Presentation mistakes: 3 bad habits to break

All of us - from newbie presenters to seasoned veterans - may find stress sometimes causes us to fall into three traps. Here’s how to avoid them
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Competing advice on how to give better presentations is a resource that will never be depleted. How much eye contact is enough, or too much? Should you stand still or walk around? What’s the right level of formality versus familiarity to project? How do you thoroughly prepare without coming across as over-rehearsed? And what on Earth is the right thing to do with your hands!?

After years of hearing, taking, and giving such advice, we are left with the truth that successful presenters find ways to integrate their perspective, personality, and physicality into that elusive quality we can only call “presence” – and it’s as unique as the individuals themselves.

While there’s no one right way to present, there are some specific things that all of us - from nervous newbie presenters to seasoned veteran speakers - find ourselves doing at one point or another that are never helpful. Even if you love presenting and being in the spotlight, everyone has moments that shake their nerves: The projector goes to sleep, the fonts and graphics are mangled by the venue’s computer, or the presentation time is actually two hours sooner than you expected - and any of these and more can happen at the same time.

[ Read also: 7 TED Talks on how to improve your presentations. ]

3 presentation mistakes even aces make

In these moments, we are all at risk of falling victim to our protective habits. Even if you’re an ace presenter, you almost certainly make these mistakes at least some of the time - so be aware of them in order to easily identify these behaviors and train yourself to stop them.

1. Treating the presentation as a script

It’s the tenth slide. Just like the preceding nine slides, it has three to seven bullets, which the presenter is reading - verbatim. People are starting to check their Facebook feeds. The presenter’s face takes on a nervous sheen as they bravely soldier on, committed to getting through it if it kills them - and maybe the audience. After all, they put so much work into this deck, and it would be a shame for the audience not to hear Every. Single. Word.

Your slides are not a teleprompter. Your job is not to read the screen to your audience.

Remember that at some level, you are engaged in a conversation. If everything they need to know is captured in the text of the slides, why not just send them the deck and be done with it?

Allow and even embrace some flexibility. Refine points that don’t seem to be landing with your audience. Add detail and depth to the most important points. Ask questions to help the listeners engage. Your slides are not a teleprompter. Unless you are performing live translation, your job is not to read the screen to your audience.

2. Apologizing for bad slides

What do you do when that 12-level-deep, intricately woven infographic that seemed a work of utter brilliance on your monitor becomes an illegible tangle of spiderwebs and dust particles on the big screen? Saying “Sorry you can’t read this” does nothing to help your audience. It just emphasizes the gap that the bad slide has created in your story.

Get them listening to what you are saying instead of apologizing for the “eye chart.”

Don’t call attention to a crummy slide. Get them listening to what you are saying instead. Continue to deliver the intended message verbally and move on. If possible, let people know where they can get the details later. Of course, it’s best to keep confusing or illegible slides out of your presentation to begin with, but whatever you do, don’t shine a spotlight on the issue by apologizing for the “eye chart.”

3. Filling every silence

Anyone who has done any public speaking knows to avoid “umm’s” and “uhh’s,” but many of us still have a deep fear of silence during our presentations. Maybe a video clip is taking a while to load. Maybe a slide comes up out of order, or we just plain forgot what we were going to say next. Faced with a pause, our natural inclination is to just keep talking ... no matter what.

Silence is not always comfortable, but it is not the enemy. If you lose your train of thought, or the audience is starting to glaze over, or even if you just want a point to sink in, don’t be afraid of a few seconds of silence.

Take a breath or two and glance around the room. It will feel shorter to your audience than it will to you, and it will always be better than desperately filling the silence with noise that at best feels panicky and at worst dilutes or obscures your message.

The ultimate presentation tip: Get out of your head

There is one thing all of these bad habits have in common: They all result from getting stuck in your own head, and we’re all vulnerable to it. True communication takes place in the space between you and your audience - not on the stage, not on the screen, not in the slides.

Successful presentations create a connection and a conversation that is supported by your material rather than constrained by it. Eliminating these bad habits from your presentations will greatly improve the likelihood that your message remains in their minds long after the words and pictures have left the screen and you have left the podium.

[Also read: 9 must-read books to make you a stronger communicator ] 

For more than 20 years, Jaeson has been working with in-house and agency teams to conceive, lead and deliver digital experiences that solve real problems. Jaeson helps define digital product and service strategies for clients including Charles Schwab, Delta Community Credit Union, LifeScan, and others. Jaeson holds a BA in Music and English from the University of California at Be


Hi Jaeson, you raised some excellent points here. One of my presenters did have a scenario very similar to the one that you described where the display was correct on the computer but not on the screen. He had to read from his notes...which not only made him feel totally unprepared but embarrassed on top of it. Instead of making the best of it, like you mentioned, he just couldn't get out of his own way. What I believe it all comes down to is how much time you devote to practicing your presentation. The more comfortable you are with your content, the easier it is to deal with all of the glitches that may occur.