Making a presentation at work can be scary. Some of us fear public speaking more than death. However, like many things in life, giving presentations gets easier with practice and after more experience.
I work in consulting, which means I spend a lot of my time giving — and listening to — presentations. In my role, I give presentations to client CEOs, executive teams, boards, large (and small) groups of company employees, and of course my own team, peers, and leadership. I also spend time helping others present their ideas, providing coaching and guidance on content, message, and supporting materials.
Having the content prepared is foundational, but great slides and messaging can be ruined by a poor presentation. Similarly, I have seen executives with average content succeed because they deliver such a powerful presentation that the audience walks away convinced and impressed.
There are many elements to a great presentation, but being effective means avoiding missteps. I’ve compiled ten things you should never do when making a presentation. To be clear — this is not an effort to police tone, but to strengthen our ability to get our message across and build professional credibility.
1. Don’t say, “I think,” when a more powerful statement can work
Your views are valid – and you’re entitled to an opinion. However, there are more powerful ways to state your view, including: in my assessment, my experience suggests, and from what I’ve observed. This tiny rephrase will ground your subsequent observation in something more firm than a passing thought.
If you have data or facts, using “I think” can further undercut your point. Using “ … the data indicate,” or “ … as the data illustrates,” provides an even stronger introduction to your point. Sometimes you have to analyze data or come to a conclusion using many points of data that may not be completely clear. In those instances, share your team’s assumptions and conclusions – not just what you “think.”
2. Don’t say, “I don’t know.” It happens to all of us at some point
You’re giving a presentation you are asked a question that you do not know the answer to. You might not know, and you should never, ever give a fact or data point that you’re unsure of.
Instead of “I don’t know,” which does not show any action or resolution, and highlights what you’re missing (the answer) instead of instilling confidence, you can rephrase. If you’re asked for a piece of data you don’t have, you can respond, “I can get that data,” or, “the team can explore that question and get you an answer following this meeting.”
If you’re asked a question that you may need more time to ponder, it is fair to say, “I’d like more time to think about that instead of giving you an off-the-cuff answer,” and indicate how you will follow-up.
Sometimes, you’re asked a question that you don’t know the answer to, but have enough information or observation to make an educated guess. In that case, provide your response with confidence, referencing your experience “Based on similar situations, I’d estimate that … ”
This is a tricky one to navigate, as some professionals struggle with wanting to be perfect and knowing every detail. If you’re presenting, you should be well-prepared, but eventually you will get a question you simply do not know the answer to. Part of your preparation should include brainstorming for difficult questions and considering how you respond to any questions you may not know the answer to, based on your audience and the goals of the presentation.
3. Never share something that isn’t true and accurate
This sounds incredibly obvious. It is one of the things many of us learn in childhood: tell the truth, and don’t lie. However, in the heat (and stress) of a big presentation, it can be tempting to answer a question with a guess, or make a few leaps of logic here or there.
Don’t. If you aren’t certain about the validity of a point, sharing it could have massive consequences. This occasionally appears when more senior executives are presenting, and they haven’t reviewed the materials that they’re presenting. An old data point, or simple mistake that hasn’t been caught, can be shared as fact. Without ill intent, that can have negative repercussions on the organization.
Similarly, it can be tempting to avoid or downplay bad news. I’ve learned that bad news is best delivered early and with a plan for resolution. Saying with full confidence that the team will absolutely hit next month’s milestone – and then reporting two days before said deadline that you need an extension is one relatively common example. Your judgement and integrity is on the line when you’re presenting, and if you’re unsure of the validity of a point, it puts your reputation at risk if you deliver it to the audience.
4. Like, um, and other verbal crutches.
Nearly all of us fall prey to using different verbal crutches – filler words and phrases that include like, um, aah, you know, and so.
If you’ve ever listened to a speaker that has these verbal crutches, you’ve likely gotten so distracted that you’re counting the “likes” instead of listening to the message.
Preparation, recording, and feedback are the best ways to banish these from your vocabulary. When you’ve prepared well, you’ll feel more confident during your presentation. Stress and anxiety can trigger verbal crutches, while knowing your content thoroughly and taking some calming, deep breaths before you go on stage can reduce your nerves.
Listening to yourself is one of the best ways to catch your verbal crutches. It is incredibly common to dislike the sound of your own voice – but get over it, because poor presentation skills and verbal crutches are credibility killers! When you listen to yourself, pay attention to what your verbal crutches might be, and commit to working them out of your daily use (even with friends and family).
This is where having a trusted peer or thoughtful manager can come in. Let them know you’re working on improving your presentation skills, and you want to remove a specific verbal crutch – or two – from your vocabulary. Ask them to notify you when you’re using it in meetings (usually after the meeting, though there may be a discreet way to do so during the session), and offer to help them with any skills they are working on honing.
If you catch yourself relying on your verbal crutch, don’t freak out. Just pause. A beat of silence – while you take a sip of water and quickly glance at your notes – feels natural to the audience and gives you a chance to regroup.
5. Don’t ask, “Do you have any questions?”
Taking questions from the audience is great, but this is a poorly phrased question that doesn’t engage your audience. Instead, I suggest making a few adjustments to ensure you’re capturing feedback from your audience more actively.
First, let them know how you’ll handle questions – you may prefer that they are peppered throughout, or there may be notecards you’ve provided for them to write questions on for follow-up, or perhaps you’ve reserved time at the end to take any questions.
Your audience will likely follow your lead, so let them know when you’d prefer to take their questions. In a large group, audience members will often feel less comfortable asking questions throughout. In smaller groups, it may feel too formal to ask them to hold their questions to the end. Determine what will fit your audience’s needs.
Next, prepare the questions you’ll ask to engage your audience. If you have a section of the presentation that might confuse the audience, you may ask a question like, “I often get questions on the details behind this chart, and how the factor analyses actually work – raise your hand if providing that detail would be helpful, and I’ll spend a few minutes on that.”
Sometimes, presenters ask the audience for questions when they are really trying to spark discussion or audience participation. If that is the case, then craft a purposeful, open-ended, and inclusive question. For example, if you’re presenting to managers about the importance of investing in employee development, you may ask, “Who in the room has helped an employee grow their skills recently? Would you share the approach you used?” A question like that allows the audience to share their own ideas and experiences, to add richness to the discussion.
Finally, if you’ve finished your presentation, and you are curious if there are additional questions from your audience, you can say, “If there are any questions, I’d be happy to take them now.” Give the audience some time to engage. People can be shy about speaking up in large groups. If you don’t get a question, conclude with how they can reach you for any follow-up, thanking them for their time, and reminding them of any key points or actions. This is a more powerful closing than asking whether they have any questions – which can feel like a mini-failure if they don’t – and concluding your session on an awkward note.
6. Don’t hoard the credit … or even worse, take credit where you shouldn’t. When you’re presenting on behalf of a team, it is critical to recognize your contributors
Your presentation doesn’t need to sound like a long list of thank yous at an awards show, but it is important to acknowledge the wider team. This is yet another tightrope to balance – as the presenter, you have to authoritatively acknowledge your position – however, it may anger your colleagues if you’re inadvertently stealing credit in how you present.
I recommend acknowledging the wider team at the beginning and end of the presentation, and highlighting any particularly strong contributions throughout. For example, when starting the presentation, you might say something like, “I’m thrilled to present the work on behalf of our department – you’ll see the eight other team members that contributed to this project represented on the opening slide.”
If your colleague Fatima went out of her way, acknowledge that during your presentation. You can say, “This finding in the data is particularly compelling, and it was Fatima’s idea to pursue this line of questioning through regression analysis.” This demonstrates your comfort as a leader (you don’t need to hog the spotlight) and gives your colleagues a chance to shine – a win-win.
7. “Yes, we can do that by tomorrow,” when you’re not sure you can
Promising something you can’t deliver on is a fantastic way to undercut your credibility with peers and executives. It can be tempting to have an answer to every single question you’re asked, but if a commitment is requested, and you’re unsure, it is usually possible to buy yourself some time.
You can defer, saying, “Tomorrow is a rapid turnaround – I will confirm with the team after this presentation and let you know what deadline you can expect by noon today.” Further, in some situations it may be wise to take a moment to understand the driver behind the question, asking a clarifying question, like: “Before I work on next steps, it is helpful to understand why receiving the follow-up by tomorrow so critical – does this information impact another project or deadline?” Often, audience members may ask for things – or details – faster than really needed.
8. “I’m rambling a little,” or “I just rambled off there, but … ” if you got lost in the flow of your presentation, don’t tell the audience
Some of them may have noticed, and for those who didn’t, you just undercut your credibility. Practicing your presentation beforehand can help prevent rambling (ideally with a colleague, trusted friend, or by recording yourself and playing it back).
However, if you catch yourself rambling, end your sentence, take a breath to gather your thoughts, and get back on track.
9. “Let me tell you a funny story … ” This phrase has two issues – “let me” and “funny story.” First, “let me”
As the presenter, your audience is listening to you by default (until you give them reason to tune out). Asking their permission with a weak phrase like “let me” is unnecessary.
Next, “funny story.” In presentations, stories are fantastic. Data suggests they are remembered up to 22 times more than facts alone, so including them in your presentation is a powerful technique. Humor can also be a useful technique, when used appropriately, to connect with your audience. However, there’s little value in forewarning your audience that you’re going to be funny – because if they don’t laugh, you just bombed. Deploy your humor naturally and appropriately, and if you get laughs, that’s a bonus.
10. Don’t say, “I’m Sorry.” Women tend to apologize more than men, and this also happens in presentations
When you’re presenting, you rarely (if ever) need to apologize, so fight that instinct. Even in disastrous presentation situations – and I’ve been in a few, you can extract yourself without saying sorry.
Taking you a few moments to get set up? No need to apologize – let the audience know you’ll be starting in 5 minutes, and you’re looking forward to sharing your findings with them.
Projector light bulb broken, rendering it useless? Acknowledge the issue, and if possible continue the presentation using your notes and handouts, or re-schedule the meeting to make the best use of the audience’s time if the projection of slides is critical to the session.
Audio terrible, so the room can’t hear you? Move to the center of the room and raise your voice, grab a handheld microphone, or call an audible for a 10-minute break so the audio-visual staff can come up with a quick fix.
Spend more time than you planned on that complex point, so you won’t get to all your slides? Hit the key points you need to and end on time, because there are few sins an audience is less forgiving about than running late! Usually, they don’t know (or care) how many slides you have.
Spill all over yourself right before you walk up on stage (or, even better, on stage)? Yup, it happens – acknowledge it, make a joke, and keep going. Your audience usually wants you to succeed – this hiccup makes you human.
Forget the books you committed to bringing for every audience member? Let them know they’ll be receiving them in the mail as follow-up, along with a bonus item to make up for the delay.
Mishaps of all sorts happen when presenting – you do not need to undercut yourself by needlessly saying sorry. Instead, you can use any issues to your advantage, demonstrating your cool and collected nature under fire.
Developing your personal approach to presenting is a lifelong journey for most of us, and executives with strong presentation skills are particularly valuable in today’s knowledge-driven, fast-paced work environment. I’d love to hear if there are any other things you NEVER say when making a presentation, or if there are other tips that you’ve applied to improve your own skills.
The Feminist Financier is on a mission to help women build wealth and own their financial independence, by improving financial literacy and taking the mystery out of money. Ms. Financier is also a shoe addict, travel fanatic, and wine enthusiast.