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How to Deliver a Bad Presentation

Ways to confuse, bore, or annoy your audience during a PowerPoint presentation

By: Brian Satterfield

March 20, 2007

This article is the second part in TechSoup's series on giving effective presentations. Read How to Design a Bad Presentation to learn the do's and don'ts of creating a visually strong presentation.

If you've been working at a nonprofit for any period of time, chances are you've endured at least one — and possibly quite a few — boring or irritating presentations. Regardless of whether the presenter mumbled, fidgeted, or simply failed to keep the audience's attention, bad presentations can waste time, cost money, and even damage reputations.

Yet even if you have minimal public-speaking experience, you can still give an effective, interesting presentation. Half the battle is simply not engaging in behavior that can turn audiences off. By avoiding the following all-too-common mistakes, you'll be well on your way to a successful, informative presentation.

1. Skip the practice sessions.

Even if you know your subject matter like the back of your hand or have given dozens of similar talks, it's still a good idea to walk through your presentation a few times before you take it in front of a crowd.

Practicing your presentation out loud — preferably in front of a friend, colleague, video camera, or even a mirror — can help you troubleshoot all aspects of your speech. Use this practice time to make sure your projector works, your voice can be heard from the back of the room, and that your talk doesn't run overtime. A dry run can also help you perfect your body language and tone, which studies have shown can have just as much of an impact on your audience as the actual content of your presentation.

If you are using an overhead projector or other visuals, make a note card for each slide outlining supporting information for the main points you plan to address. Don't write out your entire speech word-for-word on note cards, however; the notes are merely there to keep your speech focused and organized and to provide a safety net should you lose your train of thought.

2. Read from your slides verbatim.

While presentation slides can help visually highlight the main points of your talk, one major presentation faux pas is reading directly from those slides without adding any additional information.

In fact, reading directly from a slide is the most common slipup presenters make, according to Andy Goodman, author of the book Why Bad Presentations Happen to Good Causes.

"Everywhere I go, when I ask people 'What's the number one problem you have with presenters?'" said Goodman. "Reading the slide always comes back, without fail."

Instead of repeating exactly what you've written, elaborate on the slide's main ideas with additional, contextual information. Otherwise, your audience may wonder why your presentation was even necessary. "If all you're doing is reading points of the slide," said Goodman, "then why not just print out the slides, hand them to people, and call the whole meeting off?"

3. Stare at your notes, handouts, or the floor.

While you will need to glance at your notes periodically to keep your speech on track, try to keep your head up and facing the audience as much as possible.

Facing the audience not only helps you make eye contact with individual members, it also allows you to better project your voice, which will come in especially handy if no microphone is available.

4. Speak in monotone.

If you want to keep your audience engaged and excited about your presentation, your tone of voice needs to convey a similar enthusiasm. After all, how can an audience stay interested in your presentation if you yourself sound bored with it?

To avoid speaking in monotone, try talking to your audience in a conversational style; pretend that instead of talking to a group of people, you are chatting with just one person. Even if your subject matter is dry, maintaining a lively tone of voice will help ensure that you don't make matters duller.

5. Talk really fast, then really slowly.

While varying the tone of your voice can help keep your audience from nodding off during your presentation, you will probably want to maintain a fairly consistent rhythm to your speech.

If you speak too quickly, your audience may mishear or misinterpret you. And if you talk too slowly or interject your presentation with too many pauses, "ums," or "ers," your audience may lose patience or confidence in you and start to zone out. For maximum effectiveness, strive for a happy medium; if you're unsure where your speech falls, this is a good time to get a second opinion or to record and play back your delivery.

6. Assume your audience knows as much as you do.

If you designed and created a slideshow for your presentation using a program such as OpenOffice Impress, Microsoft PowerPoint (available as a donation at TechSoup Canada to qualifying nonprofits and libraries), or an online presentation suite like SlideRocket (available as a donation at TechSoup Canada to qualifying nonprofits and libraries) all of the information probably makes complete sense — at least to you. Your audience, however, may be only vaguely familiar with or even brand new to the subject.

Make sure your audience understands why the topic at hand is important. Give potentially confusing points context by providing background information; find a way to relate new concepts to something your audience is already familiar with.

Take care, however, not to overburden your audience with too much information; otherwise, you may take focus off of your main subject and risk derailing your presentation.

7. Take questions at the end of your presentation only.

An effective presentation is less about lecturing your audience and more about engaging them. Therefore, give participants a few moments to ask for clarification, raise additional points, or provide input that other audience members may find useful.

One mistake that many presenters make is waiting until the end of the presentation to take questions from the audience, according to Goodman. He suggests that presenters instead hold the question-and-answer period after they've given the bulk of their presentation, then devote the last couple of minutes to a prepared closing statement.

"You want to start strong and you want to end strong," said Goodman, "because the things they [the audience] are going to remember the most are when you first walked into the room and when you said goodbye."

Goodman notes that because some audience members may ask questions that are off-topic, nonsensical, or even hostile, ending your presentation with the question-and-answer period puts you at risk for leaving a bad final impression.

8. Fail to have a backup plan.

Technical difficulties are a fact of life, and if you believe in Murphy's Law, your big presentation will fall on the same day that every electronic device in your building acquires some bizarre quirk.

In case of power failures, equipment malfunctions, and other unforeseen snags, have a backup plan. Bring visuals and other support materials that don't require the use of an electrical outlet.

This kind of backup can be especially helpful if you're giving the presentation using unfamiliar equipment; if for some reason, you can't get your new slide projector to work, you can hand out printed copies or give your presentation using a whiteboard. If you're giving a presentation in another location, call ahead to find out what materials (dry-erase board, markers) they have that you could use in the event of a technical glitch.