How to stop torturing your audience with your presentation

You may not be as tall as Lincoln or as eloquent as Churchill, but you are able to make great presentations.
— Seth Godin

I’m not usually prone to exaggeration - I’m a relatively mild-mannered individual who only really gets worked up over Game of Thrones or toenail clippings on the rug. 

It was somewhat surprising then that I wanted to bury myself under my chair, screaming wildly, rather than witness the latest in a string of unbearable Powerpoint presentations I’ve been subjected to in recent months. I won’t say who or where, but last week’s session involved unreadable Excel spreadsheets on one slide, clipart bouncing around on another and a boring, droning monologue which was simply torture to sit through. Not only did it fail to communicate anything of value but, even if it did, I would have missed it due to the failure of the presenter to create appropriate, interesting and relevant visual aids and material.

Slide shows can be valuable, shareable content (take a look at SlideShare for some examples of these and some inspiration). For most small business though, we’re looking at presentations you, as a business person, make to the usual audiences: colleagues (internal to the business and external: conferences etc) and sales prospects. For both groups, think of your presentation - no matter how detailed and technical it needs to be - as a story. You have two ways to tell that story: your voice/script and visual aids. Visual aids are typically slide presentations (although you could always use dancers instead!), and the most popular are the ubiquitous Powerpoint, Keynote or one of the many new online slide creation tools, my favourite of which is Prezi - an online tool that creates awesome 3D presentations. 

I’ve no wish to pick on Powerpoint - it is an incredibly effective presentation tool with a wide range of applications. The problem lies in the misuse of Powerpoint. People use Powerpoint incorrectly in a number of ways, mostly by forgetting that it is meant to be a visual aid tool, NOT a script, spreadsheet or document. I often see presentations which use the slides on display as a prompt for the speaker instead of as a tool to make the audience understand the content of the presentation. Or, lazily, some speakers whack whole documents or spreadsheets into a slide in an attempt to add “credibility” to their argument. It is rarely successful, especially since the audience can’t read the document. A recent presentation I saw put up a whole police report on cyber crime statistics onto a slide and then proceeded to read from it in its entirety. Really. Other misuse involves getting excited about fonts, clipart and animations - all of which should only be used if it aids the understanding and attention of the audience. No one is impressed by flying words or cute smiley faces. The good people at have put together some other Powerpoint sins to avoid here.

I’ve put together some rules below which should serve to clarify what makes a good presentation – I guarantee that if you follow them your next presentation will be a massive improvement on the last one.


11 Rules for Better Presentations

  1. Craft your speech first, then create the slides. If you do it the other way around you will make yourself look superfluous to the presentation (“as this slide says….” etc).

  2. Keep your ideas simple and to the point. There is an argument to suggest that slides should only show the main points in your story and nothing else.
  3. Keep words to a minimum on each slide. Remember that we find it difficult to read and listen at the same time, so if your audience is reading, they are not listening to you and vice versa.
  4. Consider the room, time, group type, group numbers and other presentations they may have already sat through that day.
  5. Engage your audience every few minutes.
  6. Do not include animations or transitions without a purpose - be brutal!
  7. Practice, practice, practice: time yourself and speak a lot more slowly than feels natural.
  8. No cheesy images or clipart. Ever. There are many free licence or paid professional stock photos out there to take advantage of and, if used well, can make a big impact to the effectiveness of your story-telling.
  9. Never use sound effects - for no reason other than they are incredibly dated.
  10. Use video clips if appropriate and make they are short, on point and serve a purpose.
  11. Do not create handouts by simply printing slides. If you must have handouts, make sure they are well presented, with backup information, credentials, proper summaries and, if it is a sales presentation, include a call to action.

Good luck with your next presentation!

[This article was originally written for The Rich Daily and can be viewed here]

Katie Russo