Presentation Myths and Folklore – Part 3

July 7, 2015

Part 1 and Part 2 of this series are already up on my blog. In this article I tackle five more common presentation myths:

“My slides help me to remember what I am supposed to say”

 “Communication is 55% visual, 38% vocal and only 7% the words that you use”

“Adding a picture or clip art to your slides makes them better ”

 “There is an optimum number of slides for a presentation”

“Our presentations are very technical so you won’t be able to teach us anything about how to give them”

1. “My slides help me to remember what I am supposed to say”

At first glance this may seem fairly innocuous, but I think is is one of the most common and damning mistakes a presenter can make. Relying on your slides to remind you what to talk about next perverts the whole process of giving a presentation.

When giving a presentation, the presenter should lead the presentation supported by their visual aids. When you rely on your slides you inevitably bring each slide up before you start talking about that sub-topic. This means the slides are now leading the presentation and the presenter has been relegated to the role of describing what the slides say.  The audience will read the slide quite quickly, and then, depending on the content of the slide, they will probably have a good idea of what it is your are about to say. This makes the presenter redundant.

In general, the best way to use slides is to start talking about a topic and then bring up the visual aid to support your statements.

2. “Communication is 55% visual, 38% vocal and only 7% the words that you use”

These statistics come from two separate studies carried out in the 1960’s by Alfred Merhabian, who was investigating how people communicate their emotions and attitudes. As with most statistics, these figures have been used to “prove” a wide range of different assertions about how you give a presentation and the relative importance of the three different aspects of a presentation.

What they don’t mean is that the words of your presentation are not important but as Mehrabian says, “when actions contradict words, people rely more heavily on actions to infer another’s feelings.”

For my part the important lesson to be learnt from these statistics is that all three aspects of your presentation, the words you say, how you say those words, and what the audience see while you say the words, have to be in-sync and giving a consistent message. If they are not consistent, the visual message will outweigh the aural message, which in turn outweighs the words spoken.

3. “Adding a picture or clip art to your slides makes them better ”

Over the last ten or fifteen years, there is a general trend in presentation skills training to promote the use of images and pictures in visual aids. Statements like “a picture is worth a 1,000 words” and “every picture tells a story” are fairly commonplace. This started with the introduction of clip art and has since expanded to include high resolution photographic images as computer processing power has increased to support the media.

While I won’t argue with the sentiment that a picture is worth 1,000 words, I do question whether adding a picture to the right of a set of bullet points is actually adding any value to a slide. A similar fate has tended to befall blogs. Often, at the start of a blog article is a picture which in some way relates to the content of the blog. The number of blogs about presentation myths, which I researched prior to writing this article, that have a picture of a unicorn  at the start is quite remarkable.

Of course an appropriate image is far better than a list of bullet points, which should be avoided at all costs.


4. “There is an optimum number of slides for a presentation”

Over the years I have heard an enormous variety in terms of the number of slides that should be used in a presentation. Anything from zero to one every 10 seconds.

The slides should be the last part of developing a presentation. Once you have worked out what you are going to say and how you are going to structure the presentation, then you can start thinking about the slides. The slides should be considered as an additional layer in your presentation which will help to make it an interesting and memorable experience for your audience. Your slides are not your presentation!

As such there is no right number.

5. “Our presentations are very technical so you won’t be able to teach us anything about how to give them”

This myth is something I come across when I am promoting my presentation skills training, but I thought it would be worth including. This view is often held by engineers, scientists and technology leaders. They believe that their technology is so specialized that anybody who has not worked in their industry, or in some cases in their company, would be unable view to help them improve their presentations.

I think this is akin to someone saying that only a sports coach who can run faster than Usain Bolt could coach Usain into running faster.

A good trainer or coach does not need a deep understanding of the topic of a presentation to help people create and deliver such a presentation. What they do need is a knowledge and understanding of both the art and science of presenting.

I wish you every success with your future presentations

All the Best



Presentation Myths and Folklore – Part 2

June 10, 2015

This is the second in a series of blogs which examines the truth behind a number of presentation myths. Part 1 is here.

In this article I examine:

“People remember more if they see it as well as hear it”

“What you have to say is so interesting it is worth over running for”

“If you don’t like looking people in the eye, look over their heads or at a point on the back wall”

“You need an ice breaker like a joke at the start of a presentation”

“If your mouth is dry, drink some water”

1. “People remember more if they see it as well as hear it”

While this is basically true, it depends on what it is people are seeing while they hear your words. Far too often people display text heavy slides in the belief that putting the text on the slide will help their audience remember what it is they have said. It won’t!

Displaying a slide full of text acts as a distraction to your presentation. Your audience will stop listening to you while they read your text. If you then say the same thing as the text on the slide, you will be accused of reading the slides, which is a serious faux pas and leads to the dreaded “death by PowerPoint”.

Alternatively if you say something different from what is displayed on your slide you will just confuse your audience.

In my humble opinion, bullet points should be banned from presentations. If you are not convinced please read the article “Ban the Bullets“.

That said, the visual aspects of your presentation are very important, and in many cases will take precedence over the spoken word. To make people remember your presentation you may want to use some pictures and diagrams that conjure up strong mental images or even better get your audience to do something, as recommended by Confucius in his saying “I hear I forget, I see I remember, I do I understand”


2. “What you have to say is so interesting it is worth over running for”

This particular myth is one I still have a problem with. I know I should always finish a presentation with in my allotted time, but knowing it and doing it are two different things.

For many people, like myself, time flies by when you are giving a presentation. You find that you know more about your subject than you thought you did, you come up with new analogies and descriptions to clarify the points you are making and all of a sudden you are at the end of your allotted time but with lots more still to say.

Your audience show no signs of boredom, but should you go on or should you shut up and sit down? In every single case the answer has to be to shut up. It doesn’t matter how well you think your presentation is going or how important the points you have yet to make are, there can be no good reason for over running.

In the extreme example, when you are one of the later speakers in a series of presentations, and the speakers before you have overrun, meaning you are late starting your presentation, my advice would be to cut your presentation short so that you still finish on the original schedule. Although you get to say less, you will be the hero of the event. Both the audience and the event organizers will appreciate your concise delivery and you will be invited back another time.

3. “If you don’t like looking people in the eye, look over their heads or at a point on the back wall”

Eye contact is very important when you are giving a presentation but for many novice presenters establishing eye contact with your audience can be daunting. The advice that is often given is to give the presentation looking at a point on the back wall, or looking at the tops of people’s heads rather than into their eyes. I think this is terrible advice. People can tell that you are not looking at them. You need to look your audience in there eyes as you give the presentation. Start by looking at the people who are giving nice “facial echoes”. The ones that are smiling back and clearly enjoying what you are saying. Then look at the others, a different person for each phrase or sentence.

4. “You need an ice breaker like a joke at the start of a presentation”

“What makes a good ice-breaker?” is a question which is often posed on on-line forums. In my view jokes and ice-breakers are the worst ways to start a business presentation. Most business audiences are not expecting a joke and are not in the right mood to laugh at it, so it will often fall flat.

The best ways to open a presentation are discussed here.

5. “If your mouth is dry, drink some water”

Having a dry mouth is one of the normal signs of nervous tension, but if you drink the water, you will find that your mouth tends to get dryer and then you will want to drink more and more. You are better to leave it to your body’s natural reaction to a dry mouth, which is to generate more saliva than to wash any saliva that is there, by drinking the water.

Sucking a mint before your presentation will help generate the saliva you need to avoid a dry mouth, and is far more effective than drinking the water. Alternatively, you can gently bite the inside of your cheeks, which will also make you salivate.

It is of course wise to have a drink to hand in case you start coughing or to act as a temporary diversion while you gather your thoughts to answer a question.


So there go another few presentation myths. In the next article in the series I will look at:

“My slides help me to remember what I am supposed to say”

 “Communication is 55% visual, 38% vocal and only 7% the words that you use”

“Adding a picture or clip art to you slides makes then better ”

 “There is an optimum number of slides for a presentation”

“Our presentations are very technical so you won’t be able to teach us anything about how to give them”

If you have any favourite myths about giving a presentation, please let me know by adding a comment below.

All the Best


Presentation Folklore and Myths – Part 1

May 19, 2015

Ask most people how to give a good presentation and the response is likely to include a few common myths that are often regurgitated. Rather than help you to give a great presentation these snippets of presentation folklore will often be a hindrance and not a help.

This is the first in a series of articles that will highlight the myths and point you in the right direction to make sure your next presentation is effective.

Common myths include:

“Tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them.”

“You shouldn’t wave you hands around when you talk”

“To reduce the nervous tension imagine that your audience is in the nude, or sitting on a toilet”

“Your slides make a good handout”

“Always ask if anyone has any questions at the end to make sure that they have understood you.”

 Unfortunately, while these things are said with the best of intentions, they are often open to being misunderstood.

  1. Tell them, tell them, tell them

The advice to “tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, and tell them what you told them” is one of the most misconstrued pieces of advice for a presentation. I’ve also heard this referred to as “Tell then how you are going to bore them. Bore them. Tell them how you bored them”.

You definitely do not want to tell people everything three times!

The first part of this statement “the tell them what you are going to tell them” does not mean put up an agenda slide, by doing so you run the risk of people thinking they know what you are going to say and assuming it will be a boring presentation which is not of interest to them.

A better approach is to start your presentation by making the audience want to listen. To engage your audience’s curiosity about the topic on which you are presenting. Not just tell them what you are going to talk about.

The last part of the statement, “tell them what you told them” means end with a summary. This is okay if you the objective of your presentation is purely information transfer but if you are trying to motivate or persuade your audience you need to end with a call to action, which tells them what you think they should do next.

The majority of presentations in business are not just about transferring information, they are about influencing, motivating and persuading people to do something. As such a summary of the information is a particularly weak ending. Your call to action is the reason you are giving your presentation so make that call to action the last thing you say before you sit down.

  1. Keep your hands still

When I was younger I went on a presentation course and was told not to wave my hands about. I was told to keep them at my side or if I found that too difficult to hold them behind my back. I think this was very bad advice. Some people, me included, naturally talk with their hands. The hand gestures emphasising and re-iterating the spoken word.  Hand gestures can convey enthusiasm and energy and make the presentation far more lively and interesting.

As long as your hand gestures are natural, don’t waste your effort trying to control them, let them emphasize the points you are making.

  1. “To reduce the nervous tension imagine that your audience is in the nude, or sitting on a toilet”

This is a tactic for combating your nerves which has no place in modern business presentations. I agree with the sentiment that your audience are just people like you or me, no more and no less and as such are nothing to be scared of. But I think there are far more successful ways of reducing any nervous anxiety. I have written about this recently in my article Handling Presentation Nerves.

  1. “Your slides make a good handout”

Slides and handouts are two different things which fulfill different purposes. If your slides make a good handout which can be easily understood and digested without your presence then they are not good slides.  Everyone is likely to be reading your slides and not listening to you.

Slides are also known as visual aids, and the clue here is in their name. Visual aids are meant to be pictures which help your audience to understand the message that you are saying. They should create strong mental images that help people to understand and remember what is you said. Handouts need to have far more information in them to replicate the spoken part of your presentation when you are no longer there.

My advice is to prepare a separate document as a handout and then hand it out after you have finished your presentation. See my article on Visual Aids

 5. “End with a Question and Answer Session”

Ending with “Has anyone got any questions?” is definitely the wrong ending for any type of presentation. You want to leave the audience with your summary or call to action ringing in their ears, not with them thinking about your answer to the last question that was asked, or even worse an embarrassing silence because nobody has any questions.

Now I’m not saying you should never ask if anyone has any questions, I always like to encourage audience participation throughout a presentation, but a Q&A session is not the best way to finish a presentation. The end of your presentation should be a call to action that encourages your audience to fulfill the objective of your presentation.


That’s all the myths I’m busting this time but in future articles I’ll tackle a few more prominent presentation myths and folklore including:

“People remember more if they see it as well as hear it”

“That what you have to say is so interesting it is worth over running for”

“If you don’t like looking people in the eye, look over their heads or at a point on the back wall”

“You need an ice breaker like a joke at the start of a presentation”

“If your mouth is dry, drink some water”

Follow my blog to get an email when the next installment is published.

All the Best

Graham Young

Handling Presentation Nerves

May 11, 2015

Being nervous when giving a presentation is perfectly normal. There are two main reasons people feel confidentnervous when giving a presentation. The first is because we are basically pack animals, we like to do what everyone around us is doing. When you are giving a presentation you are not doing what everyone else is doing. This is deeply ingrained into our psyche and there is nothing much you can do about it. The second reason is because we become conscious that people are judging us. Again it is common to become nervous when you realize people are judging you.

Many people start to worry about being nervous which makes it worse. The best approach when you realize that you are feeling nervous is to re-frame the anxiety by congratulating yourself. Tell yourself you are supposed to be nervous and that is okay because it means that you are doing it right. Don’t start worrying about being nervous just get on with the presentation.

Most people will not look as nervous as they feel. Like a duck swimming, under the water its legs are paddling furiously but all the onlooker sees is the duck gliding gracefully across the water.

Knowing your material well and having practiced it, by saying the presentation out loud beforehand, will help counter the second reason for being nervous. In particular try to memorize the first two or three opening sentences which will help you to get going when your nerves are at their worst.

Pumping up your self-confidence, creating a positive attitude to giving the presentation will also help. I have two sayings that I repeat to myself before I go into the room.  “I am Poised, Prepared, Persuasive, Positive and Powerful. I feel Composed, Confident, Convincing, Commanding and Compelling“. Repeating these phrases out loud makes me feel more positive and in control, I stand up straighter and my shoulders go back and I feel more confident.

An alternative is to Power Pose as recommended by Amy Cuddy, see her TED talk below:


Finally my last piece of advice on handling your presentation nerves is to make sure that you breathe properly. By breathing properly what I mean is taking a few deep breaths using the diaphragm before you stand up to speak. To check if you are breathing properly place your hand on your stomach and breathe in, your stomach should move outwards not inwards. If it moves inwards you are taking what is known as a chesty breath and only filling the top part of your lungs with air. A few good deep breaths will help oxygenate your blood, let your brain work better, it also has a calming effect in its own right.

So don’t let nerves get in the way of giving a great presentation, the time to start worrying is when you are not nervous before a presentation as it probably means you haven’t given enough thought to what you are about to do.

Never let an audience get ahead of you

January 27, 2015

Letting the audience get ahead of you is one of the most common ways of killing a good presentation.

Once your audience know what you are going to say next, or even just think that they know what you are going to say next, there is a strong tendency for them to switch off and start thinking about other things. They will get bored waiting for you to say it and get on to the next point.

But how can an audience get ahead of you?

There are many ways for an audience can get ahead of you, if you let them. One of the most common ways is when you put up a slide with several bullet points on it and start working your way down the list. Before you are even through the first sentence describing the first bullet point, your audience will have read the slide. If the bullets are self explanatory, then they will get ahead of you. They will have caught the gist of what you are going to say and then have to wait for you to say it. While they are waiting, their minds will wander and you will have to work much harder to recapture their attention.

Using the line by line reveal facility in PowerPoint, will reduce the scale of the problem but still does not cure it. If you bring up the bullet point first and then start talking about it, you have still let the audience get ahead of you, and you will be telling them “old news”, as they have already read the headline. If you have to use bullet points, bring them up after you have talked about the topic to reinforce what it is you have said. Better still uses some pictures or even some physical props to help get your message across and leave the bullet points on your speaker notes.

Of course, handing out printed copies of the whole presentation before the event is another classic way of allowing the audience to get ahead of you. Have you ever looked at the audience during the first key note speech at a conference? Most of them will still be scanning through the handouts working out which presentations they think will be worth listening to, not paying the slightest attention to what the key note speaker is saying.

In the same vain, putting up an agenda slide at the start of a presentation is another way for your audience to “get ahead”. I know it is fairly common practise to have an agenda slide at the start of a presentation but I think this is done more out of habit than for the benefit to your audience. How many feature films do you know that start with an agenda? Agenda or contents pages are only relevant to printed documents so that the reader can skip to the part they are most interested in. Do you want your audience to skip to the part of your presentation they are most interested in, and ignore the rest?

Presentations need to have a structure, so that your audience can understand how you have taken them to where they are now. But this structure does not need to be broadcast in advance in can be revealed as you go along.

To keep an audience listening you need to build in some suspense and tension just like in a television drama or a play. Don’t give the game away by letting them see a précis of your talk before you have a chance to speak.

All the very best for your future presentations




Eye Contact in Presentations

January 12, 2015

In this article we are looking at the importance of eye contact in public speaking. As Edwin Starr sang in his 1978 disco hit, it is all about “Eye to Eye Contact”.

Look a person in the eye and smile at them and they will smile back. It is part of our inbred human nature. I’m sure you have all seen the bumper stickers, smile and the whole world smiles with you. This basic human nature is a wonderful ally when you are presenting.

Another basic instinct is to avoid eye contact when you are telling someone a lie. These two traits emphasise the importance of eye contact when you are presenting.

Ideally, you should look each person in the eye for about 1 to 3 seconds, the time it takes to say a sentence or make a point. Moving randomly around the room to ensure everyone gains the benefit and feels that you are talking directly to them. With a large audience, where it is not possible to make personal eye contact, split the room into four or six areas and look to each area in turn. The effect will be that everyone in that area will think you are looking at him or her.

With a smaller audience, there will be some people who give better facial feedback to your eye contact than others. They will smile more and look like they are enjoying the presentation more. These are good people to look at when you first start the presentation. They will boost your confidence and calm your nerves but once you are get going and are into your stride be careful not to favour these people too much. They will get more out of your presentation but it will be to the detriment of the others.

I have heard some presentation trainers and coaches suggest that if you are too shy to look people in the eye, to look just above their heads or at the back of the room. It doesn’t work! People can tell you are not looking at them. They all start thinking “What is he (or she) looking at, what is so interesting on the back wall?”

When you are giving a sales presentation, a useful trick is to identify the decision makers in the audience beforehand and ensure you give them the majority of your eye contact.

When I used to run half-day seminars, I would always get a lower rating from the people I did not look at much. I know now, that you have to look at everyone, not just the people who are easy to look at or who return eye contact. Be careful to look at people round the edges of the room or people who are sitting in the corners at the front, areas that you will not naturally look towards.

You can use eye contact to control an audience and their reactions. If someone looks disinterested give them more eye contact, their interest should soon pick up. By ‘more eye contact’, I do not mean stare at them, but as your eyes move apparently randomly round the room, go back to that person more often than anyone else.

To avoid question time turning into a conversation between one or two people and yourself, ensure that you give the questioner only 25% of your eye contact and the rest of the audience 75%. If you do not want a follow up question from the same person, ensure you are not looking at the questioner when you come to the last part of your answer.

Your eyes can convey a lot about what you are not saying. Make sure the silent message is in tune with the words you are using.

Find out more about Effective Business Presentations on my web site

All the Best


Telling stories in business

July 23, 2014

On my web site I run a quiz that checks how good a presenter you are. It has run for a several years and I recently collated the results for the last few months.

The most worrying trend that it shows is that most people (94%) think that they need to structure their presentation so that everyone can see where they are going. No doubt this includes having an agenda slide and breaking the presentation down in to sections. While this is very good practice for a written report, it can be deadly for a presentation.

Think of any good film that you have watched recently. Did it have an agenda slide at the start? Did it start by telling you how it would end or what will happen along the way?

No, of course it didn’t.

Films usually start by catching your attention and creating an intriguing situation which makes you wonder what is going to happen next. You are compelled to carry on watching to see how the story unfolds. The script writers, producers and actors engage you; the twists and turns in the storyline keep you wanting to see and hear more.

Compare this with a presentation that starts by telling you that first, I am going to talk about “A”, then we will look at “B” and finally I’ll tell you about “C”. Unless you are excited to hear about “A”, “B” and “C”, you are almost bound to lose interest. If item “C” is what you want to hear about, you’ll immediately switch off and stop listening while the presenter drones on about “A” and “B”. By the time he/she gets to “C” you will probably be mentally elsewhere.

Presentations are not like written reports. Written reports have a contents list so that readers can skip to the parts that are of interest to them. By their very nature presentations are sequential. The speaker decides the order in which he/she is going to talk. As a speaker you need to grab the audience’s attention, engage with them and use similar storytelling techniques as used in the motion picture industry, to hold their attention and make them wonder what you are going to say next. As soon as an audience event thinks that they know what you are going to say next they are likely to switch off.

From the quiz results, it would seem that people are starting to understand this, because the percentage of people who display the bullet points on a slide all at once has dropped from 36% down to 22%. This is an encouraging sign. Although I still feel sorry for the audiences of that 22%, or for that matter audience of any presentation still using bullet points.

There is still someway to go before storytelling is the normal way of giving a business presentation, but if you want to be successful, engaging and influential, I think it is the way to go.

Bruce Gabriel has written a series of 7 articles about how to use storytelling in the boardroom, which I would heartily recommend. You can read it here.

If you would like to do my quiz, you can find it here.

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