10 Business Presentation Mistakes That Will Get You Fired, Demoted or Ignored
The vast majority of business presentations suck. We know this. Usually we blame PowerPoint.
There’s lots of advice out there meant to help us. But if you work in corporate America, I would suggest you ignore most of it because most ‘business presentation advice’ doesn’t focus on presentations, it focuses on speeches.
I don’t know about your experience, but my boss gets pissed off when I try to give speeches on quarterly financial performance. He gets especially annoyed when I channel JFK, slip into a Bostonian accent and declare that:
Ya, that will get you fired.
‘Business presentations’ are not speeches, but they are how we communicate. They are the lingua franca of corporate America. They combine words, images and delivery to communicate our message. And they are hard.
Because being great at communication has always been hard.
Here are ten other mistakes that, if they don’t get you fired, will hurt your career or, at the very least, make you look like an idiot.
Mistake #1: Equating a Business Presentation with an opportunity to ‘wing-it’
Really the only place to start. A simple truth.
If your meeting is important enough to prepare a presentation for, it is important enough to prepare a great presentation for. Put in the effort. If you don’t, you have no one to blame but yourself.
I won’t belabor this. It is assumed.
- Put in the work
Mistake #2: Worrying about your opening joke, your ‘intro’, your hair
This is not a performance. It is business. Your presentation to your board, boss, customer, or investor is not a TED Talk. It is not a speech. It is not public speaking.
‘Sit-down’ business presentations around a board table are fundamentally different to public speaking and require a completely different approach to communication.
- That your message is written down. Not every word. Just enough that you aren’t needed.
- Clarity of purpose, tailored to the need of your audience (what is their question?)
- Transparent, ruthless structure (a well constructed answer)
- Facts, in high resolution
- Style, minimalist is design
- Write, write, write
- Focus on structure
- Don’t be the joke. Skip the joke
Mistake #3: Not identifying the ‘Power Behind The Throne’
Who is your audience? Who has power? Who makes decisions?
Sometimes it is not clear who the real decision makers are, or where power lies. This is especially true when you are presenting to a group, are an ‘outsider’ or are not part of the company.
Once you have identified who you are really speaking to, determine what they are like. How do they like to consume information? What is the best way to reach them?
- Profile your Audience – understand the power, personality, communication preferences and sources of resistance amongst your audience (who you are really presenting to, what are they like)
Mistake #4: Presenting a topic, rather than answering a question
What Is In It For Them?
The most effective formula to ensuring your audience connects with your material and is engaged with your presentation is to give a presentation about something they care about.
The best way to do this is to answer a question that they have. Rather than presenting about ‘Customer Relationship Management Software’, instead a presentation that answers the question ‘Our CRM software is old, does it need to be replaced?’ will prove to be much more relevant and topical for the audience.
Here are a couple of examples:
- Question: ‘Do I have the problem your product solves?’
- NOT Topic: ‘This is what our product does’
- Question: ‘What is the best plan for accelerating growth?’
- NOT Topic: ‘2015 Marketing Plan’
This process will very often result in much greater clarity around what EXACTLY the presentation should focus on.
The topic Customer Relationship Management Software could, for example, answer:
- ‘Our CRM Software is old, does it need to be replaced?’, or
- ‘Our CRM software is inefficient and needs to be replaced, how do we go about installing and selecting an alternative?’
The resulting presentations for each of these questions, as you can image, would be very different.
- Always present a ‘topic’ that is the answer to a question that is in the mind of your audience
- Plant the question in the mind of the audience before answering it
Mistake #5: Not having an introduction
There are many ways to start a presentation.
The best approach for business presentations is with an introduction that is designed to plant the question you are there to answer into the minds of the audience.
To do this:
- Craft an introduction that outlines the background, or context, of the situation. Include all facts that are already known to your audience
- Next, present the catalyst that has resulted in your audience having a question. The catalyst is what has changed or happened that has given rise to a question
- Then, explicitly or implicitly state the question
- Spend the rest of your presentation answering the question.
Use Barbra Minto’s SCQ framework to help you.
- Craft an introduction that lays out the background and catalyst for the presentation
- Ensure the introduction ‘tees-up’ the question you are planning on answering
Mistake #6: Failing to structure your argument
Your job is to communicate your answer to your audience’s question.
When the audience cannot follow your logic, or the flow of your argument, they become frustrated. They get pissed off. They stop paying attention to you.
Your audience wants to follow what you are saying; the logic of your argument. But they need your help. Structure is how you signpost where you are going and help your audience internalize what you are saying.
Listen, structure is a good thing. But sometimes it just isn’t easy. Expect half your time to be spent working on structure.
- Adopt common presentation structure blueprints
- Focus on structure obsessively
- Apply MECE principles (mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive)
- Limit your lists to no more than 5 items. If you have more, bucket these ideas into a new set of groupings, one level of abstraction higher
Mistake #7: Only asserting; failing to demonstrate
You know what they say about opinions. And everyone has one.
Your credibility skyrockets when you demonstrate the truth of your assertions through data, facts, or very compelling logic. Data is a good thing. Footnotes are a good thing. Use them.
- Use data, lots of it
- Make sure the data is correct! Triple check.
- When presenting data, make sure your charts tell the truth (and do not distort the data in unintended ways)
- Eliminate Chart Junk
Mistake #8: Underestimating or overestimating the role of design
Design is important. It just isn’t everything.
Your objective is not to create a pretty deck. The objective is to communicate your point (your answer to your audience’s question).
Having said this, design matters. The medium is the message. I can’t take you seriously if you can’t be bothered to make your deck look good. Because it really isn’t that hard to meet a minimum standard.
But don’t allow design to get in the way of communicating your point, presenting your data.
Adopt a minimalist design ethos – not because it is inherently superior, but because it strips out the extraneous. It allows us to focus on that which is most important.
- Recognize that many people think visually – Explain concepts and ideas with pictures as well as text
- Get yourself a good looking template, that is minimalist in design (Use the SlideHeroes template, its free; or checkout GraphicRiver
- Adopt a message driven slide layout: Reserve each slide for a single primary idea; write concise two line headlines that make your main assertion or introduce your primary idea
- Don’t use pie charts, crazy animations, 3D, or random special effects. Just don’t.
- Create slides that are scannable – Employ the three second rule – people should be able to ‘get’ the slide in 1, 2, 3 seconds
Mistake #9: Not worrying about your hair
Have I convinced you of the fundamental differences between sit-down business presentations and public speaking? Good.
Now ignore what I said.
Because you better believe business presentations are a performance.
Just not in the same way speeches are. And Performance is certainly NOT where you should start. But once your deck is in place, once your answer to the question is nailed, a focus on your performance in the room can make a huge difference.
- Develop a script
- Practice, practice, practice
- Be yourself
- Communicate with body and voice
- Plan for answering questions
- Have conviction in the material you are presenting. If you don’t, work harder Demonstrate passion and enthusiasm. If you are not feeling it, drink some coffee. Fake it. If you can’t fake it, have someone else present
Mistake #10: Not having next steps
You need next steps. You need a call to action. The objective of your presentation should be for your audience to DO SOMETHING as a result of you presenting your material.
Examples of possible next steps include:
- Try your product
- Move to the next stage in your sales funnel
- Go away to get the necessary investment to do what you’re recommending
- Approve a course of action
Identify what your Next Step is early in your process, make sure it strongly influences your approach to creating your presentation, and make sure the finished product compels your audience to take that step.
- Identify what your desired next step(s) are early on in the development process
- Design the presentation so that the next steps are articulated and are the expected, logical consequence of your answer you have presented
Design the presentation so that the next steps are:
- The expected, logical consequence of your answer
- Desirable – your audience wants to do them
Sit-down business presentations are hard. And it is very easy to fall into any number of traps and create something that fails to deliver.
But with effort, and focus on the right things, your presentation can become something that will get you noticed, get your point across, and progress your career.