3 Common Presentation Pitfalls and How to Fix Them

By Mike Parkinson

There are three critical errors to which most presentations fall prey. Here are the culprits and some proven ways to fix them to create more impactful presentations:

1.  Razzle Dazzle. A presentation that relies too much on “razzle dazzle” techniques fails to positively connect with its audience, because the slides are too complex to understand and remember. The presentation lacks clear explanation.

“Razzle-dazzle” presentations confuse the audience with fancy pictures, mountains of data, and overly technical slides. By using so many elements, the presenter hopes that something influences the audience. Presenters often use this trick to “dazzle” the audience into believing their solution is complex; therefore, it must be better than other simpler solutions. Fortunately, this approach often backfires, as the slide below demonstrates.

2. The “Me” Disease.
The story, slides, and presentation are not customer-focused. The presenter explains why his information, company, and solution are wonderful but fails to show his audience how it will benefit. Presentations fall flat if it is not clear how the audience will benefit.

3. Fact-itis. The presenter assumes sharing facts alone is the best approach. The slides are word and data heavy with few, if any, stories and graphics. Humans are not robots. We cannot sift through and disseminate columns of data in seconds.

We make decisions based on cognitive and emotional factors. Data has the greatest impact on a cognitive level. Slides of numbers and text are rarely emotionally stimulating—and every decision humans make is guided by an emotional response (according to countless studies—Google it). If you don’t tell a story with your data or display it in a compelling, memorable way, then you will experience low win rates. Empathize with your audience. In turn, they will empathize with your solution.

So how can you avoid these three pitfalls? The following are three steps that eliminate Razzle Dazzle, the “Me” Disease, and Fact-itis.

Step One: Simplify Your Information

Get to the point. Know what you want to say before you say it. Summarize your story/slide/section in one sentence then walk your audience toward that conclusion.

I recently asked Rick Altman, author of Why Most PowerPoint Presentations Suck and How You Can Make Them Better, about a common mistake presenters make when designing their presentations. He replied simply, “Too much crap.”

Altman is right. Many times presenters believe in the adage that more is better. Too much may be good when enjoying a piece of homemade apple pie, but in designing slides, the opposite is true. If your audience is too distracted with your vibrant color scheme, opposing graphic styles, long bulleted lists, and complex graphics, then they will miss your message.

Connie Malamed, author of Visual Language For Designers: Principles For Creating Graphics That People Understand, found research that proved we can only process around four bits of visual information at one time. Clean, clear, and easy-to-understand graphics create a visual hierarchy and allows viewers to focus on the most important information.

Step Two: Affect Emotions

PowerPoint and other presentation tools help distill information into the most salient points, thereby connecting content to our audience’s goals—that which they care most about. Great communicators know this leads to a critical second step—affecting emotions. Independent research shows that people care if the information shared can benefit them. Legendary philosopher Harry Overstreet  wrote in Influencing Human Behavior, “Action springs out of what we fundamentally desire.” When we show how we can help our audience, people become cognitively and emotionally invested in the presentation. Ultimately, it is the emotional element that carries the greatest weight. Emotions are a driver in every decision.

But how exactly can you affect the emotions of your audience and motivate them to choose your solution? There are several ways to affect emotions within a presentation.

a. Reflect your audience. Your words and images should reflect your audience’s goals and challenges. Connect your information or solution to your audience’s needs.

b. Facts tell and stories sell. Tell a story that clearly shows how your solution will (or has) achieved the customer’s goals.

c. People buy people. When we can put a face to a corporation or a product or a solution, then it becomes personal to us. Presentations allow the presenter to speak to and connect with their audience on a personal level—sometimes face-to-face and sometimes via conversations in a webinar. Either way, the audience can interact with the presenter and have its questions answered almost immediately. They are more likely to buy into a solution or an idea if they know the person behind it.

I agree with Altman when he told me, “People come to a room to hear what you have to say.” Many presenters forget that they are a major component of the presentation. Their ideas and words are more important than the slides. Slides, when used correctly, aid and empower the presenter. When used the incorrectly, the presenter reduces the benefits the slides offer.

d. Communicate with all visual elements. What we see quickly affects our emotions. Color is the first thing that makes an impression and the rest of what we see soon follows. Carefully consider your template, colors, fonts, styles, and so on. Use graphics to connect benefits to your audience’s needs (help them care) and provide them with clean visuals, which causes them to feel positive about you and your solution. That leads directly to the last step …

Step Three: Use Graphics

Presentations are intended to be a visual medium. Using effective visuals helps you better communicate with your audience by simplifying the most complex content and sharing it in a memorable way. For example, what was the first word in step two’s explanation? You have to look back, right? But do you remember the first graphic in this article? Good graphics are stored in long-term memory, whereas text and words are decoded linearly and must pass through short-term memory to be stored forever.

Besides making your solution more memorable to your audience, another byproduct of a clear visual—which Malamed uncovered in her research—is that the easier it is for your audience to processes your information, the more positive they feel about it (refer to “d” in step two).

Still wondering how distilling your information into visuals can help you? Consider the following research when creating your next PowerPoint presentation. Using graphics in presentation, educational, and marketing materials:

• Improves learning 200%—University of Wisconsin
• Takes 40% less time to explain complex ideas—Wharton School
• Improves retention 38%—Harvard University
• Increases your likelihood of success by 43%—3M and University of Minnesota School of Management

Sadly, most people shy away from graphics or choose the wrong graphic due to time constraints, lack of resources, or inexperience. Visit my Graphics Cheat Sheet (example below, PDF available in the link) to choose the best graphic for your next presentation and get graphic ideas from websites like BizGraphics On Demand, Google Images, the Graphic Periodic Table, and the Business Graphics Library.

About the Author:

Mike Parkinson is an internationally recognized visual communication expert and multi-published author. Visit Billion Dollar Graphics (http://www.BillionDollarGraphics.com) and BizGraphics On Demand (http://www.BizGraphicsOnDemand.com) for more helpful presentation tools. Contact Mike at info@billiondollargraphics.com or call 703-608-9568 for exclusive graphics training. Mike is a partner at 24 Hour Company (http://www.24hrco.com), a premier proposal and presentation graphics firm.

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