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Avoid these presentation mistakes

Whether you are a fledgling presenter or a seasoned pro, you have probably digested a lot of content on what to do to be more successful, more confident, and more relaxed when sharing your message.

There are some great programs (including our own training, The Art of Skilled Presentations) where you can learn how to think, move, vocalize, gesture, and create a compelling narrative to connect and engage with your audience.

Now, while learning proper techniques is the conventional way to learn a new skill, I’m going to introduce a different approach that can be equally as effective – identifying those actions and behaviors that you should NOT do as a presenter. Sometimes focusing on the opposite of what is effective can be eye-opening and shift our awareness for better results.

Listed below are six common bits of advice for presenters about behaviors that you should avoid at all costs. Digest them and you’ll be better prepared to give a powerful presentation.

Ready? Let’s go.

Don’t Do #1: Imagine the audience in their underwear (or worse, naked!)

We’ve all heard this one. It’s like an urban legend: If you’re nervous in front of a crowd, just imagine them in their underwear and—wham!—no more butterflies in your stomach! The logic behind this advice is misery loves company. That is, you’re trying to make your audience feel as vulnerable as you are feeling. The problem is, you’re trusting in the power of negative energy, which is never a good idea. You have to work too hard to maintain it.

Bottom line: You don’t grow your own confidence by taking confidence away from others.

Instead, use positive energy. Change the way you’re thinking about your audience. Discipline your mind for a different approach.

First off, pick a clear intention when you’re developing your presentation content:

  • What do I want my audience to achieve?

  • What do I want them to feel?

  • How will my recommendation benefit them?

Then, feed yourself affirmation about your audience:

  • They’re here to learn from me.

  • They want to hear my recommendation.

  • They trust me.

  • I care about them.

That is, think true thoughts. You do have value to offer! An added benefit—positive energy breeds more positive energy and it will energize both you AND your audience.

Don’t Do #2: Touting your credentials (so the audience will be impressed)

Many public speakers think they need to spend the first few minutes of their presentation sharing their accomplishments to ensure the audience is convinced of their credibility as a speaker. This seems like a good idea, but it is a horrible approach. You might think that your audience wants to know all about your experience, but they don’t.

Remember, this is about them, the audience. You need to honor your audience, not yourself. If they already know you there is no need for an intro. If they don't know you, then they don't really care who you are. They care about what you have to say.

Starting off with the list of your accomplishments, college degrees or achievements can make you seem aloof, self-centered, and conceited to your audience. You want them to see you as a relatable human being—someone they can have an important conversation with, not a braggart.

Now, having said this, I recommend weaving your credentials within your presentation. It can be an effective way to establish credibility and verify your expertise. It informs the audience that you have the authority to speak as a subject matter expert. Just check yourself: If it feels like you’re bragging, you probably are.

Don’t Do #3: Read from your notes (i.e, never look up at the audience)

I get it. Public speaking can be terrifying. In such circumstances, people look for “security blankets”—protection. So, they hide behind their notes. If I can’t see the audience, they can’t hurt me!

We are wired to stay safe. Self-preservation. Protecting ourselves from danger is an instinct. And, trust me, your brain views that audience staring back at you as a danger. You feel all alone.

What you want is a connection with your audience. This is more conversation than presentation. Ever wonder why professional performers look so calm? They are trained to be there for the audience—to be with them. To connect.

Here’s what you should do instead of hiding behind your notes. First off, don’t print out your script word for word. That’s just a temptation to read them. Instead, just print out keywords that will trigger the points you want to make in your brain. During your presentation, refer to these keywords now and then.

Think of it as “glance at your notes,” then “look at the audience.” Glance. Look. Glance. Look. You’ll have a better rhythm, and your audience will feel more connected to you.

Don’t Do #4: Winging it (assuming you don’t need to prepare)

“But I really am an expert!” you say. “Only amateurs prepare.” Not so. I have a long history in theater and public speaking and let me tell you: Professionals prepare diligently. Obsessively, even. They only look like they’re winging in because they are so enmeshed in their content.

Preparing allows you to ensure a cohesive, intelligible narrative rather than a “stream of consciousness” that winds around aimlessly. There’s nothing worse than listening to a speaker and you can’t figure out where they’re going. Or they lose their train of thought and suddenly, they have that look of panic on their face (or, worse, say things like, “where was I?”).

Even if you’ve done this same speech or presentation or training 50 times, you should practice in advance and have a clear outline or guide or notes available that you’ve prepared in order to stay on topic.

Allow me to give you two examples of times when this happened to me:

  • The Fire Drill: During a workshop I was facilitating years ago (and had done a million times, it seemed), there was a fire drill in the middle of the class. For the next 45 minutes, the entire building was evacuated and we all waited for the “All Clear” to re-enter. Having my facilitator guide available allowed me to immediately jump back into the content without missing a beat.

  • The Bunny Trail: I was giving a presentation and a participant asked a question that lead the group (and me) down a bunny trail for a good 20 minutes. Because it actually was an interesting conversation, I let it continue a bit longer than normal. But once we concluded, if I hadn’t prepared and known where I was going, I would have been lost. My prep gave me the structure to quickly regroup and keep going.

So don’t wing it. Prepare.

Don’t Do #5: Use a lot of slides, each with a lot of information

File this under Death by PowerPoint. If you find that you’re having to make the font smaller and smaller to fit everything on a PowerPoint slide, you’re doing it wrong. PowerPoint isn’t meant to be a word-for-word recitation of your script. It’s just meant to provide visual support to your message. Your audience isn’t there to see and hear you read your slides.

Think of your slides as backup singers. They’re just there to provide some doo-wap to your performance.

In his Ted Talk, entitled “How to Avoid Death by Powerpoint,” professional training and coaching expert David JP Phillips recommends that presenters focus on one key message per slide, and include no more than six objects (or lines) on each. Any more than this, he argues, and you will increase the time that it takes for people to “see” (and digest) information by 500 percent.

Too many people think, “If I’m talking for 20 minutes, I should have 20 slides!” Wrong! Think five—or less. Remember, the slides are just there for the doo-wap.

Don’t Do #6: Tell the audience to hold their questions until the end

I’m sure I’m not the only one who has been to a presentation and been told, “Please hold your questions until the end.” If you’re like me, it’s very frustrating. Chances are I’ll forget my questions and ultimately be a more passive observer rather than an engaged participant.

And what happens if your audience gets confused two minutes in? They’re not allowed to ask any questions, so now you’ve lost them for the rest of the presentation.

In my experience, some presenters who take this approach are doing it because they’re focusing on themselves, not their audience. “I’m in control!” they’re saying. Some speakers do this because they’re afraid of people asking questions they can’t answer. Others do this because they are concerned that questions will take up too much time.

I’m a big proponent for using every presentation to be an opportunity to talk with your audience, not to them. Talking with implies it’s a conversation between equals. It’s a discussion, a back-and-forth. They should be able to raise their hand at any time and say, “I don’t get it,” or “…but what about…?.”

In fact, you should be on the lookout for body language or facial expressions that show that the audience may be having a hard time understanding what you're saying. "It looks like some of you aren’t buying this,” you might say, or my favorite, simply ask, “What questions do you have?”

Questions from the audience are an integral part of most presentations and speakers should look forward to them. It means they’re interested and want to know more. You’ve connected!

Just be sure you don’t get defensive or argumentative.

Remember, questions are a good thing. It shows they’re engaged.

Wrapping up

Becoming a successful presenter takes practice, skill and dedication. Sometimes taking the opposite approach and remembering what NOT to do can also bring you great results.

If you want to learn more about how to become a powerful presenter, check out NobleEdge’s leadership workshop, The Art of Skilled Presentations.

Over the course of dynamic and interactive sessions, we look at these crucial areas: Mind, Body, and Engagement. Workshop participants try out these new skills and make a prepared presentation to the group and receive one-on-one coaching from me, where I use my training in theater and corporate training to show you how to engage with your audience with ease and confidence. Your presentations will never be the same!

Marie Tjernlund is the Co-founder and President of NobleEdge Consulting. As an accomplished executive coach, certified Conflict Dynamics Profile® facilitator, and a professional performer, Marie brings her positive energy and skills to clients around the world. You can contact her at


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