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Eight Things Not To Say During a Presentation

by Kevin Eikenberry on October 7, 2013

PWe have all sat through many presentations in our professional lives. Unfortunately far too many of them are, shall we say, “less-than-awesome”. Unfortunately, we see some of the causes for failures over and over. In other words the wrong things get repeated by those who aren’t thinking, or don’t know any better.

With that in mind, here are some things you have likely heard in many presentations, that aren’t worth repeating – and why. So without any further setup, here are eight things not to say in your next (or any) presentation.

“You probably can’t read this but . . .” Ok, if we can’t read it, why are you showing it to us? Here is usually why – because you didn’t take time to create a slide or image that we could read. Unfortunately this phrase is often followed by the presenter turning toward the screen and fumbling to make their points for the too full, too busy and ineffective slide. If you don’t think we will be able to see it, fix it!

“As you can clearly see. . .” Usually when people say this, we can’t “clearly see”. You have provided a chart or graph to make a valuable point, and you are intimately aware of the point, and how the slide shows it. We on the other hand are seeing the slide for the first time. Help us “clearly see” by explaining your art work so we can be moved by the point you want to make.

“I didn’t really have time to prepare but . . .” If you tell me that, you have just informed me this is going to be painful, and my time isn’t important to you – and neither of these things set you up to succeed. Maybe you aren’t as well prepared as you should be, and if that is true, do your best, don’t tell us, and remember the pain so that next time you will be prepared.

“Wow – I know I am out of time – but let me go through these last 15 slides quickly.” Really? How much of the rest of this are we going to retain or care about? (and we don’t believe it will be quick either.) The time to realize you are behind isn’t when someone is waving their arms at you or making slashing motions across their throat to get your attention. Again, preparation will solve this in most cases. Knowing how long it takes you will help you adjust on the fly. Questions or conversations might lead you towards running long – and remember it isn’t about your slides, it is about your message. Do everything you can to make sure your key points are made, regardless of how many slides might be left.

“I have a lot of information to cover, so let me get started.” This statement is the kiss of death to your audience. When we hear this as your audience, we are already expecting to be bored, and we know you have your focus in the wrong place. Look up the word “cover” in a thesaurus and you will find synonyms like bury, obscure and hide. When people open with “I have lots to cover”, you can be sure that the information won’t be clear. The next time you feel like you have too much to cover, get out your scalpel. Decide what the audience most needs to be successful and cut everything else out.

“I’m sorry for the technical difficulties.” Yeah, so are we. And usually, though not always, they could have been avoided if you would have done your homework and checked out your equipment before the meeting/presentation started. Why didn’t you? When it truly is unavoidable, rather than getting flustered, immediately focus on your group and how you can get going – even if it is without your technology (and if possible have someone else fix it while you get started).

“Does anyone have a laser pointer?” (or “I’m not sure how this clicker works”). Did you feel your eyes roll when you read those words? Listen – we are in your audience ready to listen to you. The least you can do is be prepared enough to have your pointer or have tried out the clicker ahead of time, right?

“Any questions?” There is nothing truly wrong with this question, except when it is always asked – which is after you are already finished (and everyone knows it). While there is much I could say about this (and will in another post soon), the short answer is – when you ask for questions at the end, you either don’t get any, or the ones you get aren’t focused on the most important points in your talk. You want to close strong, making your most important points in your most persuasive way. That will never happen during a random Q&A. The bottom line is ask for questions early and often, but not as the last thing you do.

Maybe you are thinking some of these are little things, and perhaps they are. But it is the little things that communicate much about us; and if we want our message received by others, we want every possible thing in our favor.

I have tried to make this light, and even a bit humorous. Remember that it is only humorous to you because you have seen all of these things before and you know they don’t help you communicate successfully.

While there may be a place for lightness and humor in your presentations, saying things like these aren’t funny for real and if you want to make a successful presentation, you will do the things necessary that make these statements unnecessary.

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{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Randall Walker October 7, 2013 at 9:13 am

Kevin, this is a great post. I wish everyone would read it and abide by the recommendations. Oh how many times I have heard all of these comments.
It truly hard to believe it has been 20 years. Congratulations to you and your outstanding success.

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Kevin Eikenberry October 8, 2013 at 7:02 am

Thanks Randall!

Kevin :)

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Nikki October 7, 2013 at 4:17 pm

Great points Kevin. One additional line that I dislike is ‘you may already know this…’ – so why are you telling us again?? It’s another switch off line. Nikki.

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Kevin Eikenberry October 8, 2013 at 7:02 am

Excellent point Nikki. Know your audience well enough to know if they know. and if you aren’t sure, tell them, just don’t use that prelude. Thanks!

Kevin :)

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Robby Slaughter October 8, 2013 at 10:19 am

If it’s ever been said before in a presentation (especially enough to be a cliché) you should not say it.

This applies to everyday conversation as well, but when you’re speaking to a group you are potentially wasting the time of multiple people instead of just one.

Here are a few more phrases to remove from your vocabulary:

“Know what I mean?”
“You probably already know this.”
“Fair enough.”

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Mark October 11, 2013 at 6:37 pm

Or how about…We are going to wait another ten minutes before we start, even though the program stated we would start now. (You guys who came on time don’t count)

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Kevin Eikenberry October 12, 2013 at 11:24 am

Mark – I wish I had thought of that one…. the list would have had nine on it!

Kevin :)

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Jay October 14, 2013 at 11:34 am

I greatly appreciated this article, although I’m afraid the audience who could benefit the most from this will be precisely the group who fails to read it. Having been on both ends of this, there are two items I’d add to your list.

The dreaded “everyone” comment, as in “Does everyone have this before I move on?” It is ALWAYS met with silence, which leads to more silence as the presenter waits for a response. Exactly who is supposed to answer this and speak for everyone?

The second, and to me, more critical aspect, is the failure to tailor your presentation to your audience. I’ve walked out of more than one shortlist presentation where the PM is back-slapping the project team and congratulating everyone on “saying everything we hit in rehearsals”, while failing to realize that they put so much material in a short period that the client got whiplash from seeing 50 slides go by, to the point where the client’s body language was signalling that they had clearly gotten tired of trying to follow and just gave up and sat back.

Thanks for article though, I second every point you made in there.

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Kevin Eikenberry October 14, 2013 at 3:15 pm

Great points Jay, and yes, my list could be 18 and eight for sure.

Thanks for your contributions, they are right on.

Kevin :)

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Leroy ward October 14, 2013 at 11:45 am

Great post. One other phrase not to say is “on this slide….” I have heard presenters say this for almost every slide in their deck. It’s the presentation of Chinese Water Torture. You never think they will reach the end!

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Allen October 16, 2013 at 2:23 pm

How about: “Can everyone hear me?” or “Can everyone see the slides?” Let’s face it, who would answer “no” the first question? As to the second question, why didn’t you check the presentation room, your screen size, and the font size you used before you got to the meeting?

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Kevin Eikenberry October 17, 2013 at 7:18 am

Good stuff – thanks Allen!

Kevin :)

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Wendy Chrisman October 20, 2013 at 11:44 am

All of these are great points. I’d like to contextualize a few of them, as I have three writing classes about to begin presenting their intensive research projects. Because these are art and design college students, their presentations will be uploaded to digital portfolios. They only have thirty minutes to present and conduct a Q & A, so I instruct them to add all pertinent elements even if they can’t cover them all in their actual presentations. This allows future audiences easy access to all relevant materials, and the students can keep their work updated for years to come. This may not apply to static presentations that have a singular audience, but I think it’s a good business model for those fields requiring revision and recycling of work.

I also instruct my students to ask if the sound and sight elements are accessible to everyone, even after they have checked for themselves. Just because the presenter can see and hear everything form the back of the room doesn’t mean that everyone in the audience can, and if they can’t both parties have wasted their time.

For both of these points I think the trick is in the wording. Find ways to sound professional when you say this, and not just as an afterthought.

One point I’d like to add is saying “Sorry for the spelling/grammar errors.” Ideal would be not having them in the first place. What’s better though, to acknowledge them if they are there, or ignore them altogether and appear as if you didn’t notice or care about them?

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Kevin Eikenberry October 23, 2013 at 5:32 am

Wendy – thanks so much for your example and your additional idea for the growing list of things not to say!

Kevin :)

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Luke Goetting November 1, 2013 at 11:33 am

#1: The “cover” thesaurus reference is brilliant and spot-on.

#2: I agree that technical difficulties can be a great opportunity for the professional presenter to separate from the amateur–a pro knows the content and can even use the situation to generate audience engagement while the amateur is lost without each 500-word slide!

#3. While we’re adding to the list, I’d like to propose “any visual aid that requires audio.” The amount of times I have seen the audio playback perfectly has been about 5% while the other 95% of attempts have ended up in the audience hearing nothing, getting their ears blasted or having rattling microphone / speaker feedback.

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Kevin Eikenberry November 3, 2013 at 5:50 pm

Thanks Luke – I love point #3.

Kevin :)

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Nancy Johnson November 4, 2013 at 9:55 am

Biggest mistake I make is with the time management – rushing through the last slides and the attendees are disappointed. Breaking my workshop into 3 parts and keeping track of time for each. Also prioritizing most important parts. Too much content so going back to the objective of the workshop and working from there.
Great article!

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Bria November 7, 2013 at 8:23 am

Kevin, this is an excellent article! Fortunately, when i present, Q & A are a must-part of the program and it does my heart well when an attendee quotes my slide and tells me they’re now aware.

Also, BULLET POINTS-use them. I do not as an attendee like seeing paragraphs of info on slide after slide. It’s a given that I’m going to tune out! Lol

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Buzz Windrip May 26, 2014 at 12:12 pm

Great article. This may sound biased, but I’ve noticed that presenters with a lot of pre-powerpoint experience, as in real slides, tend to be far more interesting and effective. The reason I think is that slides then were props to add value and impact to their material, and not the material itself. It was much more difficult and expensive to add text to images with older technology, so they talked to the slide rather than have the slide do the talking. Superior presentation skills are yet another reason to drop the systemic biases against older workers.

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