Last week I had the privilege of attending and presenting at the Pennsylvania Psychological Association Convention. It was great to see old friends and to make new ones. I also sat in on several workshops and other presentations. The speakers were obviously experts in their fields, and were very generous in sharing their information. However, many of them sabotaged their delivery with common blunders (all of which I have committed myself in the past and continue to work on).

Here are five such blunders, along with suggestions for improvement. Keep these in mind if you are going to be presenting to professional audiences:

1. Reading from a lectern

Very few people can spontaneously deliver content in a fluid and compelling manner without referring to any notes whatsoever. Even comedian George Carlin kept a stack of 3x5 cards on a table and occasionally glanced at them during his live performances.

But there's a difference between a quick look at one's notes, and reading verbatim from a paper, especially if your voice drones on in monotone. It's a guaranteed way to lose your audience. During one such session I looked around and noticed several people checking their phones or looking very bored.

The obvious solution to not reading from the lectern is to know your material well, and to rehearse it several times. That does take time, but you will come across as much more polished and professional - which could lead to more opportunities for you.

2. Reading from Powerpoint slides

Although many experts advise that Powerpoint slides should be mainly images with very few words, that's often not suitable for academic presentations. We clinicians do want to see data and concepts spelled out. However, we don't want to see the presenter simply read one slide after another.

Instead of using the slides as a script, just list the headings and fill in the details with your own words. Tell us why these concepts are important, or what else we should know that is related. As above, this does require extra preparation, but it makes for a much better audience experience.

3. Small fonts on Powerpoint slides

16- or 18-point font is very easy to read on a computer screen. But from the middle or back of a meeting room, these fonts look tiny. It's even worse when the presentation includes tables with several rows and columns.

Some presenters acknowledge that "I know many of you can't see this" and try to be helpful by reading from the slide. Not the ideal solution (see above).

A better fix would be to use fonts that are large enough to be seen by everyone.

Larger font means there will be less content on each slide. But that is rarely a problem. Just because you have 5 or 8 factors to list in relation to a particular topic, there's no reason why they all need to appear on the same slide. In fact, each factor could have its own slide.

4. Complex data on Powerpoint slides

Graphs, tables and other visual representations can be quite informative. However, sometimes they have way too much data to absorb within the time that they are projected on the screen. I've seen graphs with five or six intersecting lines, each a different color - which is often washed out because of the room's lighting.

Therefore, if you do post a graph or table with several variables, include a text box that summarizes the most salient information. For example, here's a slide from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Essentially it shows that 2-week intervals between appearances in drug court were instrumental in reducing the number of offenses for high risk offenders with antisocial personality disorder or prior histories of drug abuse treatment (shown in green and gold lines) than for low risk offenders (red and blue lines). Imagine trying to decipher what this means from the back of the room.

Now here's the same image, with a summary statement attached. The audience has a better idea of what to look for as the presenter is explaining the data.


5. Cramming too much content toward the end

This is the one that is most difficult for me to manage. I want to give the audience the full extent of my presentation. But frequently there is not enough time, so I end up rushing through 20 slides during the last five minutes. It may help me fulfill my goal, but the audience probably absorbs very little of it.

Ideally we should prepare just enough content for the time allotted. However, that's hard to predict exactly, even if we’ve done it before. Audience questions can often take more time than we anticipated. Late starts, long breaks and technical problems can also eat into presentation time.

What works for me is to set the pace of the content in advance. For example, by the 15-minute mark I should be on Slide #10. If I'm way behind, I'll skip a couple of less important slides in the middle, to make sure there is time to cover the content toward the end.


Related post: Engage Your Audience in Your Presentations