Proofing (and otherwise checking) your presentation

Creating a presentation is one thing – checking it is another. (Notice that I don’t say ‘writing’ your presentation, because you shouldn’t be thinking that way.)

The painful fact is, however, that mistakes on your slides can

  • give people who don’t want to listen or change their ways an excuse not to do so
  • undermine your credibility in the eyes of anyone whose interest is borderline
  • make it harder even for people who want to take on board what you’re saying.

Given those points, checking your slides for embarrassing cock-ups and mistakes should be a standard part of your preparation – just like rehearsing. (You do rehearse, right?)

Everyone makes mistakes with presentations, don’t they?

Absolutely! I’ve never made a perfect presentation. However, when I hesitate on stage, or have to take a second run at a sentence, it can be helpful to the audience, particularly in regard to their rapport with me. I’m clearly not a robot and that makes me more credible. The same grace is not, in my experience, given when it comes to your slides and props etc. I assume this is because your audience knows you can check your slides – so they expect you to do so. The bar is higher than for your actual presentation delivery.

Won’t presentation software check for me?

Finding the simple typos and misspellings is relatively easy – for example, PowerPoint has a tool to do some of this: See here for a handy video intro.  (As an aside, this seems to be one way in which PPT is ahead of Keynote, my slide software of choice.) Sadly, that kind of thing isn’t really the hard part of checking your presentation. It is, however, an important first step.

Quick Gotcha!
Don’t forget to do this again after you’ve made the other changes we’re talking about here. Not only will you pick up mistakes you might not have otherwise noticed, but you’ll also pick up the mistakes you introduced when you amended!

Sadly, the harder part of checking your presentation is the ‘softer’ stuff – things like: Have you made any assumptions? Are your facts are correct, relevant and updated? Are you actually addressing the aim of your presentation? Have you protected the anonymity of anyone where required? Are your case studies immediately relevant to the audience? Have you kept down the cognitive load? Are your images legal and do they project properly?

It’s not a superficial problem, either

Take this rather simplistic graph I created a while ago. Play spot the mistake.  Don’t fixate on the bad-style things about it, as it was only a draft and I hadn’t got around to making it look good – just find the mistake. Easy, right? Scenario one is missing.

Now, to me, with my personality type, my immediate response to this was: ‘Well, it’s obvious what I mean; it’s just a silly typo.’ However, a more detail-orientated member of my team responded soberly: ‘No, Simon, it’s not. The names of the columns are data, not just labels. If I can’t trust you to get that bit of data right, how can I trust you to get the data in the columns right?’  Harsh but fair. The lesson here? What’s obvious to you about your presentation isn’t so obvious to everyone else.

For heaven’s sake, get someone else to check your presentation!

Don’t expect perfect presentations

No one’s perfect – not even professional proof-readers! No matter how hard you try, there will be mistakes in your presentation. The only way I’ve found to be close to 100% confident is to check it, then get someone else to check it, and then get someone else! The more checkers the better.

Of course, there’s the quicker version – don’t check it and stake your presentation’s credibility on your audience’s noticing your mistakes for you. 😉

The more people who check things, the greater the chance they’ll pick up on different mistakes. Everyone has the ability to spot particular kinds of issues/problems.

Even professionals make mistakes. A pro friend of mine just won an award for services to the proof-reading community, then gushed all over social media about what an honour it had been to receive… but went spectacularly public with the wrong name for the award! Remember, this is a pro, talking about an award she got for being a pro! My advice here is to have a phrase ready for when you spot a mistake on your slides or when a member of the audience does. Saying that sounds blindingly obvious, I know, but it’s only obvious after the event, trust me! I can’t tell you what that phrase should be – it depends on you, your content and your audience – but I strongly suggest thinking about what you’d say before the presentation.

The only advice I offer is that it’s gracious and designed to ‘park’ the problem so that the audience knows you’ve acknowledged it but won’t be spending time on it now. They should be confident you’ll correct it before your next presentation.

And if Murphy’s Law means that preparing for mistakes means no one spots any, so much the better.

Logic mistakes, not just literal mistakes

When I talk about literal mistakes I mean things like typos and spelling mistakes – there is obviously and literally something wrong that can be corrected pretty easily. It’s just a question of editing. Perhaps harder to spot are what I’m going to call mistakes of logic. I’m going to suggest there are two types of logic mistake – ‘assumption mistakes’ and ‘process mistakes’.

An assumption mistake is simply when you, as the presentation’s creator, (and me too!) assume that the audience:

  • knows something
  • understands something
  • has the same frame of reference, etc.

A crass example would be a presentation I saw recently when the presenter assumed that everyone in the audience had full-colour vision and that the projector was displaying the numerous shades of red/pink/brown/green he’d used in his graphics. Suffice it to say that with a data projector trying its inadequate best to cut through fluorescent lighting (but not being fully up to the job) pretty much everyone was left trying to distinguish between half a dozen shades of pale grey.

How expensive do kids get that we need to buy them at a discount?

Logical-sequence mistakes are more insidious. For a silly example, take this poster for children’s dance classes on display at my local gym. Take a moment to look at the big red circle… and then think it through. I’m pretty sure it’s obvious that they mean I can get a place in the class for a second child at half price, but that’s not what it says.

Yes, I know, it’s silly – but that doesn’t mean the point isn’t valid!

A programmer is going to the grocery store and his wife tells him, ‘Buy a gallon of milk, and if there are eggs, buy a dozen.’ So the programmer goes, buys everything, and drives back to his house. Upon arrival, his wife angrily asks him, ‘Why did you get 12 gallons of milk?’

The programmer says,’There were eggs!’

The question of what to do about this kind of error is tricky, I think. In my experience, the solution is to find someone who’s utterly literal-minded and rehearse your presentation in front of them. Annoying as they may be, give them a red flag (literal or metaphorical) to wave whenever they want to object to something and a yellow one for when they want some clarification.

Of course, you don’t just take their word for it, because the chances are you know something that they don’t relating to the presentation – for example, they might want more detail on

  • how to create a zombie army
  • how to control a zombie army
  • how to not get eaten by this zombie army as you take over the world

but you know you’ve only got ten minutes, so the details on the last bit aren’t going to make it into your presentation. (Besides, why tell everyone else how to survive when the whole point of your zombie army is to take over?)  That means the final choice of whether to take their ‘corrections’ on board is up to you…

Take responsibility

It’s your presentation. Own it. By all means, complain if your checkers don’t spot a mistake that your audience does, but that doesn’t mean it’s their responsibility. It’s yours. It’s your presentation. Don’t go blaming other people.

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