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Presentations Gone Wrong: Five Rules for Avoiding a Really Bad Presentation

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Picture this: You're about to give the most important presentation of your life; if you convince the audience and gain their approval, you could change your business forever.

You take a deep breath and open your PowerPoint file. You've spend nights working on it. You've added tons of slides, and you've squeezed text onto each slide to make sure nothing's missed.

Yet, as soon as you start "reading" from the screen to the audience, their eyes glaze over. You keep going, pretending to be excited about your material. Oh Lord, they seem bored. Deep down, you know you've lost them already.

What gives?

I've sat through many a presentation by presenters who conveniently forgot that a tool (such as PowerPoint) is just a medium to re-enforce what they have to say. Instead, the speaker took a backseat and put the slides center-stage. A classic example of a presentation gone wrong.


Another common mistake is to read the slides word for word. Look, if you have to read them, you're too focused on your tool and not on your message. Congratulations, you're now a reader, not a presenter.

The problem here is you're making things that don't matter, matter. You, the presenter, are more important than your slides.

Let's now look at five rules for avoiding a really bad presentation.

1. Know your stuff

Needless to say, right? But how many times have you seen a presenter merely reading from a heap of material on their desk or, worse yet, their slides?

If you're passionate about the topic, you'll know it inside-out. Passion is contagious. It'll rub off on your audience.

Know your stuff so well that if your slides were damaged 10 seconds before you were to start, it wouldn't bother you.

Never distribute any material before you've finished. It's like bringing a kid to a candy store and asking them to behave. Not going to happen.

Provide printouts or a digital copy only after you've finished speaking. Create a summarized report for what you covered instead of sending a copy of your slides.

2. Show, don't just tell

You've probably heard it by now—humans are visual learners. About 40-65% of humans are visual learners, whereas 25-30% are auditory learners. Visual includes images, photos with text overlays, infographics, graphs, charts, videos, and presentations.

Let's say you're presenting to gain funding for a cause called Kill Traffic Pollution in China.

Which one's more effective: Throwing a bunch of bullet-point stats on a slide and explaining them what each means or showing them real-life photos of damaged lungs and asthma in kids as you elaborate with stats?

Yes, bullet points are good. But they cannot do much on their own. Clearly, the visual aid helps get your point across.

A picture can be worth more than a thousand words, so why not make an impact with a picture?


Source: Blah Blah Blah

Show and tell, don't just tell. Telling appeals to auditory learners only, where as showing and telling appeals to both visual and auditory learners.

But... don't use hideous built-in clipart! If you'd like to give a nice touch with rich visuals, try free web-based apps such as Visme for your presentations and other forms of engaging content.

3. Create a structure and flow

Without structure and flow in your presentation, all your good work is gone down the drain. A cool way to organize your work is to use the 4MAT system:


Source: About Learning

Using 4MAT, you divide your presentation into four parts: Why, What, How, and What if.

The "Why" defines the purpose. Why are you doing this, and why should they care? (Reminds me of Nietzsche, who said if you know your "why," you can live any "how".)

The "What" tells them what they are going to learn. (Remember that old saying—by Aristotle—about public speaking? "Tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them.")

The "What" shouldn't take you long—just a few minutes, max.

Then comes the "How," which will take most of your time. You give them 4-5 steps of how to apply the topic in real life. In fact, each step will have a mini-4MAT of its own with all four parts.

Last, you tackle the "What if." This is where you take any questions and refine and summarize what you just told them.

4. Listen to Seth Godin

I swear by Seth Godin's rule of not more than six words per a slide.

That might sound extreme, but it works! I've seen slides with one word work like a charm because the presenter cared about and knew the topic first hand.

And here's what NOT to do:


Source: Washington University Libraries

Each of your slides is a transition into a new sub-topic that you'll elaborate for your audience. As you talk, you build rapport and a connection with them.

Avoid squeezing too many words on your slides because that will only confuse and turn off your audience. Instead, let your slides become the segue into an engaging explanation or a discussion about your topic.

5. Move

Really, no one likes to listen to you as you stand behind a podium. Get up if you're sitting for too long, sit down if you're walking, pace yourself when you're excited, and come out of your comfort zone every once in a while.

Own the space and use your stage fully. If you've done a good job of building rapport, you'll take your audience with you on a ride and into several positive states of learning.

6. Use the 10-20-30 Rule

You've got to love Guy Kawasaki for coming up with this rule, which basically states that if you are presenting for a business proposal...

  1. Don't go over 10 slides.
  2. Don't take more than 20 minutes.
  3. And don't use fonts smaller than 30 points in size (more reason to use fewer words on your slide).

Are you a presenter or a public speaker? How do you avoid a really bad presentation? Share your pro tips in the comments, below.


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Pooja Lohana simplifies content marketing for her clients so they can get found online, make more sales, and live the Un-9-5 life. She is a freelance writer, ghostwriter, and editor. Reach her at Damn Fine Writing.

LinkedIn: Pooja L

Twitter: @WellPaidWriters

Google+: Pooja L

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  • by Jim Greenway Wed Oct 15, 2014 via web

    As a public speaker, I totally agree with this concept. You and I must have been in the same Seth Godin presentation when he mentioned the six word rule regarding slides. It makes the difference between a good presentation, and a really good speaker. Thanks for sharing.

  • by Janice Dottin Wed Oct 15, 2014 via web

    There are hours of my life that I'll never get back, lost to bad presentations. Your suggestions are terrific! One of my pet peeves is presenters who believe that all of their data (spreadsheet, chart or report) has to appear on a single slide. It's better to extract a few key data points and highlight them. If your audience needs to see all of the detail, include the full document with the handouts, not in the slides. Oh, and handouts of any kind should be distributed AFTER the presentation, unless you want your audience to spend its time reading instead of listening to you. Great piece!

  • by dom Wed Oct 15, 2014 via web

    #6... is it 10-20-30 or 10-30-30? [feel free to delete when edit is made; couldn't connect to author, thx]

  • by John Eustace Wed Oct 15, 2014 via web

    I am going to forward this to everyone who is preparing their presentation for my networking group.
    My most effective slide (I only have one) is simply a picture of me giving a presentation with my name superimposed on it!
    This keeps the audience focused on what I am saying, there are no distractions and I can be certain a technical glitch never impacts my presentation.
    PowerPoint is useful only when you have complex things to illustrate. I recommend no bullet points and if possible no slides at all!

  • by Rich Gibbs Thu Oct 16, 2014 via web

    Very clearly described and an excellent article for any would-be presenter. I learned some years ago that it's my opportunity to tell my audience why my subject is great. Think of it like this. You are centre stage, engaging an audience like an actor on a stage. People want to enjoy the experience of watching and listening to you. So make it a piece of theatre. One of my best presentations was a 20-min slot in a 3-hour pitch to a new client. The first half was as dull as you can imagine. Then is was my turn. I told my audience what my subject was about and then told my team to turn the presentation off. My CEO looked at me and her jaw hit the floor. But in the next 20-mins I spoke to the audience, I engaged with them, I asked them questions, I illustrated my points by enlisting the help of the team. Upon sitting down, the key client looked at me, smiled and nodded. We won the pitch. I hope I helped in some way
    Presentations are about you, feel it, embrace it, enjoy it, and maybe, your audience will too.

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