Presentation Tips that Suck

Tuesday, September 1st, 2009 12 comments


Not all presentation tips are good. In fact, some just plain suck. Here are a list of presentation tips that are best avoided…

Turn off the lights to use the projector. There was a time when projectors were so weak that without turning the lights off nobody could see the slides. Now, that’s not necessarily the case (except with the Pico Projector we reviewed recently). Turning the lights off makes note-taking hard, eye-contact harder, and staying alert hardest of all.

Slide titles should summarise the content of the slide. This allows the audience to grasp the point of a slide immediately. The problem is that if they think they understand the point of the slide before the presenter even starts to speak, they will disengage and not pay attention to the detail the presenter provides.

title-bars-that-dont-make-senseThe management consultant’s version of this tip is that slide titles should link together so that somebody reading just the title of each slide would have read a prose summary of the entire presentation. This tip might make sense if you are sending slides to a busy executive to read – but tips that work for “PowerPoint documents” don’t work for presentations as they make the presenter unnecessary. If the presenter isn’t needed, presenting effectively becomes almost impossible. Need to send a presentation? Send a link to a web presentation instead.

Always maintain eye contact with the key audience members. Of course, no presenter should spend too long looking at the screen. But, used appropriately, breaking eye-contact with the audience and looking away can give the audience time to read, process, and think. When someone is looking at you, thinking is harder, as so much mental capacity is used in processing facial expressions.

presenter-with-back-to-audienceA good presenter never turns his back on the audience. A more accurate piece of advice might be: “if you turn your back on the audience, it had better be for a good reason.”  To engage with a truly seamless stream of audio and visual information (i.e. an effective presentation) it is necessary for the audience to switch their attention between you and the screen. They will take their cue from you, so if you want them to notice a build, watch it happen as you click. If you want them to read some text from your presentation, break eye contact and look at the screen (but don’t read aloud). This way of presenting gives the audience a cue so that they don’t miss anything important, and allows them to actually read, without having to block you out or feel rude by ignoring eye-contact.

handoutUse handout view to produce leave behinds. If your slides make sense when they are printed as a leave-behind, they will also make sense when you are presenting them – even before you open your mouth. If your slides make sense when printed as handouts, they won’t be engaging when you come to present them. Instead, produce a separate document as a leave-behind – using your speaker notes as a starting point. Or, for greater impact, use online meeting software to record your presentation, and provide a link. That way you can control access, see who has viewed your recording, and make it harder for your competitors to get hold of your slides.

From Guy Kawasaki – the ‘10/20/30 Rule of PowerPoint’ – ‘a PowerPoint presentation should have ten slides, last no more than twenty minutes, and contain no font smaller than thirty points’. Because Kawasaki is a well-known blogger and entrepreneur, this advice has gained a lot of exposure. And sure, following this presentation tip might give better results than using 100s of slides crammed full of ten-point text. But is this good advice for all presenters to follow? Not really. The number of slides in a presentation doesn’t mean much – it would be possible to animate a ten-hour presentation onto a single slide, or to use fifty slides in a short presentation. Likewise, just because venture capitalists can only concentrate for 20 minutes doesn’t mean that presentations should all be that short. It makes a lot of sense to use soft breaks in a longer presentation, but in fields like education and training, twenty minutes just might not be long enough. Don’t apply Kawasaki’s advice to areas it was never intended for.

stock-photosUse one big image for each slide. This is a trend that started with Beyond Bullet Points, and was in many ways reinforced by Presentation Zentwo interesting books on writing and designing presentations. At m62, we love good PowerPoint design, and we hate bullet points. But is the answer replacing each set of bullet points with a stock photo? For a keynote address or speech, to provide a backdrop, this might make sense. Have anything complex to communicate? Need your audience to understand and remember your message? Use charts, diagrams, graphs, and animations – but not just one photo on each slide. Stock photos have a place, but can a picture of a healthy family really communicate the intricacies of a health insurance offering?

Use high-quality photos of people to build an emotional connection with your audience. Eliciting an emotional response involves your audience mulling over the picture for much longer than you can afford. We cannot help but be utterly engrossed by pictures of people – simply interpreting a facial expression uses most of our mental energy. For this reason, overuse of large, high quality pictures of people is just likely to make your audience drift off into irrelevant thoughts when they should really be listening to your point.

scriptUse a script. This might make sense for a politician or CEO, for whom avoiding an uncomfortable soundbite on the evening news is essential. When presenting in a smaller setting however, using a script to present can serve as a block between presenter and audience, making the delivery sound stilted, stale, and boring. Use notes, rehearse key sections, but don’t just read aloud.

Agree? Disagree? Know about some other awful presentation tips you want to warn the world about? Write a note in the (moderated) comments, below.

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12 Comments to Presentation Tips that Suck

  1. #1

    Simon – a presentaion skills trainer

    5:55 pm, September 1st, 2009

    Interesting way to write something – good stuff! :)

    I particularly like your take on not having titles that string together to a story. I try and encourage my clients to think in terms of *headlines*, not *titles*….

    …. and as for slides that makes sense without a presenter; that’s like asking a juggler for his balls and wondering why it’s tricky!


  2. #2

    Adam Lawrence

    2:04 pm, September 9th, 2009

    Nice list, but I want to address your first point. I find that dimming the room lights can be very useful – if it’s combined with lighting up the presenter.

    Theater directors and stand-up comedians take great pains with lighting. They know that our eyes are drawn to light, so we will tend to look at the brightest thing in the room (unless it is _too_ bright).

    This means that the brightest thing in the room needs to be – of course – the presenter. Not the screen, not the striplighting, and not the light from the hallway. So ideally:

    - screen not too bright
    - gentle light in the room
    - good lighting on presenter (a medium strength spotlight is ideal)
    - semi-darkness in corridor outside

    Better still, of course, is when we follow the above rules, but leave out the screen completely. After all, the presentation is you! …

  3. #3

    Joby Blume

    2:15 pm, September 9th, 2009

    Adam, great point about lighting up the presenter. I guess it’s hard to be give any absolute rules when presentations are given in so many different settings. I think our point was mostly about the millions of presentations given each day in simple meeting rooms, where spotlights just aren’t available. I guess one other thing to keep in mind is that spotlights can be difficult to work with for a lot of presenters who just aren’t used to them. But yes, if it’s possible to keep the presenter lit, the room somewhat lit, and the screen dark – that would work well. As long as the presenter can still see the audience – eye contact must be two-way.

    On your last point, about not using slides at all… Again, this has got to depend on what you are presenting, right? Political speeches can inspire without the use of visual aids. But when presenting complex information, sometimes slides make things more memorable. We often need visual aids – that’s why blackboards were invented.

    Today, whiteboards have their place – but why not use PowerPoint to prepare the visuals in advance (hand-sketched if you want) to take some of the pressure off the presenter? Not everybody is comfortable sketching.

  4. #4

    Adam Lawrence

    3:48 pm, September 9th, 2009


    There’s a simple alternative to the spotlight option: the “B” (black) button… Darken the screen, and the presenter has a chance to shine.

    I don’t think presentations are ever the best place to present highly complex information. They are too linear, and too one-way. For complex content, a document or WBT (where the audience can choose its own speed) or a workshop (where the audience can explore the information with a guide) is demonstrably better.

    Presentations are for persuading, not informing. That this fact is so often forgotten, is the main reason that so many presentations fail.



  5. #5

    Joby Blume

    4:12 pm, September 9th, 2009

    We just published an article about making presentations interactive; they don’t need to be linear, just like PowerPoint doesn’t need to use bullet points.

    Agree about the ‘B’ key tip – it’s one of the keyboard shortcuts we teach presenters, and is of course vitally important.

    Many of our clients need to develop sales presentations to sell complex products and services. These presentations aim to persuade, but there is a need to convey complex information at the same time – otherwise, how can one make a sensible decision about which medical diagnostic device or insurance product to buy? The need to inform is most obvious in complex fields, but it is always there. After all, buying is a mixture of the rational and the emotional. How can a prospect make a rational decision to buy if the person selling doesn’t present any information? Moreover, how can they go and explain their recommendation on whether to buy (or not) to colleagues?

    Trying to sell without informing can be unpersuasive, and leave critical advantages poorly understood; trying to inform without remembering to sell is just plain daft. Sales presentations aren’t about teaching, but they may well require the presentation of complex ideas in a simple, straightforward, and memorable way.

  6. #6

    Adam Lawrence

    3:03 pm, September 23rd, 2009

    Hi Joby,

    sorry to be slow in coming back. Been busy…

    No matter how complex a product is, the reasons for buying it should be simple. They invariably are – or the product is in trouble.

    So the simple reasoning (“this machine catches 24% more cancers, here’s roughly how, and here are three leading hospitals that bought it for that reason”) belongs in the presentation.

    _Detailed_ information on the studies showing it’s effectivity, the microbiological details of how it works, and the phone numbers of those referees) belong on clearly referenced and footnoted handouts that the customer can take along, read at leisure, check, check again, and show to precisely those colleagues.

    (PS Sure, I might need to throw up a pathology pic for a few seconds to show the wonderful dramatic results, but after that they need to be looking at me again – so the screen should be off. And that pathology pic will be repeated in my handouts, so they can show the other docs.)

    All the best,


  7. #7

    Adam Lawrence

    3:05 pm, September 23rd, 2009

    PS Those are two great articles!

  8. #8

    Joby Blume

    4:54 pm, September 23rd, 2009

    I don’t think we disagree that much; certainly complex products need to be sold using straightforward messages.

    With regards to the idea that the focus should primarily be on the presenter, not on the screen… Maybe, sometimes, for some presenters, and some topics. But it’s actually easier for an audience to process information when looking at a screen than at a face (cognitive load), so there’s probably a role for both.

    Besides, not all sales presenters are also stand-up comedians or actors, and they may need visual support to help them get their points across.

    Barack Obama or Bill Clinton don’t need to use PowerPoint. But not many people can talk as well as they can.

  9. #9

    Adam Lawrence

    5:06 pm, September 23rd, 2009


    we certainly do agree on a great deal!

    But you captured my main point really well – most people aren’t comedians or actors, so they think they can’t “do it” without a Powerpoint crutch. And they don’t try.

    But my coaching has shown that “ordinary” people can put actors and comedians to shame, when they talk about something they truly care about, and enjoy what they are doing.

    And sometimes the lack of visual support forces them to really _explain_ their points, to look for understanding in the eyes of the audience, and to use (often unspoken) emotional channels.

    It’s wonderful to behold – more people should try it!

    Thanks for the conversation!


  10. #10

    Joby Blume

    10:09 pm, September 24th, 2009

    Thanks Adam – and good luck with the coaching.

  11. #11

    Janet Bornemann

    12:43 am, February 9th, 2012

    Point well taken about the single large images. It doesn’t always work to get across a complex idea. One thing I have done successfully is to use a large beautiful (and simple) image as a backdrop for a text slide with maybe 3 bullet points. So, the visual can enhance the message conveyed with the bullet points.

  12. #12

    Jessica Pyne

    10:02 am, February 14th, 2012

    Hi Janet,

    Yes, this is another way of using images – but here at m62 we don’t advocate using bullet points at all, for reasons outlined in our Bullet Points Don’t Work article. Slides shouldn’t make sense without the presenter, and bullet points outline the key messages of a slide for the audience. We’ve found that using a combination of images, diagrams and graphs to visualise the point keeps the audience’s attention far more effectively.