Your presentations don’t work and here are the most common reasons


Alien Predator

Let’s face it, unless your whole motivation for giving a presentation is to get from one end to the other without die-ing, falling off the stage or getting abducted by aliens, you want there to be some outcome from your presentation, right?  There needs to be a point to it – and that point is that something changes in the way your audience behaves after they’ve heard you speak.

(Don’t waste time pretending that your presentation is just to give people information: if it was just that, you could do it faster by handing over a written document. That means if you’re doing a presentation you’re either a sadist who likes wasting everyone’s time, or you’re hoping for something better than just that.)

That means the biggest problem you’ve got is really that no one acts on what you’ve said/shown. That’s the worst case scenario, to be honest. Even if they argue with you it’s better than ignoring you. It might not feel like it at the time, but that’s the way it is in the real world. Deal with it.

So why might you’re wonderful content not be ‘impactful’?   (Horrible phrase, right?  But you know what I mean.)

No content?

Well of couse there’s content.  Hours of it!  You spent a long, long time crafting it. But unless it’s relevant content it’s pointless content. Pointless content isn’t real content. It’s a time-suck pretending to be content.

Here’s the brutal truth. No one cares about your content. What they care about is WIIFM? What’s in it for me?  If your content overlaps with their WIIFM you’re in with a chance.  If not, not. Just because you want/need to say it, doesnt’ mean anyone wants to listen, let alone act on it.

Before you so much as start to design your presentation, be very, very clear about what you’re trying to change. Don’t start from the persepective of “What do I know that I want to tell my audience?” but take some time out and ask yourself “What does my audience need to know that I know?”.  Yes, I know that’s bloody obvious as soon as I type it like that, but if it’s so obvious, how come most presenations are sucky?

One of the best ways I’ve found of doing this to do two things:

  • go old school and work on paper – it gets different parts of your brain working and makes you think differenty (or in some cases, just to think!)
  • go somewhere different – you local cafe will do so long as you can work there. The point is that you need a different working environment to be able to think different thoughts.


No authority?

I know I’ve just said your audience doesn’t care about you, they just care about your content – and more specifically what’s in it for them – but even so you still need to have your authority before there’s a chance of people accepting your content. Don’t get me wrong, if they don’t want it no amount of authority short of the Voice of God is going to force people to accept it but without authority you’re dead in the water.  Authority is a necessary but not sufficient concept for your presentations.

Nothing undermines your audience’s trust in your content more than you not having trust in it. So don’t apologise.  Don’t say you’re presenting other people’s material. Don’t say you’ve just knocked the presentaion up. Don’t mutter, or mumble. Don’t look at your laptop or the screen instead of your audience. In short, don’t undermine yourself.

To be blunt, if you don’t have enough faith in your material to present it, you shouldn’t be presenting it. Deal with that.

There’s a great blog post here about how to start your presentation with a Credibility Statement. Don’t do an introduction – it’s a waste of time and if you’re audience don’t know who you are and how grateful you are to be speaking before you start, wasting precious minutes at the start of your presentaiton while you tell them isn’t going to change anything.

If you want to go further into how to establish authority, take some time to read Prof Cialdini’s work on Influence. It’s seminal. The book shouldn’t take more than a couple of hours but there’s plenty of online summaries kicking around if you’ve not got that time to hand.

By the way, authority – or rather the lack of it – transfers in audience’s heads. That means that if the audience perceives that you’re not on top of you technology (for example) they subconsciously assume you’re not on top of your content, either.That means you need to check your tech. You need to rehearse. You need to not be improvising (professionals can’t so what makes you think you can!?) Do the simple and obvious things like hide your cables if you can and do your setting up before the audience arrives. If they see your slides while you’re opening the slide deck your authority and credibilty is pretty much shot before you start, frankly.

No time?

No time to rehearse? Tough. Professionals can’t improvise, so why should you be able to?! Seriously, I’m a professional speaker and trainer and I’d struggle to deliver material I’d not run through (lots!) so why do people who just make the occasional presentation think they can get away with it?  Part of it is arrogance, of course, pretending to themselves they don’t need to, but a lot of it is that we’re all just short of time. Practice takes time.

Sad but true.

But would you spend an hour to prepare and have a decent presentation or not spend that hour preparing and have your presention float like a brick? Put that way it’s a no-brainer, right? So how do you find the time to prepare.

Make sure you arrive in plenty of time to set up, too.  A rule of thumb we use here is that if we’ve not set up in time to have a cup of tea before we’re needed, we’ve not arrived early enough. Check out this quick video tip:

Quick presentation tip…

Differentiate between rehearsal (the process) and practice (the technique). It’s the way actors, musicians and other performers rehearse. Day four of our 5 day presentation challenge absolutely nails it. Sign up here  (…and don’t forget to tick the button to say you want the five day challenge!)

This is going to be embarassingly simple.

Just put time in your diary to do it.

Yes, I know, I know… that’s not easy because you’re back to back with meetings and “doing your job”. But get this – the presentation is part of your job.  It’s not an added extra and you need to treat it with the same respect as you’d treat reading last month’s trading reports (or whatever).   I’m not suggesting you go for this level of preparation, but professionals use a typical ration of one hour’s prep and rehearsal for every minute on stage. Before you panic and write off the whole idea of preparation, don’t panic – that’s professionals.  And there’s a diminishing marginal return on rehearsal, so that the 100th hour doesn’t improve things as much as the 10th… which means that even just a short time rehearsing will improve your delivery spectacularly.

No luck?

It’s a sad fact of life that you can’t win them all. Sometimes, no matter how well you prepare, it just goes wrong on the day. The trick is not to panic, so that you can recover.  The chances are the the audience won’t notice as much as you think they will and you’ll have a short space of time to get things back on track.

What should you do it it all goes belly up? Well, remember that unless it’s a competition, the audience wants the presentation to be a reasonable success, so as long as they see you doing sensible things, with integrity, you should have them on your side (not true of professionals, of course, where the audience has a reasonable expectation that things won’t go wrong!). Keep them in the loop and in my experience the best thing to do is:

  • keep the explanation very brief
  • don’t be vague (“technical issues” is vague but “the connector cable has snapped” isn’t”)
  • tell them briefly what you’re doing about it with enough detail to credible (“we’re working on it” isn’t as good as “John is getting the spare right now”)
  • tell them when you’ll have it sorted out – again reasonably precisely (“as soon as possible” isn’t as good as “in the next few minutes”, and “by XXX time” is even better).

Oh, and don’t forget to say “Sorry” like you mean it; and thank them for bearing with you.

This blog, from Confidence Month spills the beans about the work of one American professor who’s looked at how to deal with nerves when that kind of horror happens.

And this blog is even more simple and easy-to-action! I can’t recommend it enough! It’s all about handling things in the heat of the moment.

One last thing…

alarm clocks for timing your presentation during rehearsals

When you figured out what you were trying to achieve with your presentation, one of the corollary questions that should have come to mind is to know what success would look like and how you’d know you’d achieved success. How would you measure it? It’s not by how well you felt it went in the room. (Trust me on this, I’ve given rock star presentations that had no effect and presentations where I had to grind it out that have been revolutionary in their consequences.)  It’s about effect and impact.  You know how to measure it. So measure it.

You remember how you put time in your diary to prepare? Well put time in your diary to debrief and to measure your impact. Don’t do it immediately after the event but make the time-lag appropriate for what you were trying to measure/achieve. It needn’t be a long time, but it needs to be some time.

Either alongside the diary time, or more or less immediately after the presentation, carry out some Reflective Practice (RP). What’s RP? It’s a structured self-de-brief, where you look at what worked and how to improve what didn’t. This blog post explores it a lot more.


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