I recently came across a fantastic article by the sales consultant and trainer Colleen Francis about common presentation mistakes that salespeople make in front of customers. As I read it, I realized that much of her advice applied to ALL presentations.
In particular, she identified in the article a set of very common bad habits that can turn even the best presentations into total disasters. Here's my take:
1. Starting with an apology.
The bad habit: You're late, your equipment malfunctions, you don't have your materials, or whatever. You apologize in advance for how this might affect your presentation.
Why it's a mistake: An apology sets a negative tone that may affect the entire meeting and makes you seem like a victim. Nobody wants to do business with a victim.
What to do instead: Start on an upbeat note, as if nothing is wrong. This communicates that you're cool under pressure--the opposite of being a victim.
2. Asking for extra time.
The bad habit: You feel you don't have sufficient time to communicate your important information, so you request extra time to communicate it.
Why it's a mistake: If there's less time because you're late, you're adding injury to insult. If it's because your presentation is too long, well, your presentation is too long.
What to do instead: Adapt your presentation down so that it fits the allotted time. If you're late, end your presentation when it's scheduled to end.
3. Shooting slide barrages.
The bad habit: "I have 15 minutes left, and I'm through only 20 of my 58 PowerPoint slides, so I'm going to be going through this last bit a little fast."
Why it's a mistake: This usually happens when initial slides spark discussion so you lay a "guilt trip" on your audience members to keep them quiet while you finish up.
What to do instead: Adapt the remainder of your presentation so that it addresses what was discussed, because that's clearly what's important to your audience.
4. Making personal excuses.
The bad habit: You downgrade the audience's expectations by offering an excuse in advance for your poor performance. (E.g., "I'm so tired"; "I got in late last night.")
Why it's a mistake: You're giving yourself an excuse so you won't feel so bad if you fail. Plus, nobody wants to hear you whine about your problems.
What to do instead: Regardless of how you're feeling, show enthusiasm for being there and make your best effort.
5. Reading from your slides.
The bad habit: Your slides reflect your thinking on a subject, so you read your slides aloud to the audience in order to replicate your thought process.
Why it's a mistake: Presumably everyone in your audience can read, so you're not just being boring, you're insulting them.
What to do instead: Use slides as visual signposts for the points you're making rather than a written version or summary of those points.
6. Turning your back.
The bad habit: You keep turning around to read from your slides or staring down to read from your notes.
Why it's a mistake: You're compounding the mistake of reading by being rude and unprofessional.
What to do instead: Face your audience members and look at them while you're presenting. If necessary, take a quick glance, but keep your focus on where it belongs: them.
7. Talking too fast.
The bad habit: You've got a lot of material to cover, so you talk fast to get through all of it.
Why it's a mistake: If you need to talk fast, your presentation is too long. Plus, fast talk makes you sound either nervous or like a stereotypical "fast talkin'" salesperson.
What to do instead: Cut your presentation down so fast talk isn't necessary. If you're talking fast because you're nervous, write "SLOW DOWN!" on each page of your notes.
The bad habit: You keep fiddling with your papers, fingering your jewelry, scratching yourself, etc.
Why it's a mistake: Anything that distracts your audience from your message is making that message less effective.
What to do instead: As you rehearse your presentation, rehearse how you'll stand and where you'll put your hands. Rehearse enough, and your tics will disappear.
More on giving better presentations: