Presentation Skills: 3 Huge Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

You’ve been working for weeks, brushing up on your presentation skills and creating the perfect slideshow for a big meeting with some high profile clients.

The day is here.

The information is memorised. The slides are in order. You got to the room early to set up. You’re ready. Your opening joke makes the group laugh (score!) and your first two slides prompt some questions (yes!) But then …

… something happens. People start checking their phones, typing emails, zoning out. For the rest of the hour, you ask questions but no one seems interested. What happened? You lost your audience. And I bet I know why.
When it comes to designing presentations, most of us are stuck in a rut. We design with our own needs in mind instead of the audience’s, resulting in antiquated ClipArt, too many words on the screen, and 50 slides crammed into an hour-long meeting.

We don’t have to live like this! Here are the biggest mistakes I see presenters make, along with some quick and easy tips for improving your presentation skills.

1. Designing like it’s 1995

Images have come a long way since PowerPoint became the standard for presentations, and it’s time to start using them to your advantage.

One of my favourite tricks is to take up the entire screen (or most of it) with an image and type text over it. There are some great examples of this at Slides Carnival, a free website with amazing templates that you can download straight into PowerPoint and use immediately. (Pro tip: My favourite template is Ulysses. It’s simple and creative and makes a big impact)


An example slide from Tess’s favourite template, Ulysses.
Speaking of images, let’s all agree today that we’ll stop using clipart. Quit it cold turkey. Never use it again! It makes a presentation look amateurish and dull. Instead, use these websites to download crisp, professional images that will make your presentation interesting: Pexels (free images under a Creative Commons license that you can use in most anything) and iStock Photo (a paid site with many more images to choose from – perfect if your company has the budget for it).

2. Relying on PowerPoint to tell the story

Commit this to memory – YOU are the presentation, not the slide show. When rely on the presentation to do the talking, you end up with too many slides with too much text on them.
Instead, design backwards. Use the notes section of the PowerPoint slide to type out everything you want to say. Then, decide what is most important and put only that on the slide. Spoiler alert: You’ll find that you only need a few things per slide and can speak to the rest, or put it on a handout that can be distributed during the meeting or emailed out after.
Also, consider the types of slides you’re creating. We all use three types of slides in our presentations, and the best ones have a mix of all three:
  • Quick Hits – slides that are on the screen for less than 30 seconds (like a transition slide)
  • Information Flashes – slides that take about a minute to cover (they have little information on them, usually 1-2 major points)
  • Talking Points – slides that take up to three minutes to get through because there is so much information to cover (but no slide should ever take longer than that)
An example of an Information Flash slide
When you rely solely on the PowerPoint presentation to tell the story, it means you’re using too many Talking Points slides. Yes, these slides are important, but they can also be overwhelming or boring to the audience. Use Talking Points slides sparingly, and remember that you can always provide a handout or follow up with an email with critical information.

3. Not asking questions

Not asking questions during a presentation is a recipe for disaster because your audience needs interaction. Think about the last time you listened to someone talk for an entire meeting without asking your opinion. It’s terrible!
Make a point of incorporating questions in your presentation, even if you already know the answer. People like to share what they know, and questions, especially open-ended ones, keep everyone engaged. Here are some of my favourite questions to ask:
  • What thoughts do you have on ___?
  • How do you feel about ___?
  • What’s your biggest challenge with ____?
Try and incorporate questions throughout your presentation, not just in the last slide.
There’s an even better way to ask questions though, and it’s with a little exercise called Pair/Share. It’s when the presenter asks pairs or groups to discuss something and then share with everyone. Here’s what it looks like in action:
  • In a quarterly business review, before going through the revenue chart line by line, the presenter puts the chart up and asks the table group to talk through what they think the biggest challenges and successes were during the quarter.
  • In a project kickoff meeting, the presenter has everyone turn to a partner and take two minutes to share what they’re most excited about for the project.
These easy tips will improve your skills and transform your presentations into something people actually want to listen to, which is what we all really want to see when we go to a meeting but rarely ever get. By updating your templates and images, not putting everything on the screen, and incorporating questions, you can emerge as a presentation superhero. And that means they’ll also listen to what you say. Which is what you really want too.
Tess Ausman is the CEO of CLT Leads, a virtual leadership development company that transforms young professionals into confident, self-aware leaders. Basically her mission is to help you be a badass at work so you can take charge of your career and have the impact you’re craving.