9 Mistakes Presenters Make

Mistakes Presenters Make
Mistakes Presenters Make

Do you want to be a more dynamic presenter? You will be if you avoid these frequent mistakes. I’ve discussed all of these ideas in previous articles, but thought it was worth clustering them together for a ‘common mistakes’ overview. 

1. Forgetting the WIIFM filter  One of the most common mistakes that presenters make is forgetting to run their whole presentation through their audience’s No.1 filter – and that is always WIIFM (what’s in it for me?)  From the moment you open your mouth, to the summing-up, you’re being judged through this filter, and in order to be an effective presenter, it’s essential you put yourself in your listener’s seat – not just during your key points, but all the way through.

This may seem obvious, but so many presenters miss it, and the result is glazed expressions, disconnection and missed opportunities. 

Action Step: at every point – every subheading, anecdote, quotation – ask yourself “is this about my listener?”  You must be able to answer this question objectively. If you were sitting in your audience, would the information you’re hearing be relevant to what you were promised when you arrived? 

2. Not rehearsing your presentation (enough) There are all sorts of reasons that presenters give for not doing a lot of rehearsal: “I’m better when I’m spontaneous” or “I don’t have the time” – but what it usually boils down to is an unwillingness to do what’s required; yes, preparation can be boring and time-consuming, and it usually takes longer than you think it will, but it’s the only way to be consistently successful.

Consider this: through new imaging technology, neurobiology reveals that repetition strengthens, replaces or expands brain connections. In other words, every time you practise your presentation, you’re strengthening your neural pathways. And that gives you three things:

  • You’ll create for yourself a solid underlying structure that allows you to be present and really connect with your audience; you know that the foundations have been taken care of, leaving you free to be spontaneous and more flexible as you speak
  • Your confidence levels will naturally increase as a result
  • You’ll feel more comfortable out there; remember that most of the fear you feel is fear of the unknown. Good preparation helps a lot. In a research study of parachute jumpers, it was found that experienced jumpers still felt fear, but their anxiety levels peaked well before they jumped, and dissipated as the jump approached. For the novice jumpers, fear peaked as they were leaving the plane. Which do you think would be harder to deal with…and detract from the experience?

The paradox here is that within the discipline of rehearsal lies freedom. Every professional musician knows this, and every good presenter.

Action step: practise! Use the mirror, video, friends; test yourself out as you’re driving. It  all helps.

3. Not realizing that you are responsible for directing the energy level of your audience Your listeners don’t want to take care of you, or feel responsible for your success (or lack of it) – they want you to take care of them. They want to feel that you’re in control of the physical and mental space in the room.

When you present, you’re exchanging energy with your audience, whether it’s a one-on-one sales pitch or cast of a 1000, and it’s up to you to set the direction and get the ball rolling. That means leaving your self-doubts or bad night’s sleep in the car-park and giving it your best shot.

It also means that you have to create believability in the minds of your audience members. They want to trust you; they want to be carried along in the swell of what you’re offering; but they have to relax first, and that only happens if you’re in control. 

It’s like a musician giving a performance: there’s a big difference between sitting in a room playing to yourself, versus extending your energy out beyond yourself and including your audience in the loop. One’s just playing, the other is giving a performance, and giving a performance is always a risk – both for you and your audience. The payoffs come from the energy that’s created between you and your listeners when you deliberately extend yourself. 

Of course you’re going to come across all sorts of moods, good and bad, in groups that you speak to; what I’m saying is that you’re in control of the direction of energy. Whether the energy level in the room starts at a zero or an eight on the scale doesn’t matter; what does matter is that you’re leading them in the right direction.

Action step: work on creating a safe space at the beginning of your presentation; you do this by making yourself believable – your audience will then feel they’re in good hands. If you need to help yourself along in the believability stakes, write out at least 7 benefits that your audience will gain from your presentation/service/product and add to this list for at least a week; really immerse yourself in these benefits, make them as real as you can. You must build your credibility in your own mind before your listener will come along for the ride.  

4. Not explaining your structure upfront Whether you’re giving a 20 minute presentation or 5 day seminar, you need to explain to your audience why they should listen to you and what the relevance and intended outcome will be (this is making explicit the earlier WIIFM point). You also want to give them a clear overview of your topic and the structure of your presentation. Most people like to know roughly what’s going to happen in order to relax and listen properly. Telling them upfront makes them more receptive to your message, and that’s got to be good!

Action step: work out a brief introduction. Thirty seconds is probably enough for a twenty minute presentation; you might want to spend five – ten minutes if you’re running a day-long seminar. 

5. Not working on your choreography Too many presenters use one of two physical styles – they either stand stock-still (often hiding behind the lectern), barely twitching except to advance a PowerPoint slide…or the opposite: I’m sure you’ve seen the nomad who roams the floor, arousing low-level anxiety in their audience by their constant manoeuvering .

Good presenters work the physical placement of speaking into their preparation. They know where they’re going to stand, when to move upstage, or away from the lectern – there’s a solid reason behind it. And they practise enough (see mistake no. 3!) to make it look spontaneous. 

Action step 1: get the overarching structure of your presentation down on paper, and, focusing on your main points, actually mark in where you’re going to move. Where do you want to be closer to your audience? (When you’re interacting is a good time for this: asking questions or getting feedback)  When would it be good to move from one side of the stage to the other? (e.g. giving one side of an argument, then the other)  Then physically practise those moves. 

Step 2: if that’s all too hard, simply having an awareness about your own style will help you to start incorporating some changes. If you’re a nomad, practise standing still occasionally; if a statue, try moving towards your audience during a key point and see how it feels. 

6. Not using enough stories In an era where we’re overwhelmed with the volume of information we receive – much of it conveyed in flaccid, tired language which does little to enrich or inspire either listener or presenter – stories have a life of their own. Leadership consultant John Burdett makes a great point when he says that “story collapses the traditional boundary between sender and receive….we deliver information, but we share a story.”

In fact, psychologists have termed stories “psychologically privileged”, meaning that our minds treat stories differently to other types of material. We’re always seeking causal connections – the thread between pieces of information – and stories provide us with that. The best ones tell a simple truth, something we can take hold of and remember.

The more diverse the audience, the simpler our message must be. Howard Gardner, cognitive science professor at Harvard and long-time researcher into the different types of intelligence we possess (e.g. spatial, musical) says that getting diverse audiences to change their frame of reference requires that “the story must be simple, easy to identify with, emotionally resonant, and evocative of positive experiences.” (Gardner adds that when your audience is small and shares similar values, your message can be more complex.)

Action step 1: start to carry around a tape-recorder or notebook, and begin to jot down the everyday quirky things that happen to you, which can be adapted and used in your presentations. Don’t even think that you’ll remember them – you won’t. 

Step 2: when telling a story, narrate it in the present tense; it’s much more immediate and compelling for your audience to follow along with. For example “so I’m travelling along the freeway, when a policeman pulls me over and says to me….”

7. Confusing your audience It doesn’t take much to confuse your listeners. You know your topic in all its facets, you’ve worked through the arguments in your head, and probably presented it more than a few times. But your audience is hearing you for the first time, and can’t press the rewind button, so you have to be crystal clear first time around. Connect the dots for them – you can’t expect anyone in your audience to do this of their own accord; remember that they’re overwhelmed with the amount of stuff jostling for space in their heads as it is. Your job is to make your presentation worth their time and focus by offering them what I like to call an ‘elegant solution’. Keep it simple and streamlined.

Action step 1: sum up your presentation in one sentence. Imagine that you’re standing in front of your audience: say one sentence and walk out of the room – that’s all you get. Then go through your presentation and ask yourself if each section easily ties into your key sentence. Simplicity is key. 

Step 2: Remember the old rule of three: an audience can easily follow three things; any more and you’ll start to lose them. Use three reasons, three examples, three points. Tie all of those into your one-sentence synopsis, and you’re onto a winner.

8. Not sufficiently varying your fundamental tone We all have an everyday natural way of speaking that’s most comfortable for us to use, and for our listeners to hear. However, with so many factors to juggle when we present, it can be easy to forget that if we don’t vary that conversational tone sufficiently, our audience will nod off.

You need to ask yourself if your voice is colourful enough. Is there enough contrast in tone, volume, pace? Are you using silence for added effect?

Action step 1: video or audio-tape yourself; you’ll soon know if you’re interesting to listen to or not! If you’re not happy, practise reading aloud to yourself regularly (or, even better, to a child – the ultimate in honest, immediate feedback!) and experiment.

Step 2: sign up for acting or improv classes. Guaranteed to make a difference, and especially useful for those who aren’t highly extroverted (I speak from experience here!).

9. Taking it all too seriously The average presenter takes the whole business very, very seriously.

Action step: lighten up! 

Summary: working on all nine of these steps will give you a winning presentation; but if you were only to pick one, make it No.1. If you can nail the WIIFM factor, you’ve got your listeners’ attention, and they’ll cut you a lot of slack regarding the other 8 mistakes.

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'9 Boxes' Planning & Structure Template for an Impactful Presentation

Includes: Content 'type' suggestions / Walkthrough of my own example / Empty grid for your own use ______________________________________________ “Sarah has developed some very practical tools to help people learn and develop presentation skills. As someone who appreciates structure, having a template structure to work from and adapt is very helpful indeed.” - Chad Irons, GM, ACC International Relief

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