Avoiding the #1 Presentation Skills Mistake

By now you have all seen TED talks – combining near-perfect phrasing, intonation, body language, images, all built around a central theme to make a compelling case on a topic or idea.

The standard they are able to achieve may be unattainable for many, or impractical in everyday situations due to the level of preparation required, but for arguments sake, let’s call this the “gold” standard – say 10/10. Using this very subjective scale, I would argue that everyday business presentations range from 0 – 7, with the lower end of the range being the most common.

I recently watched 4 people presenting over a 2-day conference, none being professional presenters. The difference between yawns and being “pulled” into the presenter’s orbit essentially came down to one thing – the presenter reading to the audience vs. conversing with them.

Reading to the audience – the #1 mistake
Reading to an audience is a sure-fire way to put them to sleep. It begins when the presenter – fearing that they will forget what to say – writes out their words, or even worse, puts them on a slide. What is so wrong with this approach? A few things as it turns out:

  • The spoken word is not the same as the written word.
    Try reading anything designed to be read out aloud and listen to the choice of words and intonation. Chances are, you will sound scripted, inauthentic, and somewhat “flat”. The spoken word is completely different and is far more engaging to the listener.
  • It makes you rigid.
    Having all the words pre-planned prevents the presenter from bending and adapting to the audience in the moment – an essential component of being able to engage an audience.

A case study
Let’s say you are trying to present the benefits of a hybrid work environment to a group of stakeholders in your organization. Here are some choices illustrating how slide design alone impacts authenticity and engagement with the audience:

The rookie – creates a slide with 3 bullets, and reads them to the audience:

  • It improves work-life balance
  • It reduces costs for physical office space (assuming it can be shared)
  • It allows top talent to be hired from anywhere

Outcome: Since the audience reads faster than the presenter can speak, the audience absorbs the information before the presenter presents it, making the presenter redundant and flat while generating impatience among the audience. Using slide animation to introduce the points one-by-one helps but does not significantly increase engagement.
Score: 0-3/10

The developing presenter – summarizes the 3 bullets as:

  • Work-life balance
  • Physical office space
  • Talent pool

Outcome: The substitution of readable sentences with keywords reminds the presenter what to talk about, but forces the presenter to use their own authentic, spoken language. In some cases, the point is not obvious until the presenter speaks, which also helps keep the audience engaged. Score: 2-4/10

The good presenter – substitutes the slide with:

  • A picture (with no significant text) that contrasts the difference between a traditional office and a hybrid work environment
  • Speaker notes if necessary (not visible to the audience) containing the main points to make, specifically not captured in complete sentences

Outcome: The presenter uses the spoken language to present authentically while using the picture as a presentation aid. The audience has something interesting to look at and follows the presenter, who is more interesting as they are using the spoken word and are free to modify what they say in the moment.
Score: 5-6/10

The expert presenter – keeps the same slide and:

  • Questions the audience – for example “what do you enjoy about working from home?”, “what do you see as the benefits of working in an office?”
  • Tells a story / provides an anecdote to illustrate a key point
  • Presents the benefits using the speaker notes (if required) as before
  • Links and adapts the presentation points to what was heard from the audience

Outcome: By ensuring that the audience takes part through effective questioning, presenting authentically and by using what was heard from the audience to augment the presentation, it moves beyond a 1-way presentation and begins to resemble a conversation with the audience. Engagement is now maximised.
Score: 7-10/10

Kwela’s Presenting Like a Pro workshop is designed to help presenters increase the impact of their presentations in everyday business situations.

Russel Horwitz, Principal