10 Ways to Ruin a Presentation

How to ruin a presentation

How do you ruin a presentation? It’s not that difficult.

I just finished reading a great article in the June 2013 edition of the Harvard Business review by Chris Anderson, the curator of TED. The article, entitled How to Give a Killer Presentation, contains a wealth of insights into how TED helps its speakers prepare for their TED Talk; it also contains some solid nuggets of wisdom that will help improve any speech or presentation.


There is a nice sidebar to Anderson’s article in which he says that although it might be hard to give a great talk, it’s very easy to blow it. He then sets out 10 common mistakes that TED advises its speakers to avoid. They are as follows:

1.  Take a really long time to explain what your talk is about.

2.  Speak slowly and dramatically. Why talk when you can orate?

3.  Make sure you subtly let everyone know how important you are.

4.  Refer to your book repeatedly. Even better, quote yourself from it.

5.  Cram your slides with numerous text bullet points and multiple fonts.

6.  Use lots of unexplained technical jargon to make yourself sound smart.

7.  Speak at great length about the history of your organization and its glorious achievements.

8.  Don’t bother rehearsing to check how long your talk is running.

9.  Sound as if you’re reciting your talk from memory.

10.  Never, ever make eye contact with anyone in the audience.

The only point with which I am not completely in agreement is the second one. While a speaker should never be overdramatic and should not speak too slowly, in my experience more people speak too fast than the opposite. You need to allow your audience time to absorb what you have said. Speaking at the right pace and with well-timed pauses will help in this regard.

But if you want to ruin a presentation, the other points are spot on. Check the list against some of your recent presentations. Get feedback from people in the audience. If you find yourself making any of these mistakes, you’ve found an area to work on for your next presentation. 

The entire article by Chris Anderson is well worth the read. If you do not have access to the print version of the Harvard Business Review (HBR), you are in luck. The article is on the HBR website (at least as of the date of this post) and can be found here.

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  1. Thanks for sharing this, John. There’ve been some great articles on the HBR site recently, like a whole series of really punchy ones by Nancy Duarte.

    I agree with you about Chris’s 2nd point (“Speak slowly”). When I read it, I got a bit confused about whether he was saying these are things to do or to avoid! (That’s the danger of a negative list – easy to misinterpret the takeaways.) There’ve been a couple of TED talks where I think the person spoke too fast e.g. the often-cited talk by Sir Ken Robinson (although he paused well too).

    It’s fascinating to hear that TED starts working with speakers at least 6 months before their talk. That’s how much work such world-class speeches can take!

    Anyway, these are the HBR articles by Nancy Duarte:
    http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2012/12/avoid_these_five_mistakes_in_y.html (At the end it links to another 6 of her posts on HBR)
    http://blogs.hbr.org/video/2012/12/create-slides-people-will-reme.html (Video)

    1. Thanks very much for the comment, Craig. I have read some of Nancy Duarte’s stuff on the HBR site. Thanks very much for sharing the links so that I have them in one spot.

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