The Most Common Mistakes Presenters Make

This article was originally published in the Femgineer blog by our 500 Startups mentor Poornima Vijayashanker.

This is a summary taken from Karen Catlin’s and my latest book: Present! A Techie’s Guide to Public Speaking.

You scan the program at a conference, come across a topic that sounds interesting, and say to yourself, “Sounds interesting enough, I’ll check it out.” Or, “I’ve been meaning to learn more about X, let’s see what the presenter has to say about it.”

You walk into the room, take a seat, and a few minutes later the presentation starts. The presenter says something like, “Hi I’m so-and-so. I work at X on Y. Today I’m going to tell you about Y. I’ll be covering: point 1, point 2, point 3.”

You’re still seated and listening. But then after 5 minutes, you get this urge to pull out your phone.

You look up from your phone to see what the presenter is saying and to look at their slides. The slides are filled with text. They are basically reading from it.

At some point you don’t really feel motivated to continue listening. But you hate to be rude, so instead of leaving, you pull out your laptop, and start to check email.

Out of the corner of your eye, you notice a few other people ducking out, and you decide to do the same.

Whew! You managed to escape…

Boredom is the #1 presentation killer, and it’s spurred by the following common mistakes people make when presenting.


Mistake #1: Not gauging an audience’s interest and being clear about the audience level.

Presenters often focus on a topic that interests them or they feel like they have expertise in. There’s nothing wrong with that. But you’ve got to take the time to frame it in a way that is more general and going to appeal to an audience.

If you’re not sure who will be in the audience, then contact the organizer to find out. Ask them specific questions around job roles, companies they work at, the theme of the event, and even who the other presenters are and what they will be talking about. Organizers love this, because they care deeply about having high quality presentations at their event!

Next identify major themes within the topic, and common problems or challenges you came across that you think other people would too.

Verify interest by taking the time to tease the topic on a few people who understand the space. I enjoy doing this will colleagues or even my tweeps.

Depending on how strong a reaction they have, you’ll know whether you’ve got a hit or a dud.

If it is a dud, fish for feedback on how to improve it, and make sure it’s still general.

Then think about the audience level. Too often audiences get bored because they are advanced and find the talk too basic. Or they are beginners and find the talk to be too advanced. So don’t hesitate to explicitly mention who the talk is and isn’t for.

It doesn’t always have to be based on level, it can also be based on a situation.

Here’s an example of how to share a topic to get feedback:

Problem: Prospects visit your website, but are reluctant to leave an email address because they are shopping around for solutions and don’t want to receive a flood of emails in their inbox. Once they leave your website, they may never return! You need a way to convince them to come back.

Solution: In this talk I’ll be covering 3 retargeting strategies that increase email opt-in rates and lead to more sales.

Who is this for? Online or growth marketers who are looking to get prospects to revisit their website. They must have at least run one display ad campaign.

Who this talk isn’t for? People who are already familiar with retargeting and have run successful campaigns that have generated leads and sales.

Proposed talk title: How to Close Prospects Through Retargeting Campaigns

Notice how I started with a common problem: prospects visiting your website and not leaving an email address. I also cover the experience level. It acts as a prerequisite so that people have a basic level of understanding before they attend the talk, but we don’t want people who are already seeing results from their retargeting campaigns coming and being bored by our introduction to retargeting. So I also include who the talk isn’t for.


Mistake #2: Cutting to the chase too early instead of starting with a story

don’t know about you, but nothing makes me reach for my phone faster, than a presenter who doesn’t take the time to hook an audience from the beginning.

Here’s an example of how many people typically start:

“Hi I’m so-so, and I’m a security expert at XYZ Co. Today I’m going to talk to you about the 3 best practices for dealing with a DDoS attack.”

Many presenters do this, because they don’t want to seem long-winded telling a story. But you can create a short story that pulls audiences in immediately.

Here’s an example:

“6 months ago we were under attack. It was a DDoS, and we didn’t know what to do… ”

Immediately audiences are thinking, “Oh my gosh, there’s a problem here… what would I or my company do if we were in that position? I wonder how they solved it…” They end up tuning in because they’re curious.

Then you can transition to saying, “Today I’m going to share with you how we overcame a pernicious DDoS, and the 3 best practices that you can put in place to avoiding one.”

See how that’s much more engaging! You can also weave the story throughout the talk. It adds a layer of intrigue and makes the talk much more memorable.

If you’re concerned about sharing a proprietary story, then we recommend creating a story instead using the Imagine Technique.


Mistake #3: Too much text.

If audiences wanted to read slides, then they might as well stay at home and wait for the slides to be posted on SlideShare. The whole reason they are coming out is to engage with the presenter.

We know why presenters put a lot of text on their slides. They didn’t take the time to practice, and create a narrative or flow. Or they’re afraid they won’t recall what they put on their slide.

But what’s the point if audiences are going to tune out?

Slides are meant to just be visual cues. Think of them as icing on your presentation, which means that you should be able to deliver it without them!

The key is to start with an outline, practice, and then create slides last. Each slide should be a full bleed image and limited to no more than 3–5 words of text. Here’s a great example of well designed slides from one of Jonathon Colman’s recent talks on Wicked Ambiguity and User Experience. Notice how simple and rich his slides are, and no you don’t have to be a designer to get that effect!

It’s easy to spot these mistakes when we watch other people present, but then somehow we forget that we make them too! I know I’m guilty of doing all 3, and have to catch myself before each presentation.

Which one of these do you think you’ll tackle for your next presentation? Let me know in the comments!

Did you enjoy this quick tip and want more help Improving your presentation skills? Then check out Karen Catlin’s and my new book: Present! A Techie’s Guide to Public Speaking

Posted by