation I attended, I couldn’t help but notice the horrific amount of bullet points on the slides. Worse yet, the speaker was just reading them word for word, hardly even bothering to insert her own explanation. It’s frightening to blackout in front of an audience. It feels like getting caught with your pants down. Having all the content on your slides may seem like a solution to this fear, but if there is something to take away from this section, is that your audience knows how to read. If they wanted to read your presentation, they would have asked you to email it to them and spare you the hassle. The presentation is there to support you, not replace you. Keep one message per slide and no more than three bullet points if you really have to. Leave everything else to your notes, and practice practice practice.
3. Make Your Audience Feel Uncomfortable
About ten minutes into the presentation, the speaker gave the cue to the D.J. and a cheesy pop song started playing loudly. At this point, the speaker asked everyone to get off their seats and start dancing. The looks on everyone’s faces changed from boredom to confusion. Is she for real?! I thought. Needless to say, nobody wanted to leave their seats and dance. This awkward moment made everyone feel unease. But it didn’t end there. The speaker would not agree to put this unsuccessful attempt behind her and didn’t continue the presentation until each and every one of the seated guests would get up and dance to that cheesy song. This was the point people started to leave the room, myself included. I packed my things and prepared to leave, but before I did, I had to ask her what was the point of all this. From her words, it suddenly struck me that she was trying to copy something she saw in Tony Robbins’ act, as she had attended one of his seminars in the past. Tony Robbins for those who are not familiar, is arguably considered to be one of the greatest communicators on this planet. As I was leaving the room, nothing could seem farther from Robbins’ act.
Don’t Pretend To Be Someone You’re Not
Although I’m sure most of the readers wouldn’t go to these lengths, there is a valuable lesson to take away from this predicament. A common mistake of many presenters is trying to put on an act in front of their audience. Whether this “act” is trying to make the impression you are a big-shot expert or imitate the style of some other high-profile speaker, the audience is going to pick it up sooner rather than later. Be Yourself is much more than an old cliche’ in this context. Your audience wants to hear you and identify with your story, even if it means showing your vulnerabilities and admitting you don’t have all the answers. Be yourself, and they will accept you. But don’t take my word for it, just watch how Nick Vujicic does it, I was pretty amazed by him. Here is just a small taste of what this guy brings.
4. Show How Smart You Are by Using Jargon No One Understands
Our speaker was surely an expert in her field. I’m sure she spent many hours prepping for her talk. She knew the subject matter like the palm of her hand, but I’m not quite sure if she stopped for a moment to ask herself if her audience had the same level of expertise. She asked us questions like “what is your conversion rate?” What is your Customer Acquisition Cost? And all kinds of fancy marketing terms that only made me feel bad about myself. This notion pretty much caused my brain to shut down to whatever content is going to come next. Don’t assume your audience knows the jargon you are so familiar with. If you want to get your ideas across, you really should think of how to put them into concepts they already understand. Build new ideas on prior knowledge, leave the fancy terms out and use metaphors anyone can understand. The best way to test your assumptions is to experiment with real people, preferably people who you identify as your target audience. Run your presentation through them, encourage them to ask questions and ask for their feedback. Sure enough, you will get a sense of what works and what needs to be refined.
5. Spare Them the Call To Action
One of the biggest mistakes a public speaker can make is to assume the audience will draw their own conclusions. The fact of the matter is, it doesn’t work like that. If you don’t tie up all the loose ends and connect your idea to their motivations, you are wasting everybody’s time. It is your job to leave them with a clear message they can take away with them. If you did a good job, they would want to share it with others. Chris Anderson, the curator of TED, calls it Making Your Idea Worth Sharing. This means framing the message to your audience as if it was a gift. Something you leave them with, an idea that perhaps will change their lives for the better, improve their perspective on things, inspire them and give them hope.
To conclude, delivering a great presentation takes time and practice, but it’s certainly not rocket science. There are a few principles you need to follow, a few pitfalls to avoid, and you will be just fine. Have other tips you would like to share? I’d love to read them in the comments section below.
Now go get’em, tiger!