I recently attended a conference in London hosted by a very reputable organization featuring speakers from reputable companies. I went there to learn about recruitment industry trends, but instead found myself focused much more on the poor presentation skills of the speakers.
As someone who gives keynote talks and hosts workshops for a living, I spend a lot of time regularly developing, rehearsing, and delivering presentations to audiences. As much as I think of public speaking as one of my strengths, I rarely finish one of my own presentations without thinking it could have been better. There’s always room for improvement. A slide that could have looked better. Something I could have said differently. An intro I could have delivered more confidently.
So anyway, as much as I critique my own presentation skills, I found myself absolutely cringing at some things I saw on stage at this conference. Unfortunately, I see these same pitfalls with other conference speakers.
Part of landing your next role or building your personal brand is about being able to present yourself powerfully. So here are a few public speaking pitfalls to avoid that I was reminded of that day.
Believe it or not, at many professional conferences I attend, where there’s a lineup of speakers from reputable companies, there seems to always be at least one speaker who uses notecards. No joke. At the past three conferences I’ve attended in London, including this one, at least one speaker used notecards. This is an absolute no-go. It makes you look unprofessional, inexperienced, and unprepared.
If you’re going to be giving a talk in front of a crowd of industry professionals, you really have to know your talk inside & out. Although rehearsing, again and again, is not the most fun activity, it really helps you come across as polished and professional.
Explaining your presentation’s structure
No single speaker at this conference provided a detailed overview of what they were going to cover before diving into the content. Instead, they just started talking, and ten minutes into their presentation, I was left wondering what they’re actually planning to cover, where they were in their presentation, and how much they had left to go.
If you’re talking for more than two minutes to an audience, you need to give listeners an agenda of what you plan to cover. You don’t even have to have a full slide with a bulleted agenda, but you need to at least give a high level, verbal roadmap of the topics you plan to cover so people know what to expect and where you’re going every step of the way.
So many people seem to self-deprecate when delivering talks. I realize this might be a bit of a cultural thing here in the UK, and I may be used to more of the American style of presenting. However, it seemed like every speaker I saw on this day seemed to be trying to lower expectations before and during their talks. I can’t tell you how many people said, “I won’t bore you with this slide, but . . . “ or “This won’t be nearly as interesting as the last speaker, but . . . “
There’s actually been a lot of research done into this behavior, also known as “self-handicapping.” Self-handicapping, in a nutshell, is when you make excuses and downplay expectations to protect your self esteem. Psychologists like Sean McCrea and others have found is that self-handicapping actually leads to lower performance.
You have to believe in the quality of your talk so others can too. The best presenters I’ve seen confidently dive in and act like they know exactly what they’re talking about. Audiences are there to be informed, inspired, and entertained, so if you start your presentation saying how bad it’s going to be, that doesn’t exactly instill people with confidence.
Stopping to find water
Several speakers stopped mid-presentation to hunt down a bottle of water. This really disrupts the flow of a presentation and feels amateur. It also signals to your audience that you’ve reached a point where you’re struggling to keep going.
Getting everything in place beforehand is what every professional speaker does. You absolutely have to have everything you need within arms’ reach before you start talking. That means having a bottle of water, handouts, props, clicker, business cards, and anything else you plan to use for the presentation ready from the start.
Using anything other than PowerPoint or Keynote
Please, please, please, don’t use Prezi. It’s very amateur-looking and simply too distracting. While Prezi was all the craze around 2010 (briefly), few reputable speakers use it because your audience will spend more time trying to figure out the confusing logic of all the dizzying transitions rather than listening to your actual content. Trust me.
Stick with the mainstream slide presentation programs. The industry standards for presentation software are either PowerPoint or Keynote. End of story. These two programs are by far the most versatile, clear, and effective platforms to deliver your presentation.
This seems so obvious, but I was shocked how many speakers thought it was okay to use cuss words during their presentations. I heard one speaker use the word “sh#t” three times within the span of 10 minutes. Another panelist seemed to casually inject a cuss word into nearly every paragraph he spoke, which I found offensive.
Maybe in their organizations, cussing is acceptable. Perhaps they think cussing is more conversational, relatable, or comical. Maybe they’re simply used to it because all their friends cuss a lot. However, there are enough people out there who see cussing as unprofessional and offensive. You really need to find other words to express your ideas.
For all of you out there who think cussing is acceptable in a public, professional presentation, it’s generally not. I personally find cussing incredibly unnecessary and inappropriate in a professional conference. Play it safe, drop the habit, and find other words to express your points.
In conclusion …
Delivering a powerful, memorable presentation requires a lot of hard work, practice, and preparation. A lot of bad presentation behavior exists out there. By simply rehearsing your presentation in advance, providing an overview at the start, believe in your content, organizing your materials from the start, using a professional application, and speaking to your audience with respect, you’ll be miles ahead of most speakers out there.