Rob Biesenbach

Seven Lame Excuses for Mediocre Presentations

By: Rob Biesenbach | March 13, 2014 | 

presentationsBy Rob Biesenbach

If you caught my recent Spin Sucks Pro webinar, you’ll recall I am on a mission to save the world from dull, ordinary presentations.

But one question continues to plague me: Why are good people still giving bad presentations?

It’s not like we’re lacking examples of great public speaking. We commemorate the speeches of Abe Lincoln and Martin Luther King, we celebrate the legacy of Steve Jobs, we watch the latest TED Talks.

But then we step up to the podium and subject audiences to Death by PowerPoint: Dense, wordy slides; unfocused content; lackluster delivery, and a multitude of other deadly presentation sins.

It’s a pet peeve for Gini Dietrich, who’s been known to skip out of boring presentations.

Me? I stick around and take notes, collecting fodder for a future book or blog post. (Seriously, if you’re at the podium and you see me in the audience scribbling away, I’m either totally enthralled with your content or I know I’ve found my next great cautionary tale!)

Here are some of the excuses I’ve heard for delivering a sub-par presentation, and why they don’t hold water.

1. A Captive Audience Has to Listen to Presentations

A client once explained that because the meeting we were preparing for was mandatory for employees, we would have a “captive audience.”

Of course, being physically in the room and being mentally present are two entirely different things—especially with the world of distractions offered by our cell phones.

So don’t take people’s attention for granted. Treat them like you would a paying audience. Seek not just to inform, but to entertain.

2. This is “Need to Know” Information

Okay, let’s stipulate you have vital news to share—a sure way to make money or important changes to your employees’ benefits. Even if that’s true, you’re certainly not the only source of that information.

You’re competing against Google, and the grapevine, and countless other channels. So again, don’t count on their undivided attention.

3. My Subject Matter is Dull

It’s true. Few of us get the opportunity to, say, unveil the new iPad to the world, or announce we’re donating half a billion dollars to fight AIDS.

Most presentations are more along the lines of pitching business to a prospect, explaining a new policy to employees, or justifying a budget to a boss.

But that doesn’t mean it has to be boring. There are any number of small things you can do to enliven your content:

  • Try telling a relevant story.
  • Use metaphors and comparisons to make abstract numbers meaningful.
  • Get the audience involved with some interaction, directed dialogue, or role-playing.

And, of course, whatever the topic, you should put conviction and even passion behind your words. After all, if you’re not convinced the subject is important, how do you expect your audience to care?

4. My Ideas aren’t Visual

You may not think your concepts lend themselves to exciting visuals, but with a little imagination it can be done.

Seth Godin wrote a great treatise called Really Bad PowerPoint in which he said:

Talking about pollution in Houston? Instead of giving me four bullet points of EPA data, why not read the stats but show me a picture of a bunch of dead birds, some smog, and even a diseased lung?

Get creative. What’s the emotional core of your message? When I wanted to make a point about confronting unpleasant tasks, I went though images of dirty dishes and unwashed laundry, before settling on a stalk of broccoli.

Browse stock photography sites for ideas or take your own photos.

5. I’m Better When I Wing it

Really? Are you sure?

As a trained improviser and an impatient audience member, I assure you – you can do better with some preparation.

Presentation expert Nancy Duarte practiced a full hour for every minute of one her TED Talks. Are you better than she is? Watch this talk of hers then get back to me. (You’ll also get some more great lessons on public speaking.)

6. I Don’t Have Time

Lack of time, of course, is the mother of all excuses. Allow me to quote Lao Tzu, the ancient father of Taoism:

Time is a created thing. To say ‘I don’t have time,’ is like saying, ‘I don’t want to.’

Put another way, if it’s important, you’ll make the time for it.

7. The Stakes aren’t That High

At this point, you may be saying, “I’m not giving a TED Talk, I’m just presenting to Phyllis and her team in accounting.”

If that’s the case—if it’s just not that important—consider sending an email or memo instead. There’s a whole world of communication options out there.

But if it’s a big event or a big sale, and you have a lot riding on the outcome—your business or your reputation—then isn’t it worth the time and effort to get it right?

Did I Miss Anything?

What about you? What excuses have you heard for phoning in a presentation? Or what excuses have you made yourself?

About Rob Biesenbach

Rob Biesenbach is a veteran speechwriter, public speaker, actor and author of the new book, 11 Deadly Presentation Sins: A Path to Redemption for Public Speakers. He is fighting to end dull ordinary communications in our time, making the world’s boardrooms and conference rooms safer for audiences.

  • I have a ton of respect for people who can own a room, and deliver a presentation. Personally? I would rather carve out both my eyeballs with a dull melon baller. That said, I also want to do same when sitting *through* a snooze worthy presentation. I figure – hey, shake me up! Make me want you!! Keep me interested, at the very least. Great post Rob, one people should bookmark. 🙂

  • belllindsay  Thank you, Lindsay! Yes, when I’m not taking notes for my next horror story, I do get near apoplectic when I have to sit through a terrible presentation. Who has an hour of their life to waste these days? Nobody I know.

  • All great points, Rob. I especially like the one about the person who says they’re better winging it… I’m sure that attitude got them 100% on college exams. This is a great example for communicators who sometimes use words as a crutch – as in those words written on a slide that have to be read verbatim. When I’m in a presentation and someone starts to do that, I automatically drift off and it’s hard to bring yourself back. Look forward to your Counselors Academy talk and to meeting in person!

  • martinwaxman  Great point, Martin. I do think communicators can get over-confident when they’re comfortable. Look forward to meeting you and the rest of the gang in the Keys! Was working on one of my presentations today — yes, two months in advance!

  • RobBiesenbach You weren’t kidding about making time!!

  • You probably won’t be surprised that I LOVE this! So many things about it, but first and foremost there are instances…multiple instances every week or month at least I would think, that call for us to deliver a message. It may not be “big” or “glamorous” as you pointed out, but why NOT package the message in a way that keeps everyone engaged, may keep people awake (if it’s long and dry material), and most importantly may make a difference in how a business is done, a product is perceived, or a service provided. // I can count on the ten fingers of my two hands the truly exceptional speakers I have heard in almost fifty years. Some of their material was fairly mundane (human resources policies?) but delivered well. // This is why I joined Toastmasters. I don’t have to speak to a group of 300 any time soon but groups of three may have connections that lead me to 300 and I want to be ready. My club is very small and I recently repeated (with some modifications) a speech — I repeated it to a larger more formal club as rehearsal for the district contest this weekend — it was a humbling reminder that feedback can be most productive when it is most painful or vexing, and that repetition can help us improve. This is a long way of repeating “great post!” and I think I feel a post of my own in the near future, so thanks for the thought seeds.

  • biggreenpen  Thank you so much, Paula! You do a wonderful job explaining the importance of every speaking opportunity, which in this post I probably took for granted. So I’d refer everyone to your comment as a good intro. Solid presentation skills, whether capital P or lowercase, can help you win new business, get a job, earn a raise, build trust, motivate employees, sway your condo board, strengthen a relationship, wow your boss, motivate your softball team and countless other things.
    In other words, we are always presenting. And we can always do better. And if it’s not worth striving to be better, again, it’s worth reconsidering whether to even do the presentation.
    I’ve heard great things about toastmasters, of course. Sounds like a great place to practice.

  • How bout this lame excuse? “I’m not familiar with this equipment” or “the visual’s not working right.” Whether or not the equipment fails or the visual mysteriously disappears or whatever, PPT does not make the presentation, nor does it make the presentation interesting. My fave above all though is the “I’m not real good with technology.” I just want to scream out at that point “Then why on earth are you using it?! Forget the damn slide and talk to us!”

  • speechteach912  Lame, indeed. Technology is definitely not a good excuse. I went to a workshop on Monday and the speaker held the floor for 5 hours (minus lunch and breaks) and used no slides or notes. It was all the power of his ideas and the strength of his delivery.

  • I’m starting to think more about this sort of stuff. I need to get out there and do more presenting. Do you have a post somewhere, Best Tips for First Time Presenters?
    If not, your welcome for the content idea. 🙂
    –Tony Gnau

  • T60Productions  Hi, Tony — I have a whole book on the subject! But here is the two-part blog post that started it all. It covers the 11 worst mistakes (or sins) speakers make and how to fix them:

  • RobBiesenbach T60ProductionsPerfect… thanks!

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