Whenever I read a top 10 presentation or public speaking tips post, I often find at least one tip that makes me cringe. And I’m not talking about the obviously stupid presentation tips like “Imagine the audience naked” or “Look at the back of the room”.

So here’s my list of the top 10 tips presentation tips that you should not follow.

1. Anything starting with “Must”

For example, “You must grab attention at the start” or “You must tell stories”.

Must is a very strong word. It’s simply not true that you must do these things. No single piece of advice is that critical.

And it can be counterproductive to use the word must. As in:

“I must be interesting”

“I mustn’t make any mistakes”

By speaking to yourself in this way you’re putting pressure on yourself to perform. And paradoxically (and annoyingly) if you pile on too much pressure you may end up  performing less well:


For more on how to combat the pressure-performance curve see this post There’s no such thing as the perfect presentation.

2. Your presentation should have a beginning, middle and an end

A queue of people lining up at the bank has a beginning, middle and end. It doesn’t help you to plan what you want to say in the beginning, middle and end of your presentation. For more useful advice on how to plan a presentation see my Presentation Planning Guide.

3. Throw away PowerPoint

A number of presentation and speech experts bring this up on a regular basis. They point to accomplished speakers like Obama and say if he can go from virtual unknown to President in a few short years without PowerPoint to deliver his message, so can you.

They’re missing the point. Obama delivers inspiring and moving speeches.  And I agree if your purpose is to move and inspire your audience then PowerPoint may not help.

But most business presentations are not principally aiming to move and inspire the audience (although it’s great if they do). They’re about communicating complex concepts, or persuading the audience of the merits of a particular solution. And often using a diagram, image or chart will help with that.

The question to ask yourself whenever you’re contemplating whether to use PowerPoint or Keynote is whether a visual will help the audience understand and remember your content better.

4. Slow down

If you naturally speak fast and try and follow this advice, you’re likely to lose some of your energy. And audiences love speakers with energy. I’ve written a whole post about this: You don’t have to slow down to be an effective presenter. Here’s an example of a gifted professional speaker Scott McKain. Notice that he talks very fast at times but you don’t have any trouble understanding him:

I think people who offer this advice are lumping two separate issues together:

  1. Poor pronunciation eg: garbled or swallowed words.
  2. Speaking fast.

They blame the poor pronunciation on the speaker talking too fast. But they are separate problems. If you garble your words, you will need to work on pronouncing clearly. It will take discipline and effort, but you don’t have to slow down to achieve it.

5. Your delivery of your speech will make or break it

This is inspired by the famously misinterpreted Mehrabian research that your words count for only 7% of your message. This phrase is far too black and white. I don’t think that delivery can make a presentation – if the content is poor. People may be engaged at the time – but a few hours later they’ll wonder “what was the point of all that”. I call this a “meringue” presentation. Lovely at the time, but it disappears into nothingness.

And most of the time I don’t think that delivery can break it- although it may detract. In most business presentations, the audience is there for your content. If you have prepared a logical and organized presentation with information that your audience finds valuable, then most people in your audience will forgive less than stellar delivery. It’s your content that counts. It’s very rare that a speaker’s delivery is so bad that the message does not get across at all.

So, I don’t think the phrase is an accurate representation of reality. I also think it’s not useful. Thinking that your delivery can make or break can lead you to not putting enough emphasis on preparing valuable content for your audience, and can make you more nervous.

6. Relax

Yeah right. Public speaking and presenting are inherently edgy experiences. The audience has expectations of you, you’re the one in the spotlight. It’s absolutely normal to feel nervous. You may interpret this as excitement, anticipation, slight nerves or downright fear. If you’re in the latter category, there is something you can do about it. But telling yourself to “relax” is not it. Your fear is produced by the pressure you’re putting on yourself to perform up to expectations and your thoughts about blowing it. To reduce your fear, you need to manage these thoughts.

7. Breathe

This advice is closely related to “Relax” and about as useful. Most of us breathe during presentations – or else we’d drop down dead. The advice-giver really means breathe more deeply and slowly. And it is useful to do that. But when you’re heart is beating as if it will explode out of your chest and all you really want is to get your presentation over and done with – you’re not going to remember to breathe deeply and slowly. Learning how to manage the thoughts that made you nervous will be far more effective.

8. A presentation is a performance

Yes, there are parallels between perfoming and presenting, but you do not need to be a performer to be an effective presenter. The most important part of presenting is being yourself and connecting with the audience in much the same way that you would if you were speaking one-on-one. That is not performing.

This also means that you do not need to be entertaining or funny (if you’re naturally funny, lucky you – exploit your talents). But if you’re like me and don’t find humor comes easily to you, don’t force it. Be yourself.

9. Only use keywords on your slide

It’s true that having screeds of text and bullet points on your slides is not useful. But that doesn’t mean that the opposite extreme – only one or two keywords – is most effective. The keywords may mean something to you, but they may not mean anything to your audience. For an example of this style see Laura Bergell’s post The creepiest PowerPoint design trend of 2009.

A short and succinct sentence which makes your point can be very effective on slides. This is backed up by research by Professor Michael Alley.

10. Save questions till the end

This advice is speaker-centered. It doesn’t take into account the needs of the audience. If an audience member has a question about what you’re talking about, it will be much more useful to answer at the time, rather than ask them to save it till the end. Taking questions throughout shows respect for your audience.

Now, I know this won’t always be practical (eg: a very large audience) and does require some skill to manage. But consider taking questions throughout as an ideal to aim for. For more suggestions how to do this see 8 tips for encouraging questions from the audience.

So those are the top 10 presentation tips that have me cringing. What are your pet hates in presentation and public speaking advice?

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