The Master Communicator Blog

Common mistakes presenters make without realizing

Even the most seasoned presenters can fall prey to common presentation mistakes without realizing it and shoot themselves in the foot. Here are seven tips to remind you how to stay on top of your presentation game.
February 26, 2024

Even the most seasoned presenters can fall prey to common presentation mistakes without realizing it, potentially shooting themselves in the foot. Whether in the boardroom, a classroom, an industry conference, or a community forum, it’s the presenter’s job to deliver clear, congruent, and concise messages that connect with the audience without distractions.

At a recent town hall meeting in my community, an elected official gave a 40-minute state-of-the-city presentation in a 10-minute time slot and bored everyone to death. You could see people squirming in their seats, looking at their phones, talking among themselves, and stepping out for bio breaks. Yet the speaker persisted with self-serving long-winded statements, PowerPoint overkill, and disregard for the fidgety audience.

Presenters may think that their rank and status give them carte blanche to ignore the ground rules of impactful communications. As a leadership communications coach, I can’t help but pick apart almost any presentation. When I see the same errors repeated, I feel compelled to offer a refresher on the best presentation practices.

Let’s explore some of these unnoticed pitfalls of in-person presentations and provide insights on how to avoid them. Virtual presentations come with slightly different guidelines driven by the technology and confines of the video frame. I’ve covered the topic of video conferencing extensively over the last few years but will update the best practices for Zoom meetings in a future blog post.

1. Lack of audience connection.

One of the most significant mistakes a presenter can make is failing to connect with their audience. This often stems from a lack of awareness about who the audience is and what they’re looking for. Presenters may overlook the importance of tailoring their content to the interests and needs of their specific audience, preferring to speak about their interests instead. 

One of my favorite quotes about missing the point with your audience comes from former AT&T marketing guru Ken Haemer: “Designing a presentation (product) without an audience (a customer) in mind is like writing a love letter and addressing it to whom it may concern.”

Solution: Before the presentation, conduct thorough research on who will be in the room. Understand their background, interests, and expectations. Incorporate relevant examples, anecdotes, and language that resonates with them. What keeps them up at night? What’s the itch they want scratched? What are they expecting to receive from you that they didn’t have before they entered the meeting? Establishing a connection with the audience is vital. Without it, you might as well be speaking to yourself.

2. Overloading slides with data.

Presentation slides have become an integral part of conveying information today. However, a common mistake is overloading slides with text, charts, and graphs, creating an overwhelming visual experience for the audience. This not only dilutes the message but also hinders audience comprehension. If the audience must read the text, look at a picture, and pay attention to the speaker at once, one of the three will suffer. 

Solution: Follow the “less is more” principle when creating slides. Use concise bullet points, try to keep to three per slide. Add compelling visuals to illustrate key messages. Slides should complement your spoken words, not replace them. Focus on clarity and simplicity to help the audience absorb and retain information. The 10/20/30 rule of PowerPoint is a straightforward concept: no PowerPoint presentation should be more than ten slides, longer than 20 minutes, and use fonts smaller than 30-point size. Coined by Guy Kawasaki, the rule is a tool for marketers to create excellent PowerPoint presentations.

3. Speaking to the screen.

Turning your back to the audience is rude. If you load your slides with text, you will be tempted to turn around and read from your slide. Removing your eye gaze from the front of the room is an instant disconnection. If you fail to look at the people you’re talking to, you have broken an invisible bond of trust you will need to succeed (even if you bomb).

Solution: Think of yourself as the lead singer on the stage and your slides are your backup chorus. Either you are the star of the show, or you default to your slides. A well-calibrated interplay of visual content and your narration will make your presentation smooth and memorable. Another solution is to have a confidence monitor at the foot of the stage or somewhere in front of you but out of the audience’s view. That way your eyes will stay focused forward.

4. Going overtime.

Staying on time is a sign of professionalism. Going over the allotted time imposes on your audience and robs the next speaker on the schedule. It’s rude and reflects poorly on your preparation. Presentations that end early allow more time for Q&As and give the audience more time for a break or conversation about your topic.

Solution: Rehearse and prepare 20 minutes of content for a 30-minute slot. Divide your content into chunks that you can switch out or eliminate segments if you run out of time. Front-load your main messages in case you’re asked to cut your talk short for reasons out of your control. Ask for a countdown clock from the venue or bring your timing device.

5. Ignoring non-verbal communication.

Presenters often underestimate the impact of non-verbal communication, which includes gestures, facial expressions, and body language. Unconscious habits like excessive pacing, fidgeting, or avoiding eye contact can distract the audience and convey a lack of confidence. One of my clients had a habit of nervously pacing back and forth from one side of the stage to the other until he saw a video recording and understood how distracting his movements were.

Solution: Practice and evaluate your non-verbal communication. Stand tall, make eye contact, and use purposeful gestures to emphasize key points. Determine where to stand in a way that allows you to take one or two steps in any direction depending on the size of the stage. Recording yourself during practice sessions can provide valuable insights into your non-verbal cues.

6. Lack of vocal variety

It’s too easy to fall into a monotone when you’re under pressure. This can make your content less dynamic and put the audience in a trance. A talk delivered without vocal variation—volume, pace, pitch, and pauses—is drab and entirely unmemorable. You need contrast, emphasis, color, and emotion to bring your topic to life. Be hyperaware of your verbal fillers (um, ah, you know, like) and verbal crutches, such as repeating the same word too often (right, now, just, really).

Solution: Practice incorporating vocal variety into your presentation. Vary your pitch, pace, and tone to emphasize important points and maintain the audience’s attention. Using pauses effectively can also add emphasis and allow the audience to absorb key information. A dynamic delivery style contributes to a more engaging and memorable presentation.

7. Poor technical preparedness.

In today’s digital age, technical issues are an ever-present concern during presentations. It can happen in the most advanced conference settings. Presenters may overlook the importance of testing equipment, ensuring compatibility, and having a backup plan in case something goes wrong. A recent wide-scale network outage experienced by AT&T subscribers (me included) drove home our reliance on connectivity to manage our lives.

Solution: Arrive early to the presentation venue to set up and test all technical equipment. Be familiar with the software and have a backup plan in case of technical glitches. Use a physical storage device like a USB drive as a backup. In the worst-case scenario, know your content so well that you can talk through your big idea without presentation aids.

The beauty of presentations is that you can get better at it with practice. When I hear someone say, “I have done that talk so many times I can do it in my sleep,” I am saddened by their lack of foresight. Why not use every talk, and every meeting as an opportunity to grow and build your communications muscle? That drive to self-improvement will show in your enthusiastic delivery and your audience will benefit from it.

Effective presentations require careful consideration of various elements, and even seasoned presenters can fall into the trap of common mistakes without realizing them. By addressing issues such as audience connection, slide design, non-verbal communication, vocal variety, rehearsal, and technical preparedness, presenters can elevate their skills and deliver more impactful presentations.

Rosemary Ravinal

Business leaders and entrepreneurs who want to elevate their public speaking impact, executive presence, and media interview skills come to me for personalized attention and measurable results. I am recognized as America’s Premier Bilingual Public Speaking Coach after decades as a corporate spokesperson and media personality in the U.S. mainstream, Hispanic and Latin American markets. My company’s services are available for individuals, teams, in-person and online, and in English and Spanish in South Florida and elsewhere.

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