Top 5 Mistakes Made by Presenters

Feb 9, 2012   //   by Steve Wooding   //   Articles, Food For Thought, General  //  No Comments

ErrorPublic speaking of one sort or another is inevitably required of us all at some point, and for many it’s a part of their job. However, we all know that doing something frequently doesn’t automatically mean you’re excellent at it.

So, here are some of the 5 biggest mistakes I’ve spotted over the years, and how to avoid them:

5. Running Over Time

If you have an allotted time to speak, stick to it. Preferably, finish a little early. There’s nothing worse than a speaker who runs over simply because they think what they’re saying is important, or because they’ve made one (or more) of the other big mistakes. Actually, there is – a boring speaker who runs over time.!

Running over time, especially if you’re one of a string of speakers – at a conference perhaps – is also extremely poor etiquette  as what you’re effectively doing is stealing other people’s time.

My rule of thumb is to aim to use only around 90-95% of your allotted time. For example, if you have 20 minutes, speak for 18 minutes and have a couple left for questions or some informal exchange.

The best speakers and presenters always leave their audience wanting more, not less.

4. Failing to Prepare Properly

One of the reasons people make mistake no. 5 is that they fail to plan or prepare enough in advance. I’ve actually witnessed many lectures by world experts in their field whose lectures are not a lot more than a rapid verbalisation of their internal dialogue around the subject.

A decent presentation has structure. A truly great presentation tells a story – yes, even technical or academic ones –  and to tell a story well takes preparation. In fact, the general rule is that the less time you have to speak, the more you should prepare!

Basically, know your presentation and your subject matter in depth, back-to-front and inside-out. If you need to rehearse it, make time to do so. A trial run in front of some trusted friends or colleagues can be very useful too – even the best stand-up comedians try out their material in front of small audiences before they use it on tour.

However, in preparing, also avoid the next big mistake…

3. Reading From a Script

“Hold on a minute!” you might say “Why not – even politicians read from a script..?!” Yes, many people do, but the greatest presenters of all, even if they are using a script, don’t look or sound like they are. Part of the presenter’s preparation is to get to know their script inside-out too so they can speak it naturally and authentically with an occasional glance at their notes.

The worst form of this mistake is to use a Powerpoint presentation that essentially contains what you’re saying, and then read from it..!

Whilst Powerpoint and other tools are useful, they should be used as a means to enhance your speaking, not to repeat it or replace it. Take a look at some of Steve Jobs recent presentations (regardless of whether you’re an Apple fan or not) to show how to use presentation tools well.

Great presenters speak naturally, even if they’ve learned it off by heart.

2. Trying to Sound Smart

It’s a shame when someone makes this mistake, as instead of sounding smart they come across as arrogant, desperate or condescending. It’s no good talking about the crisis management efficacy of multiple redundancy in the corporate I.T. infrastructure, or multi-layered strategies for leveraging your knowledge assets in a low capital expenditure economy unless 100% of your audience uses the same terminology on a day to day basis.

Good presenters make two assumptions which inform the way they speak and the words they choose:

  1. Everyone here is at least as intelligent as me.
  2. Everyone here is here to learn something.

Simply put, great presenters speak clearly and simply to make sure anyone listening can understand, whether they’re currently an expert or not.

Great presenters meet their audience where they are.

1. Not Making Eye Contact

I have to admit this is a huge bugbear of mine. When  you are speaking to an audience you are holding a conversation with them. And just like a one-to-one conversation, you need eye contact to show you’re involved in the conversation. Even though when you’re delivering a speech, you’re the only one actually talking, your audience are responding non-verbally and you’d expect them to be looking at you, wouldn’t you?

The worst presenters look over their audiences heads, or so far to the left or right that they’re not looking at anyone at all. Some close their eyes. And a few will fixate on one or two members of the audience to the exclusion of the rest, which makes those who’re being ‘stared at’ very uncomfortable!

Instead, the best presenters tend to move their gaze slowly around the room, fixing on general points that roughly correspond to quarters of the room.

Great presenters look at the people they’re talking to.


If you’d like to know more about what makes an outstanding presentation, and perhaps how to avoid other pitfalls, get in touch now.

There are, obviously, other mistakes that get made and other issues to avoid when presenting, but more about those another time perhaps…

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