« Accepting Help | Main | Homesick »

How Not to Give a Presentation

Benferguson72x723Ben Ferguson -- I’m currently at a conference on worms (don’t ask), struggling to stay awake through 22(!) rapid-fire presentations each day. Some are average, some are really quite good, and some are just annoying and terrible.

We all know the typical no-nos -- don’t talk too quickly, don’t put too many words on one slide, don’t read directly from your slides, don’t make the text too small to be legible, don’t be rigid but don’t move around too much either. So many don’ts.

Even if you didn’t think it was possible, I have more. It’s weird, but people always forget how to do the most basic things when they’re in front of a large audience. If you can help it, don’t do this either. Some pointers for your own future presentations:

• Don’t mistake the wireless slide changer for the laser pointer. If you absolutely must, at least recognize this within the first few slides, and try not to use the slide changer as the laser pointer for your entire presentation or until an annoyed audience member interrupts you to inform you that you are not, in fact, actually pointing to anything. Also, don’t make this mistake if several dozen others before you have also done it.

It’s always a bit uncomfortable watching someone point to the screen with a non-lasering piece of plastic while believing that they’re demonstrating exactly what they are referring to, and I’ve never quite figured out why this oblivion sometimes occurs and why it occurs for such a long time. I suspect it has something to do with extreme focus on the content of their presentation at the complete expense of attention to their surroundings (save, of course, for audience members shouting at them). Maybe there’s some mental image they’re creating in their head in lieu of an actual visual signal confirming a laser point showing up on the screen. Who knows.

• Don’t fumble around with the wireless slide changer when you don’t know how to operate it. (Expressed another way: When the slide changer does something you didn’t expect or want, don’t continue to press that button several dozen more times hoping it will eventually comply.) Also, don’t not know how to work the wireless slide changer in the first place. They’re all THE SAME: right moves the slide ahead one, and left does the opposite. Also, if it turns out that you are completely inept or have ignored this tip, and the computer from which you are presenting is within arm’s reach, you may just consider using the computer itself to change the slides.

• After you have the laser pointer vs. wireless slide changer thing down, don’t point to items of interest on your slides using gigantic, frantic circles as if you have just pushed a bolus of caffeine into your arm. This is especially true if you’re attempting to highlight single words on the screen, or a phosphate group, or part of a cell taking up the entire screen. Also, if you must make gigantic, frantic, caffeine-driven circles, try your best to at least keep them smaller than the screen itself; otherwise, it’s quite hard to determine what you’re pointing out.

• Don’t say “in conclusion,” or “in summary,” or “and finally, I’d like to end with...” more than six times per presentation, and don’t say these things at all if you plan to be talking for another 20 minutes. It really can drive your audience nuts. Instead, say “to conclude this portion of my presentation,” or “before I move onto something else, I’d like to summarize...”

• Don’t go too long over or under your alloted time, especially if there are people following you on the agenda or if you’re early in the day. It can really mess up the rest of the schedule, putting pressure on those presenting after you to cut theirs short in an attempt to comply with the preset agenda or stressing people out if they thought they had a bit more time to touch up their slides or get their wording right.

I’m realizing that my tone is really bordering on arrogant here, but I’ll be the first to admit that I’m completely and utterly fallible when it comes to presenting my own research. If anything, this is food for thought; most of us don’t think about these things before taking the stage, but given how our senses seem to unintentionally go by the wayside sometimes while presenting, maybe we should.

August 7, 2008 in Ben Ferguson | Permalink


Summarize effectively: be competent at working your equipment, and polish your presentation skills.

Posted by: Jared | Aug 7, 2008 9:11:58 AM

Yes, but if I'd said it like that, I'd be breaking the last "don't" up there!

Posted by: Ben | Aug 12, 2008 12:54:11 PM

Ben, this is actually not arrogant at all. It reflects reality and is so funnily written, that I laughed out loud. Good writing.

Posted by: Natalya | Aug 12, 2008 4:47:20 PM

I appreciated this article greatly because I have seen and given a few questionable power points. While reading this, I could barely stop laughing about the caffine driven circles, and the procedure for success with the ever complicated slide changer. Honestly, I'm extremely slow when it comes to computers, but managed to ask the right questions before the presentation so there were no suprises. Thank you for writing this, and I hope others seriously learn from it, I know I did.

Posted by: Wendy Raymond | Aug 12, 2008 5:27:46 PM

Thanks for the reminders. I have to give a HUGE presentation next week for a HUGE grade and it's good to remember those things. Also, thanks for pointing out the tips about using the remote slide changer. I've seen professors and guest lecturers do that so many times and you're so right about some lecturers that keep pressing the same button hoping that it will comply and behave differently, lol.


Posted by: Brian | Aug 12, 2008 6:50:11 PM

Also, remember that being mic'd or talking into a microphone does not mean that you can speak in a softer voice. Speak as loud as you would in a boardroom or in a classroom without the use of any amplification. It helps to keep the audience attentive and it keeps the sound guys in the back of the room from having to keep turning you up (which eventually leads to awful feedback and a disrupted presentation).

Posted by: Dante | Aug 12, 2008 7:47:53 PM

so funny, and so true! another one is use the first few seconds of the presentation to establish a good mouth-to-mike distance and maintain it. if you get horrifying feedback, it means your mouth is too close to the mike (i think a lot of people swallow the mike when they're nervous), and you should move the mike farther away. also if you have a lapel mike, don't touch it unless you really want to deafen the audience. if you habitually spit your Ps and Bs, up your vocal volume and hold the mike farther away. perfectly excusable to do any of these once, but not fixing the problem all through the talk is mean.

my theory about the wireless changers is that the habit comes from people who were used to the old, mechanical slide changers, where hitting the button repeatedly could actually clear a (physical) slide jam. you can tell this type if they point the changer decisively toward the screen rather than toward the little sensor. i see it a lot with older presenters who've only recently gone digital in their own life.

finally, the big thing that inexperienced speakers do that makes me crazy is they misjudge how much material they can present in their assigned time, and talk very fast the last few minutes instead of triaging the material as they speak. takes a little practice, but this ability separates the amateurs from the pros.

Posted by: anne vinsel | Aug 12, 2008 8:26:21 PM

I have a professor I would like to forward this to! I laughed out loud. :o) Great tips.

Posted by: Rebecca | Aug 12, 2008 10:02:40 PM

Thanks for making me look at myself; I plan to be a bit more attentive to what I am doing. Toastmasters teaches not to end with "Thank you" -- instead make it compelling! On my soapbox now..can we rid the world of utilization instead of use (for most uses)?

Posted by: Susan | Aug 13, 2008 11:33:19 AM

This is brilliant. Although, our profs. have taught us the basic dos and don'ts, this is a big help.

Posted by: Sharon | Aug 13, 2008 1:28:59 PM

Not at all what I expected from the title, your suada, and I got anoyed by your tone. Why not go to the people that made those mistakes in Presentation and tell them?

Posted by: Stefan | Aug 13, 2008 3:16:21 PM

www.Toastmasters.org for additional help!

Posted by: Paul | Aug 13, 2008 5:00:00 PM

thanks for your tips, I have a lot of presentations on the list and i'm gonna brush up my skills. Sometimes, i and so nervous untill everything goes blank.

Posted by: avicennayong | Aug 13, 2008 10:28:06 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.