Presentations: Three Mistakes Even Experienced Presenters Make

A few weeks ago I was coaching two partners at a financial service provider on their presentations.  They were looking to present a new innovative investment product at a series of upcoming client meetings, and together we were sharpening their  message and the delivery.  They did a great job.

It was quarter past six, the end of a very long day, when Jean-Paul, one of the junior specialists, popped into the meeting room.  He’d been waiting patiently outside.  “I wish I could have some sort of presentations training like this, but I’ve only just started here.  Can you give me any tips or tricks?”

Apart from being suitably flattered, I was also, unfortunately, very tired with a 3 hour Friday rush hour drive ahead of me.  We talked a little about his experience and as I knew I’d be back within the next 2 weeks, I suggested I sent Jean-Paul some handy materials and then we could carve out 30 minutes for a coffee next time.

Stuck in traffic 45 minutes later my thoughts began to go over Jean-Paul ‘s question -“Can you give me any tips or tricks on making presentations? “ . Sure, we have a library of resources, examples and suggested reading  – but this didn’t seem to sit well with me. Then I began to reflect on the day itself – here we had a fresh, ambitious and young professional looking to build his presentations to a level comparable to the partners (his hopefully future-self).  The reality is though that regardless of training and experience, many of us still make fundamental mistakes when presenting due to time pressure and prioritization.  Perhaps the most valuable thing I could offer Jean-Paul was to highlight this and try to ensure he kept this in mind as his career, responsibility, workload and pressures increased.

So Jean-Paul, this one’s for you …

Simple mistakes we make in presentations – and how to avoid them

Know your whats AND whys – Incredibly obvious-  but too often when the presentation is just one among many tasks you have to get done, even the most experienced professionals start thinking about  content and structure before they have crystallized  what they want to achieve with the presentation.

An excellent tip is to write down in a single sentence what your presentation is about and why you are presenting.  If you can’t do it in 14 words or less, rewrite it – and one of the 14 words needs to be the powerful “so”. e.g.  I’m sharing three mistakes that even experienced presenters make so you don’t make them .  My first stab at this sentence came in at twenty-eight words- there was a lot of fluff to remove. Now I have a very simple framework to move forward, and clear criteria for what I want to put in and take out.

Complete your presentation before you go anywhere near slides – This one is a killer and everyone has done it. We know we have to make a presentation and the first reaction is to start looking at existing slide sets and begin copy and pasting them into a “new presentation” –  we start thinking in slides, and build our presentations around our visual aids (as opposed to our visuals aiding the presentation).  Plan your presentation and, dare I say it, practice it out loud BEFORE you go anywhere near your slides.

Perhaps the comedic writers Steve Lowe and Brendan McArthur[1] best summed it up – “PowerPoint: The Microsoft tool that encourages people to think and talk like ********s.”

Be comfortable with what you are doing – Your audience’s reaction to you is as important as the content itself. When you come across as unsure of yourself or uncertain of your content you are creating barriers to success.  Now I accept this is a huge developmental area so here is a concrete tip for presenters that even the most seasoned presenters know, and sometimes forget, to follow:

Practice. Practice out loud.  Practice is not thinking to yourself what you could say – it’s actually saying it.  Practice in front of a mirror. Practice your presentation a day before you hold it -if you start practicing an hour before you run the real risk of deciding to change things around which makes things harder.

So Jean-Paul, keep those three points in mind and your presentations will be both effective and memorable.

[1] Is It Just Me or Is Everything Shit?: Insanely Annoying Modern Things – By Steve Lowe and Alan McArthur with Brendan Hay (Grand Central Publishing)