The 10 Most Common Presentation Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

Many of us make common mistakes in our business presentations. Often these presentation mistakes are ways of working that seem efficient (but are not) such as: (1) planning your talk with PowerPoint, (2) writing your talk without planning, (3) skipping practise sessions and (4) narrating dull slides.

To help you avoid common presentation mistakes  that many of us regularly make, you have here some examples of the most common mistakes.

Each of these presenting mistakes are ‘false friends’ – where you feel as if you are making progress but in reality you are diverting from the true path and giving yourself more work than necessary.

Study these presentation mistakes and identify where you can improve.

  • Do you avoid planning your presentation up front?
  • Are you too quick to start producing presentation slides?
  • Are you reluctant to try out your presentation ideas on others early in the process?
  • Do you use boring safe language?
  • Do you try and say too much in your presentations?
  • Are you unsure how to bring your presentation to life with levity.

These are all simple, natural presenting mistakes that cause thousands of presentations every day to be less effective than they should be.

While avoiding these traps will not make you a brilliant presenter, each trap you identify will take you much nearer to being a confident and convincing presenter.

Top ten ways to avoid common presentation mistakes

  1. Don’t start with PowerPoint. Leave creating visual aids until the end of the process
  2. Don’t start writing before planning. Have a clear plan first
  3. Don’t be the centre of attention. Make your talk about your audience.
  4. Don’t use written language. Translate everything you write into compelling spoken language.
  5. Don’t try and say too much. Say less, but say it better.
  6. Don’t be boring. Say something interesting every 10 words.
  7. Don’t be subtle. Be big, bold, clear and compelling.
  8. Don’t speak too fast. Leave a pause every 5-10 words.
  9. Don’t lead with slides or narrate slides. Speak directly to your audience and only use visual aids when they help your audience
  10. Don’t avoid practising. Dedicate time perfecting your talk and perfecting your performance.

Presentation Mistakes #1 – Do you waste time with PowerPoint?

Summary: PowerPoint is a poor planning tool. Only open PowerPoint after you have decided what you are saying.

Most people, when they start writing a presentation, they open PowerPoint. They create slides, perhaps use old slides, design new ones and feel as if they are making progress because they can see ‘progress’ – something they can print and share.

BUT: Starting with PowerPoint is the equivalent of creating a movie by filming before you have a story or a script. You end up with a lot of footage, but it is near impossible to turn this into anything usable. You waste time and you waste money.

Instead, Create a powerful talk that barely uses any visual aids. Use the planning and language tools outlined in this blog article to create a talk that can work on its own without slides. You may realise that your presentation does not need slides. If you do want visual aids, only start creating them at the end of the presentation process, not at the start.

And why not rename ‘slides’ as Visual Aids. This change of language will help you think differently. Each Visual Aid must help your audience interpret what you say. Only create Visual Aids where they are absolutely necessary. Make life easier for your audience.

“Failing to prepare is preparing to fail”. 

– Benjamin Franklin

Avoid Presentation Mistakes – Top Tips

  1. Stop using PowerPoint to plan
  2. Only use PowerPoint to create your visual aids or handouts after you have decided what to say.

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Presentation Mistakes #2 – Do you make yourself or your idea the focus of your presentation?

Summary: While your presentation might be about your product or your business, you will be more effective if you make your audience the centre of attention.

A typical bad presentation starts: “In today’s presentation I will talk about how we performed last month, what our plans are for this month and how we are changing the way numbers are reported. I’ll talk about project Pegasus and give an update on the latest company sales figures”

Why is this not good? This presentation opening is more like a table of contents than anything else – and it contains little that is useful for the audience.

The art of communication is translating what you want to say into what it means for your audience. You’ll grab your audience if you talk about them and their interests. If what you say is useful, your audience is more likely to pay attention.

Instead, start like this: “As we all know, this has been a tough month. You’ll hear more about last month’s disappointing performance and learn about our plans for this month and what that means for your departments. I’ll also share with you the changes you can expect to see in how we report our numbers. You’ll also be pleased to know that project Pegasus is on track. We can already see a positive impact on our sales numbers – which I am sure we are all very pleased to hear.”

What has changed?

  • Each ‘I will talk about’ has been translated into a ‘you will….’
  • By using many more personal pronouns (we/ our/your) the talk is easier to listen to.
  • In the revised text you hear much more useful information (is it good news, bad news) and
  • The audience is involved in the story (‘we are all very pleased to hear’).

In short, the audience is now the centre of attention of this talk.

“Nobody cares what you think until they think that you care”

Maya Angelou

Avoid Presentation Mistakes – Top Tips

  1. Give your audience useful information from the start.
  2. Talk about them and what your information means for them
  3. Avoid ‘tables of contents’. Say something interesting in every phrase.

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Presentation Mistakes #3 – Is your presentation a data dump?

Summary – A data dump is not a presentation. The real job of a presentation is to analyse and interpret information so it means something for your audience. You must add value.

A typical bad presentation sounds like: “Sales last quarter were 3.6m, this is up 3.2% on last quarter and down 2.8% on the previous year. This is 4.6% behind budget and 4.5% better than forecast. Breaking it down by division we can see that North was 8.2% over budget while South was 1.2% behind budget…….”

What’s wrong with this?  If you compile data then it’s tempting to share your hard work. But talking through raw numbers is a waste of everyone’s time. Instead, you want to look impressive.

That means, you must add value. You should describe what those numbers are saying. For example, you might say:

“As we can see, sales at 3.2m last month were as expected. The important thing to note is that North won the new IBM contract, which was unexpected, while South had three customer delays which pushed their sales back by a month. We are still pretty confident of reaching our end of year numbers.”

By speaking in this way you are giving your audience valuable information throughout (sales: “as expected” …. North: Unexpected IBM contract….South: customer delays,… pushed sales back by a month…’confident of reaching end of year numbers”).

The real art here is doing the hard work for your audience. If you make it easy for the audience you’ll not only have a better presentation, you will also look more impressive in front of your audience.

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I’ll spend the first four sharpening the axe.”

– Abraham Lincoln

Avoid Presentation Mistakes – Top Tips

  1. When you report data, add value.
  2. It’s your job to do the hard work.
  3. Explain what the data means for your audience.
  4. Make it easy for your audience.
Compelling investor messaging

Presentation Mistakes #4 – Do you use written language in your talk?

Summary – The written word and the spoken word are two different languages. One belongs on the page, the other in the mouth.

A typical bad start: “It is a pleasure to welcome you to this symposium, which is part of our programme to mark the 75th anniversary of the Central Bank of Ireland. I am especially delighted that Francois Villeroy de Galhau is joining us today to give a keynote address. I am looking forward also to learning from the excellent lineup of speakers later in the afternoon.

“The topic of financial globalisation is a natural theme for the Central Bank of Ireland. At a macroeconomic level, the global financial cycle is a primary determinant of financial stability conditions in small open economies. This lesson was painfully learned across the advanced economies during the international credit boom that occurred over 2003-2008.”

Remarks by Governor of the Central Bank of Ireland, to the Financial Globalisation Symposium as part of the programme to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Central Bank of Ireland, Dublin, 2 February 2018

What is wrong with this?  When you preparing words for a talk or presentation, you want to avoid planning through typing. The spoken word and the written word are like different languages.  If you type first, you’ll probably find:

  • The sentences are too long,
  • The words are too complicated
  • The rhythm of spoken language is lost
  • You miss powerful rhetorical tools that make spoken language interesting and easy to listen to.

Written language must be translated into spoken language.

SO, instead, say it first then write it. Then say it out loud again. Check that you are using plenty of rhetorical tools.  Listen for the rhythm of your speech and whether it’s easy to say (and easy to listen to). For example, this might have been a speechwriter’s first draft for the Governor of the Central Bank of Ireland.

“Welcome everyone to this great occasion. It’s 75 years since the Central Bank of Ireland was born. In that time we have grown up. – We were born as a new institution in a new country – and we are now standing tall alongside our brothers and sisters in Europe and around the world, a full participant in the global economy. In our busy life we’ve lived through financial cycles, a few near misses and, most recently, an international credit boom.

“Financial globalisation is a topic close to our heart. What happens globally determines what happens locally. The global credit boom that ended in 2008 showed us how our financial stability is at the mercy of global forces.”

“Everything becomes a little different as soon as it is spoken out loud.”

– Herman Hesse

Avoid Presentation Mistakes – Top Tips

  1. Always speak words before writing them down
  2. Use plenty of rhetorical tools
  3. Use an audience to test that it’s easy to understand

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Presentation Mistakes #5 – Are you trying to say too much?

Summary – Great talks usually say less, but use more reinforcement, illustration and examples.. The art of presenting is knowing what to take out.

Imagine an over-enthusiastic primary school teacher explaining atoms to her students.

“Atoms are the basic building blocks of everything around us. And each atom is made up of protons, neutrons and electrons. These atoms are very small – you can fit 10^19 atoms into a grain of sand. The really interesting thing about electrons is that they are both particles and waves – they have a duality. In fact all matter demonstrates duality – but it is most easily seen in electrons. Now let’s look at protons and neutrons. These are made up of more elementary particles call quarks. The Standard Model of particle physics contains 12 flavours of elementary fermions and their antiparticles……”

By now the children are very confused.

What went wrong? When you say too much you give your audience a problem. If your audience has to work hard to interpret what you say, you have failed in your job as a presenter.  Your job as a presenter is to make it easy for your audience. 

Great communication involves simplifying, reinforcing and giving examples.  Imagine this alternative start:

“Atoms are the basic building blocks of everything around us. The air we breathe is made of atoms. The ground we walk on is made of atoms and we are all made of atoms. Atoms are very small. See this grain of sand here? Guess how many atoms are in this grain of sand? It’s a big number: a one followed by nineteen zeros. That’s a lot of atoms. There are roughly as many atoms in this grain of sand as the total number of stars in the observable universe. To look at it another way. If this apple were magnified to the size of the Earth, then each atom in the apple would be approximately the size of the original apple……”

“Simplify, then exaggerate”

Geoffrey Crowther, Editor, Economist Magazine

Avoid Presentation Mistakes – Top Tips

  1. Say less, but say it better
  2. Cut out non-essential information from your talk
  3. Don’t be afraid of reinforcing, illustrating and repeating what’s important
death by powerpoint

Presentation Mistakes #6 – Are you guilty of Death by PowerPoint?

Summary – Death by PowerPoint happens when bad presenters let their slides lead. They ‘talk through’ what’s on the screen. Instead, you want to talk directly to your audience, using visual aids as support.

Imagine this bad, and typical presentation: “As you can see on this page, we have looked at fifteen initiatives to revitalise the businesses. We examined the pros and cons of each initiative, as outlined in the table below. Following our analysis, it looks like initiatives 3, 7, and 8 are the most interesting. We’ll now look at each of the fifteen initiatives and explain why we came to our conclusions.”

That’s what death by PowerPoint feels like.

Death by PowerPoint has three causes.

  1. The speaker is narrating slides rather than speaking directly to the audience. i.e. the speaker expects the audience to both read and listen at the same time.
  2. The speaker talks about HOW they have done the work they have done rather than WHY this work matters and WHAT their work means.
  3. The speaker adds little value in what they say.

To Avoid Death By PowerPoint, get straight to the point.

Try this alternative start (read it out loud) “As you know, we were asked to find ways to revitalise the business. After speaking to everyone in this room, we identified the three projects that will make a real difference. We’ve chosen these because they deliver the greatest return on effort, they have the lowest risk and they can be implemented fastest. By the end of this meeting, we want all of us to agree that these are the right projects and to get your full support for rolling these out over the next 6 weeks. Is that OK?”

“I hate the way people use slide presentations instead of thinking. People confront a problem by creating a presentation. I wanted them to engage, to hash things out at the table, rather than show a bunch of slides”

– Steve Jobs

Avoid Presentation Mistakes – Top Tips

  1. Get to the point immediately.
  2. Make it easy for your audience.
  3. Don’t rely on your audience reading. Tell them directly what’s important.
  4. WHY is more important than WHAT is more important than HOW

Presentation Mistakes #7 – Do you use meta-speak?

Summary – Meta-speak Is talking about talking. Avoid it. Speak directly to your audience.

Imagine this bad presentation: “I was asked today to talk about our new factory. In putting together this talk I wanted to tell you how we designed it and went about planning it. I also wanted to cover the process we used to get it delivered on time and on budget.”

What wrong with this? It’s as if the speaker is narrating their thought processes about planning this talk. While that might be interesting to the speaker, it is of little value to the audience. Avoid.

Instead, get right to the point, Speak directly.

“We have just opened our new factory. And we did this in just 12 months from board approval to the cutting of the ribbon in the loading bay. How did we achieve this? And how did we deliver it on time and on budget? Today I’ll share some of the lessons we leaned over the last 12 months. And I’ll reveal some of the mistakes we nearly made. And I’m doing this because it just might help you when you are faced with what seems like an impossible problem…”

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

– Albert Einstein

Avoid Presentation Mistakes – Top Tips

  1. If you see meta-speak creeping in, cut it out
  2. Make your language direct.
  3. Get right to the point.

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Presenting Mistakes #8 – Do you gabble or speak too fast?

Summary – Speaking too fast helps nobody. You should learn how to incorporate pauses – many pauses – long pauses – throughout your talk.

Try saying this out loud:  “A-typical-speaker-will-speak-in-long-sentences-and-keep-speaking-linking-phrases-together-so-that-there-is-no-gap-and-no-time-for-the-audience-to-absorb-what-the-speaker-has-said-and-no-time-to-plan-what-to-say-next-this-causes-the-speaker-to-feel-more-nervous-so-they-speed-up-and-it-frustrates-the-audience-because-they-have-no-time-to-process-what-they-have-heard-before-the-speaker-is-onto-their-next-point…”

This typically happens when a speaker is nervous. So they rush. And it is then hard for the audience to listen.

Instead, try speaking this out loud:  “Good speakers use short phrases — They share one thought at a time — — By leaving gaps — it’s easier for the audience. — The good news is — it’s also easier for the speaker. — When a speaker uses pauses — they have time to compose their next sentence. — This helps the speaker look more thoughtful — and more convincing. — It also helps the speaker feel more confident.

“The most precious things in speech are….. the pause.”

– Ralph Richardson

Avoid Presentation Mistakes – Top Tips

  1. Pausing takes practice. Few people do it instinctively.
  2. Use shorter phrases – one idea at a time.
  3. Aim for a pause at least every ten words
  4. Record yourself, listen to your pauses and hear how they add gravitas
  5. Keep practising until your pauses feel natural and sound natural.

Presentation Mistakes #9 – Are you too serious?

Summary – Levity can help you look more professional and will help your audience pay attention to what you say.

Too many presentations overly serious, dull and un-engaging.

Why? When we have something important to say we want to look ‘professional.’ But professional and serious are not the same. When you are too serious it’s harder for your audience to connect with you.

If you really want to look professional, bring the audience into your world. Levity and humour helps you achieve this. This does not mean you should tell jokes, but you should help the audience smile and feel clever for understanding what you say.

See how you can do it differently.  This is the third paragraph of Apple CEO Tim Cook’s EU Privacy speech. He uses humour followed by flattery to get his audience open and receptive to what he is about to say.

“Now Italy has produced more than its share of great leaders and public servants. Machiavelli taught us how leaders can get away with evil deeds…And Dante showed us what happens when they get caught.

“Giovanni has done something very different. Through his values, his dedication, his thoughtful work, Giovanni, his predecessor Peter Hustinx—and all of you—have set an example for the world. We are deeply grateful.”

“Inform, Educate & Entertain”.

– Sir John Reith, BBC

Avoid Presentation Mistakes – Top Tips

  1. Have a smile on your face when preparing your talk
  2. Look for opportunities to introduce humour and lighten the tone
  3. Play with ideas.

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how to answer questions

Presenting Mistakes #10 – Do you avoid practising?

Summary – It’s tempting to avoid practise and to wing it on the day. This is the amateur approach.

The best presenters, like great athletes, do all their practising in advance, so that their performance on the day  looks effortless.

People make excuses to avoid essential practise:

  • “I’m always better without practice”
  • “I don’t want to over-prepare”
  • “I sound wooden when I over-rehearse”
  • “I’m more natural on the day”
  •  “This is an artificial environment. I’m much better in front of a real audience.”

But many people are deluded. They believe themselves to be good speakers.

So, instead, think of yourself as a professional athlete, actor, pilot or dentist. These professionals make their work appear effortless only because of hours of preparation. A great presenter should think the same.

Use your rehearsal to try out every aspect of your talk and to iron out what works. Use a critical audience. Keep changing and improving it until it’s as good as it can be. If you are not a brilliant speaker, then spend time building your skills. This practice includes:

  1. Cut any waffle or anything boring
  2. Say something interesting at least every 10 words
  3. Use more rhetorical tools (see Chapter x)
  4. Keep reinforcing your key points
  5. Start strong, end strong

“The more I practise, the luckier I get”.

– Gary Player, champion golfer

Avoid Presentation Mistakes – Top Tips

  1. Dedicate proper practise time – at least three sessions for an important talk.
  2. Use a critical audience
  3. Keep cutting, changing, fixing and tweaking
  4. Only stop when you are able to pay attention to your audience’s reaction rather than remembering what you want to say.

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Summary – key presentation mistakes to avoid

When you understand the common mistakes presenters make, you will find it easier to create and give a compelling, successful presentation.

Reminder: Top ten ways to avoid common presentation mistakes

  1. Don’t start with PowerPoint. Leave creating visual aids until the end of the process
  2. Don’t start writing before planning. Have a clear plan first
  3. Don’t be the centre of attention. Make your talk about your audience.
  4. Don’t use written language. Translate everything you write into compelling spoken language.
  5. Don’t try and say too much. Say less, but say it better.
  6. Don’t be boring. Say something interesting every 10 words.
  7. Don’t be subtle. Be big, bold, clear and compelling.
  8. Don’t speak too fast. Leave a pause every 5-10 words.
  9. Don’t lead with slides or narrate slides. Speak directly to your audience and only use visual aids when they help your audience
  10. Don’t avoid practising. Dedicate time perfecting your talk and perfecting your performance.

How to Avoid Presentation Mistakes – for ever

If you really want to improve your presentation skills, then get in touch. Our team of expert presentation coaches has been helping business executives polish their presentation skills for over 15 years. We are trusted by some of the world’s largest businesses. Click on the link below to discuss your needs.

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About Benjamin Ball Associates

Benjamin Ball Associates  Presentation skills coaching team

At Benjamin Ball Associates, we help our clients to communicate better. You get presentation coaching for executives.

Over 15+ years the award-winning BBA team has coached thousands of senior executives globally to present powerfully. You get access to a transformational toolbox of presentation skills & techniques to help you become a clear, confident communicator.

We’ll help you create a powerful first impression that hooks and engages your audience immediately, and we’ll transform you to deliver clearly, confidently and with impact.

Speak to Louise on +44 20 7018 0922 or email louise@benjaminball.com to find out more and discuss transforming your speeches, pitches and presentations.

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