5 out of 6 presentations are dull. How did it get this bad?

How many presentations have you seen?

What percentage of those would you say were good? - like really good. As in, you leave the room buzzing and full of inspiration? you walk out feeling excited by what you've seen and stimulated by the knowledge put on display?



When I ask this question in training sessions the answer that comes back is usually somewhere around 15%, and that's the positive ones...

That seems crazy, only 1 in 6 (ish) presentations is considered by the audience to be any good.

Let that sink in. Then ask yourself how we got here.

The Problem


There are some amazing businesses round the world. Where I work in Newcastle there is a massively exciting boom in start up companies. Loads of people pursuing their dream to produce the next life changing app, or glow in the dark tarmac, or an exclusive line of premium gin. There are coaches and trainers, media folks and hipsters, more finance experts than you can count. Ubisoft made Assassins Creed here and with the opening of Proto (a specialist centre in VR, AR, and all things tech) the digital sector will get another boost of life and funding.

But I'm willing to bet that most of those companies give very little thought to how they talk about the amazing stuff they do, and that is a great shame.

Because at some point you will have to come out from behind the social media campaign, stop letting the slick marketing hide you, and actually talk to someone...face to face. We all know this. Presentation is a fundamental part of how modern businesses communicate with each other, with investors, and with clients. It is an inevitable and essential, just like email, and team meetings, and bad coffee at events.

So why, oh why is it ok for 5 out of 6 presentations to miss the mark and waste everybody's time?

The answer I suspect is simple.

The Cause


We're taught from a young age to be wary of standing up and "showing off" in front of others. So we avoid it. Then later, in secondary school group presentations are compulsory. We're told to get up and talk to the class. No support is given, no training, its like asking kids to play football without explaining the rules. Predictably everyone hates these (particularly the teachers) and there is embarrassment and reading from the slides galore. I often come across people who felt embarrassment or humiliation so acute it has stayed with them and is the reason they hate presenting years later.

If higher education is your thing, the same happens at University. Group talks which are almost entirely crap. Added to which we get to see presentations every day from lecturers, staff, visitors and classmates. Some of which may be interesting or inspiring I admit, but for the most part it is more bad PowerPoint and mumbled words spoken by people obscured behind lecterns.

If we go into business, we get the same. Sitting for long hours in dull meetings, dry conferences or disappointing training days. Occasionally there will be a talk which sparks excitement, a keynote of particular note or a class act PowerPoint, but typically these stand out presentations come from people who present for a living, who have made a commitment to learning and honing the skills. They are clearly a breed apart, or so we tell ourselves.

For everyone else, we learn by watching and get to know what's expected. When it's our turn, when we get the role that requires public speaking, or it's our turn to present at a conference. We take a deep breath, step out, and do all the things we hated watching as audience members.

And so the cycle continues.

At no point is it standard practice to reflect on the delivery of the presentation and work out what went well and what didn't (as you would if a client didn't respond well to a marketing plan).

At no point is it generally accepted that this is a vital skill for life and we all should get some training in it. Because everyone can learn to be good.

At no point is it considered a priority to really put time thought and money into the "how" as well as the "what" of a presentation.

All because at no point are we told there is another way...but there is.

The solution

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Look to your own presentations and put serious effort into them; because your audiences deserve not to be nodding off. But more importantly by making sure what you do is good, you can set and example and guarantee that the audience will remember you for the right reasons.

Here are my top tips for making sure what you're doing is going to hit the mark.

  • Give yourself enough time to put the presentation together - no one likes a last minute stressful rush.

  • Put your audience first. If they don't care about your talk there is no point in doing it. Ask yourself why they should care, then make sure your content connects with that. It is all about them, not about you.

  • If you feel like it is a bit rubbish - it probably is. Trust your instincts rather than a thinking it has to be a certain way.

  • Put some of your emotion in. People connect with people, not graphs, and people engage emotionally as well as logically.

  • Get someone to watch it. Theatre, film, dance, writing, none of these would dream of making something public without the director, choreographer, or editor checking it . Getting external feedback is crucial to knowing what you've got is good. Its also the place someone like me can be really valuable.

Currently we accept that in 85% of presentations we'll be bored to tears, but we can change that. Look at your processes and create a culture of constructive criticism for internal presentations, where everyone can learn and practice. Then implement that for external communications. Decide that whenever you talk or present its going to be something your audience remembers, and don't accept the idea that communication is a secondary priority. If you can't communicate you make much of your hard work worthless, but its not all doom and gloom. You can learn to be a strong speaker, you can decide to put the effort in, and we can create a culture where it is a rare disappointment when a speaker bores their audience to sleep.

Presentation can be powerful. It can be exciting. It can even be fun, and if you're not sure where to start I'm here to help.

Like this article, drop me a comment or message and I be delighted to chat to you more.

Duncan Yellowlees