11 Deadly Presentation Sins


A couple of years ago, I had the misfortune to attend the worst presentation of my life. The speaker made every mistake in the book:

  • He started “selling” his product from the first minute.
  • He talked non-stop for an hour without trying to engage us.
  • He buried us in information without ever giving us a reason to care.
  • His slides were dense with text. (One had more than 140 words!)
  • His charts were impenetrable and required lengthy interpretation.

That set me on a quest to help make the world’s conference rooms and ballrooms a little safer for audiences. I’ve come up with, what I believe are, the worst mistakes a public speaker can make—my 11 deadly presentation sins—and how to correct them.

Sin #1: Failure to Understand the Audience

Some speakers forget that it’s not about them; it’s about their audience. What are their wants, needs, fears and misperceptions? And what about their mood? That’s key to shaping the tone of the remarks—and a speech that is tone-deaf will fail.

Sin #2: A Flat Opening

I’m so over the same tired openers. The dreaded dictionary definition. The detailed tour of the agenda. The irrelevant joke. The overused quote. I’d rather hear a powerful (and original) story to hook my interest.

Sin #3: Lack of Focus

Speakers who try to say everything end up communicating nothing. I urge my clients to think of their presentation as one part of an overall conversation. What needs to be communicated right here, right now, in this forum and what can be saved for handouts, leave-behinds, websites or follow-ups?

Sin #4: Bad Storytelling

Few things are more powerful than a well-crafted, well-told story. But storytelling is an art and a science. It requires a certain structure to truly resonate with audiences raised on movies and TV. And the best stories are meaningful to the speaker, not found online. They come from the heart.

Sin #5: No Emotional Pull

Facts and reason will never win the day on their own. The key to getting audiences to act is to make them feel something. Speakers shouldn’t be afraid to open up, get personal and explore the cultural and emotional touchstones that resonate with their audience.

Sin #6: Dull, Ugly Visuals

Why are people still using text-heavy slides? Or using their slides as a script? For years, Steve Jobs showed us the way, with bold images, big headlines and very few words. Of course, many successful speakers don’t use slides at all. But if they do, the visuals should be just that—truly visual.

Sin #7: Low-Energy Delivery

Professional speakers are trained to bring the energy, but many presenters go on autopilot, failing to vary their volume, tone and speed. Speakers need to invest every word with meaning and intention, and put real passion behind their ideas. If the speaker is checked out, the audience will tune out.

Sin #8: No Audience Interaction

What distinguishes a presentation from other communications is having a live, in-person audience to interact with. So it’s important to make them a partner in the story that’s being told—not just with Q&A, but with dialogue, exercises, role playing and other interaction where appropriate.

Sin #9: Buying Into Body Language Myths

Every day someone cites the conventional wisdom that “93% of all communication is nonverbal.” That’s actually a long-debunked myth. Content matters. And speakers need to stop worrying about what to do with their arms, and focus on intention instead. Be positive, enthusiastic, open and confident, and the body language will naturally follow.

Sin #10: Inadequate Rehearsal

Pity the poor audience whose speaker decides to just “wing it.” Nancy Duarte recommends 30 hours of rehearsal for a speech. Yet, I still see speakers who are surprised to see what slide appears next, who use the audience’s time to figure out their technology, and who clearly haven’t timed out or thought through their remarks.

Sin #11: A Weak Finish

When it comes to finishing a speech, some speakers don’t know where to begin. They stop abruptly, trail off, or don’t give it the time it deserves. I’ve found that finishing with a story, or returning to an earlier story with a postscript or a new twist, is a powerful way to close.

What Do You Think?

I considered other sins for this list: failure to recover from mistakes, absence of humor, lack of authenticity (though I believe if you’re opening up emotionally and telling stories that are meaningful to you, then authenticity is a natural byproduct).

But to me, these 11 are the worst of the worst. What do you think? What would you change, add or subtract?

Rob Biesenbach

Rob Biesenbach

Corporate Communications Expert, Author, Actor and Public Speaker at Rob Biesenbach
Rob Biesenbach is a veteran speechwriter, public speaker, actor and author. He recently released his new book, "11 Deadly Presentation Sins: A Path to Redemption for Public Speakers."
Rob Biesenbach
Rob Biesenbach
Rob Biesenbach
Rob Biesenbach

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