Mastering the Art of Bad Presentation Part IV: Faux pas and Recovery
One of the most popular questions I get asked is: "What is the worst presentation I have ever seen?" Answer: One of my own sales pitches. It was played back to me after being video taped when I was just starting out in finance. Yikes. It still makes me cringe. The second question I am often asked is "What should I avoid doing when speaking in public?" Well, this is it. The big compilation of what not to do during your presentation. Eventually, I will make a video on this subject, and we can all laugh about it; but for now, here you go.
Let us start with the most basic rule which is also often the most broken: reading from the slides. I think most people know about this one, or have sat through a speaker making this mistake, yet this problem still persists. Nothing loses an audience's attention quicker than going word for word, line by line, and page by page in monotone, through an already visible presentation. Why is this so bad? It is an insult to the audience, plain and simple. It underlines your assumption that they cannot read, and demonstrates a lack of professionalism because you appear unprepared or unwilling to put forth a tangible effort. Reviewing an agenda is one thing, but going overboard and methodically reading through the entire deck verbatim as a robot would, is something completely different. Bottom line, avoid doing this at all costs.
Many of the more disastrous presentation stories I hear also revolve around the drone voiced speaker. Almost everyone knows this type of presenter because they manage to put us to sleep and make for a very long day. What makes this even worse is that they don't even know they're doing it! Of all the mistakes to make, this is probably the second most forbidden. If you never change the pitch of your voice, make inflections or adjust your flow, then you become a machine; completely void of emotion and all meaning. Also, none of the points you make will stick because your audience will have fallen asleep by the time you are finished. Countering this takes willpower, but also passion. If you are passionate when you speak, it will show. Take action when you present. Walk around and get moving! The human eye is trained to notice movement; use this to your advantage!
Our next issue concerns eye contact with the audience. Too little means no engagement, and too much eye contact causes discomfort. This is especially true for locking eyes on only one or two people. Many of us have experienced this at one time or another. After a few moments of prolonged exposure the audience member will begin to wonder if something is up, or if they have something wrong on their person. They eventually may begin to feel embarrassed or worse, intimidated. Be careful with this, especially during Q&A sessions, as it can backfire on you and cause a lack of audience participation. Also, remember to compliment the person asking the question. It will help keep their attention span going.
The close relative to too much eye contact is singling someone out or cold calling upon someone in the audience. Asking someone to answer a question when they don't want to participate can be dangerous. Not only do you risk getting a wrong answer and losing your flow, but you also place immediate pressure upon one person. You ask the question, call on an audience member, and everyone looks to them. The focus is no longer upon you, and this can lead to unintended consequences. If you find that you need volunteers, have something to give away to reward their participation. Stress balls work great. They have your logo on them, and diffuse almost any situation. Should you find yourself with a small group of people, give everyone a ball. Then politely ask them to throw it at the wall behind you (but not to hit you) if they get bored or have a question during your presentation. Trust me, it works and goes a long way for your presentation credibility going forward!
One of my favorite faux pas is the person who never makes eye contact. This mistake is rare, and usually only affects people having to recall large amounts of data from memory. It happens subconsciously when someone asks us a question or we are trying to remember some information. We look up, down, to the side or away. Then, we forget to look back at our audience. When I was younger, I had a very intelligent history professor whom was famous for his peculiar teaching method. He would greet the class from the podium and begin his lecture. Almost immediately his eyes would scan the ceiling, and for the next hour he would recite everything we needed to know for that particular day while never looking back at us. Confused? We thought there were hidden notes which held the secrets for entire civilizations up there. It was strange and funny, but he never made a mistake or missed a date. It was speculated that the entire course was inscribed into the ceiling panels. It never helped us during tests though. If eye contact is an issue for you, you will need to make a conscious effort to shift your focus. Shifting slides to look behind back at the screen, works well.
One thing to be careful of however is turning your back to the audience. Many of us have a tendency to point ourselves towards the object of focus when we are presenting. What we need to remember is that we want ourselves to be the object of focus (for the most part) when we are speaking. The deck is just a tool we use to help us get our point across. If your back is to the people you are speaking to, then you become a spectator. Also, it hides your face and makes you look unprofessional. Turning around for a brief moment is alright, but don't keep your back to the crowd for too long. Return to the podium, get a drink of water, and turn your face forwards towards the audience.
While we are on the subject of podiums, let us pause and acknowledge another popular error: standing still. It is one thing if you have a very small room, and something completely different when you don't. That isn't to say that standing in one place for a brief moment is completely taboo; just not through the entire presentation. It gives the audience the impression that you are nervous or shy. Conquering this requires a little push from the start in order to get yourself moving. I have seen people give themselves a reminder to do so on the first slide, or purposely set their water on the other side of the stage to make them walk away from the podium.
The antithesis to the stationary presenter, is the commuter. This is the speaker who spends their entire time traveling between two distinct spots. Often times, this happens instinctively without the presenter's knowledge, and causes them to stop midway through the room at some random place and then return to the podium or another random spot. The audience does not notice right away, and it usually takes several trips to recognize. Eventually the group identifies your pattern, and you start to lose their focus. Rarely does it escalate into a distracting cacophony, but an easy counter to this is to increase your commuting spots. Five or six tend to work best if you are on stage. For larger rooms, feel free to explore the space; in smaller ones, limit your movement to mere steps in certain directions, focusing on increased personal contact.
Even worse than the commuter is the hot mess presenter. A being of pure chaos, this person moves around the stage or room as if they have had one too many espressi, with no method to their madness. You may not recognize this person at first, mistaking their massive amount of energy for enthusiasm. To them, the agenda is a mere suggestion, and they skip around the topics so much that it becomes nigh impossible to follow their points. (Note: the agenda is a great guideline which offers an order and frame of reference to the information being portrayed. It can be reordered within reason.) If you find this happening to you or one of your team, you need to reign it in quickly. One of the best ways to do this is to take a small break for five minutes to let everyone refresh their drinks or check their messages. It will reset the mindset of everyone attending and enable damage control to temporarily run its course. Keep it up as necessary.
While we are on the subjects of chaos and damage control, let's talk about one of the most lethal mistakes for any presenter: fabrication. Also known as the con-artist method, it usually happens innocently enough, and snowballs from there. Let's say halfway through your deck you lose your place. While you're trying to remember your next point, you say something that was mostly true, or slightly off topic. Then, without even knowing it, you cover the previous statement with another mostly true statement. Then another, and another...the list goes on. Pretty soon you are completely lost and the audience is wondering how deep of a hole can you dig for yourself. You may even have made some stuff up. This happens quite often when drawing asides, telling a story, or deviating from your original presentation. Before you lose every last shred of your creditability, take a pause. Get a glass of water, check your notes and do your best to regain control. If you are stuck in an absolute worse case scenario, switch your topics around and come back at another time. Keep your audience informed of these changes, and be very careful of what you say. Some of the information you portray, if fabricated, can be career ending.
Many of the more popular problems presenters have are the result of nervousness, and manifest physically. For example, forgetting how to breathe properly. The most obvious symptom for this is gasping for air in between sentences. It happens when we try to fit too much vocabulary into what we want to portray, or have concerns for how we are going to look to our peers. The thought of having to get up and speak in front of a crowd can strike terror into almost everyone. Especially if you are new to doing so. It happens to the most seasoned veterans, so don't worry. Breathing is an involuntary reflex. With that in mind, slow down. Shorten your sentences to the most bare bones possible, and give more caution to your words. Keep your points as concise as possible, and remember to speak slowly.
For some, going slow is simply not an option. Thus, the panicked speed talker takes route. This is a very common result from nervousness, trying to fit everything into a small timeframe, or both. For those of us whom nervously (or naturally) speak quickly, there is good news! This can be controlled by throttling the amount of text in your presentations with additional pictures or graphics. These will let you pause in between your slides so that your audience can review them, and give you time enough to add one or two points for each. Even if you speak quickly, the impact of your words will be weighed with greater interest. Cartoons are great too, so long as they are relevant.
If it is time related, we covered this in a previous article; but just to reinforce everything, take stock of your existing agenda and then cut it in half. This will free up time for you to make solid points, and clear messages. The rest can be sent in a short email.
Our hands can demonstrate our nervousness and show the audience we are quite literally shaking. This normally occurs when we have a laser pointer and need to emphasize certain elements within our presentations. Our hands shake the pointer, and thus the dot on the screen. To counter this, either hold the pointer with both hands to give yourself more stability, or make your mark with tiny circular motions to hide your nerves. Exhaling during these activities will help focus your mind to the task at hand.
Next comes the wrist wringer. Usually this happens when someone is still building presentation experience, or walks around only with the "clicker" in one hand. Think of it this way: when one hand is full, it's comfortable because it is in use. When one hand is empty, it subconsciously sends the message that it also needs to hold something. As a result, we wind up walking around the room or standing in place with one hand wrapped around our wrists. The tradeoff is it reinforces stability for the presenter but demonstrates nervousness to the audience. Thus, everyone needs to find a place for their other hand. A pen or coin work great. If you are lucky enough to talk with your hands, then this is not such a big issue for you. Still, keep something close by, just in case.
One of the more noisy errors caused subconsciously is foot tapping. A remnant of nervous legs, it occurs usually when the presenter is asked to answer a question while sitting on a chair, or when they are on a panel with other people. Their leg just starts to shake, even just a little bit, making noise on whatever it taps against. The more reserved cousin to this is the stiff leg, whose feet stretch outwards to cause a most uncomfortable body position. These are obvious cues which happen as we become stressed, and can be controlled either through experience or with a large table cloth. Getting up and walking around to speak will also turn this into kinetic energy; a better motivator for your audience.
What happens when the presenter falls asleep? Usually when a long movie or more than one time zone is involved, this can occur. It is always funny for the audience and devastating for the presenter. I kid you not, this has happened...and I have seen it more than once. The last time was a few years ago in Hartford, Connecticut during a salesforce wide conference. The presenter had fallen asleep in his chair in front of five thousand colleagues. True, it was after he was flown in from California, having spent the better part of the week before in Asia; but it happened. At West Point, they teach you to stand up and stretch out to get your heart going if you feel yourself falling asleep. Use that, and don't fall for the "I'll only close my eyes for a brief moment" gag, either; or next time it will be you sawing wood in front of your adoring fans.
Even more dangerous than falling asleep is the drunk presenter. This one is pretty self explanatory. Many events take place in the evening, or are well catered. When alcohol is involved, my rule is to never partake until the job is done. Heed the advice. Your career may depend upon it.
Rounding out the list is the topic of humor. Most of the best presenters keep it in their arsenal, and it can be the key to winning over entire crowds. Choose your jokes or comedic phrases carefully. One misstep can have severe repercussions. A simple misunderstanding or lack of tact will erase your credibility and devastate your chances to recover. Aside from the taboo subjects of politics and religion, stay away from gender bias and stereotypes. It goes without say to use your head when it comes to making jokes. Broader subjects and current events are easier to broach than most others. Exercise caution when using humor, or you may be the one who dies on stage.
So, there you have it: the list of many of the common mistakes we make as presenters. Many of these symptoms are beat with sheer willpower or through experience, but there are a few tricks you can use. It's tough to master everything, and even the veterans make mistakes from time to time. Having a coach also helps. There are many good ones out there. Also, don't forget to ask your boss or colleagues to assist you warming up. Practice makes perfect.
Let me know if I missed something! Feel free to let me know!
--Scott S. Rosen
President and Managing Director SRCC Impera GmbH