10 Deadly Presentation Pitfalls to Avoid

When you are giving a presentation, there are many things that are in your control that can make your presentation go well or go terribly wrong. Without knowing it, presenters many times fall into traps of their own making, which can be easily avoided with the right tools and outlook. Here are ten of the biggest deadly mistakes that presenters should avoid.

Taking too much time

Your audience’s time is valuable, and if you care about them liking your presentation, then you will value their time. If you have an allotted slot of time in which to present, stick to that time. Don’t try to pack in more material – if your presentation is good, then you’ll be leaving the audience wanting more – that’s great! However, no matter how good your presentation is, if you go on longer than you said you would, then it’s like breaking an implicit promise.

Overusing color, flash, graphics, and animation

Color, Flash, graphics, and PowerPoint animation have their place, and they can be VERY useful in making your presentation even more effective. However, too much of a good thing can be, well, too much of a good thing. You want these devices to assist you in your presentation, but using them too much can actually distract your audience from the main purpose of your presentation – your message.

Use color and animation in the right doses to make your presentation sing, but don’t overdo it.

Reading your presentation or reading notes

If you are reading from notes during your presentation or, worse, just reading the text on your presentation slides, then you’re in the middle of a presentation train wreck. The audience will be thinking in their heads: “Well, even I could READ the slides…” Reading the slides conveys an impression that you as the presenter don’t know the material you’re presenting, since you have to read it aloud. The slides are there for the audience to guide their attention, but YOU are giving the presentation, not your slides. Don’t read – know your material and let your slides assist you.

Putting too many words on your slides

This is an especially deadly mistake. When the audience sees a slide that is just jam packed with words, their brains go to sleep. They don’t try and read the slide (it’s too difficult), and they stop listening to the speaker (deadly!). Text needs to be broken up into short bulleted items, with fonts that are easy to read, and with plenty of white space. Color can even be used to highlight certain words, conveying the message you’re intending.

Talking AT your audience instead of WITH your audience

When you’re presenting, you can’t go in with the attitude that you know more than your audience. Maybe you DO know more than the audience, but you can’t go into your presentation exuding that attitude. Your audience may know a lot about your subject, or they may only know a little, which is why they’re listening to you. But you need to connect with your audience and make sure they know that you are here to help THEM.

Your audience is asking the question to themselves: “What’s in it for me?” If you can answer that question in their minds, which means you are successfully connecting with them, then your presentation will be a hit. Talking AT your audience means that you’re not trying to connect with them; talking WITH them means that you are.

Having multiple messages on a single slide

Your presentation is like a story and you have several messages that you are trying to convey. Some messages may be steps along a path toward a larger message, so each step is most likely important. Don’t muddle these steps together if they are that important. Each slide in your presentation should have a singular message that you want the audience to come away with.

If you have a larger message that has a couple of key components, break it up into two slides. You are guiding the audience, so have them focus on one thing at a time.

Presenting the wrong image

If you’re presenting to a group of business executives, then you’ll probably want to dress in a business suit. This conveys that you understand your audience and you respect them as a group. However, if you’re presenting to a group in a more casual environment, you may not want the business suit, since it makes you seem stuffy. Overdressing and underdressing can be deadly mistakes in presenting, since it conveys the impression that you don’t understand your audience – you didn’t dress the appropriate part.

Going in cold

Regardless of how well you think you know your presentation, you need to prepare. You need to go over (even if it’s just in your head) what you’re going to say on each slide, what your messages are, and how your want to present yourself. Having a “dry run” – practicing your presentation in front of real people that will give you constructive feedback – is an important step in proper presentation preparation. Also, if you can, check out the room in which you’ll be presenting beforehand. Check out your animation and videos to see if they’ll work properly. This way, you won’t be caught off guard.

Apologizing when it’s not your fault

Apologizing may be polite, but it also sends signs of weakness and uncertainty to your audience, so be careful about how or when you apologize to your audience. Obviously, if someone is asking a question and you can’t hear them, you might say, “I’m sorry, I can’t hear you. Could you ask your question again?” This isn’t really apologizing – you’re just being polite for someone not speaking up.

However, if someone gives you grief for not including something that they think you should have included, say something like: “That’s an interesting comment. I’ll look into that for next time.” But, don’t apologize – there’s no need. If you’re prepared, and understand the material that you ARE presenting (not what somebody thinks you SHOULD BE presenting), then there is no reason to apologize.

Presenting without a Purpose

This is the number one mistake that presenters make, and what I consider to be the most important part of one’s presentation – knowing what you want to achieve as the result of your presentation, or knowing the purpose for your presentation. Maybe scientists might give a presentation of their research, or a salesperson might give a presentation on their product. Some executives might give a presentation on the state of their business, or a manager gives a presentation on the status of their program.

In each case, the presenter is giving a presentation on something and could easily just tell people what the facts are. Well, the audience may just end up asking: “So what? Why should I care?” This is the question that would get asked if the presenter didn’t know what they wanted at the end of their presentation. As a presenter, you want to ask yourself what your desired outcome is. How do you want the people hearing your presentation to respond?

You want to send a message, and you need your facts to support your message. Understanding your message defines everything else that follows in your presentation – your structure, your slides, your words. So, presenting without a purpose is the most deadly mistake of all in presenting. Avoid it at all costs!

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I currently serve as Vice President of Decision Science at CenturyLink. I've previously served as a leader in the Advanced Risk & Compliance Analytics (ARCA) practice at PwC and as Director of Data Science & Analytics Engineering at Areté Associates. I've served the public as Chair of the Thousand Oaks, CA Planning Commission. I have been married to my wife Stephanie since 1993, and we have a wonderful daughter Monroe. Learn more about me »

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  • A great piece of pitfalls. This information was so helpful as i make presentations at least once every week and these are some of the things i was ovelooking.

    Great stuff