3 Presentation Mistakes You’re Making (And How to Fix Them)

If you don't know who your presentation is really about, you're missing the point.

Staff Writer

When people think of public speaking mistakes, they usually imagine disaster scenarios – their minds go blank in front of the boss, or the A/V equipment stops working, or the client asks a question that stumps them.  And of course, these things CAN happen. I have presented during two blackouts, where not only did the projector not work, neither did the toilets!

Nevertheless, the three most common public speaking mistakes that I see among the leaders I coach have nothing to do with not knowing their content or not being able to project their deck. They aren’t emergencies or catastrophes. And in fact, none of them will even make a speaker sweat (even though they should).

They are ways of approaching a presentation that dramatically limit the speaker’s ability to make it relevant, engage the audience, and build a trusting relationship. And if you’re going to put time, effort and energy into planning a presentation, shouldn’t you do what it takes to maximize your impact?

Here are three critical shifts in thinking that will take your public speaking from good to great:

1. The presentation is about your audience, not about you.

When I ask my clients to tell me what they’re planning to cover in their presentation, they can quickly and easily share with me all of the content that they’re prepared to deliver. But when I ask them how that content is related to what their listeners really want and need to know, they often grow silent.

An effective presentation isn’t one where you cram in all of the information you know on a particular topic. An effective presentation is one where you have identified the following:

  1. What’s keeping your audience up at night (such as making money, saving time, looking good in front of their boss, etc.)
  2. What gets them out of bed in the morning (such as beating the competition, developing the next generation of leaders, discovering new markets, etc.)
  3. How to map the content you deliver to either or both of those lists.

If you can’t make the case for how what you want to tell them is directly links to what they care about, you don’t get to talk about it — or at least, not during this presentation. Send them an email after, offer to buy them a cup of coffee to discuss it, or include an addendum to your materials to cover anything that’s on your agenda that doesn’t overlap with theirs.

2. You are the presentation, not your deck.

If you’re like most busy professionals, you spend most of the time you have preparing for a presentation focused on building the deck, and very little time (read: none) planning and practicing the delivery of the presentation. Sound familiar?

This imbalance in preparation signals that you believe that the deck is the presentation. It isn’t – you are. Your PowerPoint, Keynote or video reel is the support for your presentation. It provides visual and auditory reinforcement to help your listeners focus on and recall key concepts. But it is not the presentation.

It is up to you to bring your message to life, using stories, analogies, metaphors, data, statistics, client examples, as well as vocal variety, gestures, facial expressions, movement throughout the room, and more. A deck is one-dimensional, and it is up to you to make it dynamic and inviting.

3. Your presentation is a dialogue, not a monologue.

Speaking to a group is an opportunity to build rapport, create buy-in and learn with and from others – none of which happen when you don’t engage others in your presentation. Treating a presentation like a lecture, where you offer a one-sided monologue to just deliver the content and then get out of there, is a missed opportunity. What are you missing? Relationship-building. Learning. Connection. Collaboration. Teamwork. Alignment. And yes, even fun.

Turning your monologue into a dialogue doesn’t have to be complicated. It can be as simple as taking a poll (“By a show of hands, how many of you check Twitter daily?”), asking for some real-time feedback (“What’s still unclear about our next steps for marketing in fourth quarter?”), taking questions throughout the presentation rather than waiting for formal question and answer session (“Feel free to ask questions any time throughout the presentation”), or even giving participants the opportunity to have a dialogue with one another (“Please turn to the people at your table and discuss one sales opportunity you’d like to leverage in the next few months. I’ll give you five minutes to have that conversation.”)

Your audience has something to say, whether you give them the opportunity to say it or not.  Invite them in rather than silence them out.

As with anything in life, a presentation can go wrong – even with a significant amount of preparation. But if you spend less time coming up with your disaster game plan, and more time developing your audience engagement game plan, you’ll be much more likely to have a successful, memorable presentation (even if the lights go out).

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