Eight Presentation Killers and How to Avoid Them

by Frank L. Williams

During the course of my work on various boards and committees, I am on the receiving end of a wide range of presentations. Some presentations are engaging, informative, and even entertaining. Others are mind-numbingly boring or painful to sit through.

I’ve observed a number of common mistakes that tend to torpedo presentations:

  1. Not Knowing Your Audience: As part of one of the boards on which I serve, I’ve heard numerous presentations that were more relevant to our professional staff than to the board.  The presenters would dive deep into minutiae that was not relevant to the board’s decision-making, often at the expense of the points that did matter. This presentation-killer is a strategic one, not a technical one: as part of your strategy, you should invest the time to identify your audience and understand what does and does not matter to them.
  2. Lack of Purpose: After sitting through some presentations, I wondered if their goal was to see how much information they could cram into a few slides. Those presenters likely had no clear purpose. Before you create the first slide or write the first bullet point, you should have a clear understanding of what you aim to achieve. Are you trying to educate your audience about a certain topic? Is your goal to persuade? To motivate? Identify your purpose – ideally only one purpose — and build your presentation around that goal.
  3. No Clear Message: Some presentations have left me wondering “what was that all about?” In some cases, there was no coherent message whatsoever; in others, there were so many messages that I couldn’t sort out what was really important. Research has shown that immediately after a 10-minute presentation, listeners only remembered 50% of what was said. To get your message across, it must be simple, clear, and relevant. I recommend no more than three key messages.
  4. Getting Trapped in the Weeds: Speaking of minutiae, it’s generally a mistake to dive too deep into the weeds, even if the minutiae you’re discussing is relevant to your audience. If your presentation is infested with weeds, they will likely drown out the key messages you need to convey. Have this kind of detailed information available for those in the audience who may be interested in it, but keep it out of your presentation unless you’re at a technical conference where attendees expect it from the outset.
  5. Wearing Out Your Welcome: One of the best pieces of presentation advice I’ve ever heard is “Be clear, be brief, and be seated.” Most presentations are made within the context of another event, such as a board meeting or conference. People have short attention spans, and they value their time. If your presentation is part of a longer agenda, the surest way to lose your audience’s interest – and destroy any goodwill you may have built – is to keep droning on and on long after they have tuned out. Be clear and concise.
  6. Mixing Spreadsheets and PowerPoints: In a meeting I recently attended, a presenter embedded a very detailed spreadsheet onto a PowerPoint slide. Not only could we not read the content on the presentation screen, the numbers were so small that no one in the room could read them on the printout. Our futile efforts to read the tiny print immediately distracted us from the presenter’s main message. If you have numbers to share, put the most important ones on a slide, and provide attendees with a readable printout with the details.
  7. Text Overload: Another common presentation killer is cramming too much text onto a PowerPoint slide. Ideally, slides should include a compelling visual that reinforces your message, accompanied by very few printed words. In some cases, I’ve found visuals that enabled me to communicate a message with no text at all! While some settings may call for slides comprised entirely of text – training events come to mind – overloading slides with text makes for tedious presentations. Use visual imagery whenever possible. Shorten your bullet points. Increase the font size and put fewer bullets on each slide.
  8. Confusing Your PowerPoint with a Teleprompter: A PowerPoint presentation is intended to guide both the presenter and the audience. It is intended to help reinforce the message and increase the audience’s retention. It is NOT intended to be read aloud, word-for-word. Rehearse your presentation so that you know it well enough to deliver it without reading every word.

These are just a few of the presentation-killers I’ve observed. Don’t let them kill your next presentation.

Interested in learning how we can help you refine your message and strengthen your presentation? Drop us a line!

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Frank L. Williams

Frank is the founder and president of Pioneer Strategies.