After Hours

10 questions to determine whether your presentation is lame

The time to identify potential problems with a presentation is BEFORE you're standing in front of an audience.

A good speaker can survive amateurish slides, but the best slides in the world won't save an ill-prepared speaker. Try to answer these 10 questions about your presentations. Evaluating your presentation honestly might help you avoid a scary plummet into presentation purgatory.

1: Does everything work as expected?

There's nothing worse than showing an eager audience a blank screen. Instead of experiencing your brilliance, they'll be following your behind around as you crawl under tables and between platforms to locate "the problem." No matter how gracious you are about the delay, you'll never completely recover.

If your answer to this question is no, your presentation is suspect. Technical difficulties aren't a presentation killer, but you'll lose some credibility before you even start. Fortunately, this fix is easy: Know the room, the equipment, and the material -- or stay home.

2: Does each diagram and chart support a specific point?

You might have heard the saying "If you can't dazzle them with brilliance, dazzle them with BS." Lots of extraneous charts and pictures point to a presenter who's short on facts. That's not always the case, but it's certainly a good indication.

If the answer to this question is no, not really, or I'm not sure, your presentation is suspect. Make sure each picture, chart, and diagram illustrates a key point in your discussion.

3: Can everyone read each slide?

The wrong font face and size can wreck a great presentation. Choose fonts and size for readability, not artistic flair or appeal. Every member of your audience should be able to read each slide, regardless of proximity to the screen. Color, contrast, and lighting are also part of this package.

If the answer to this question is no, your presentation is lame but can be easily fixed. Use easy-to-read fonts (avoid fancy or specialty fonts unless they support your message in some way) that are large enough to read, but not overwhelming. Keep the number of fonts to a minimum; two or three is enough.

4: Does your design theme support your topic?

When creating a design or choosing a template, it's easy to rely on colors and attributes that please you -- but don't. The theme should support the topic in some way. For example, a beige and brown color theme might make a great choice for a hardware convention, but it probably isn't the best choice for a presentation on native wildflowers.

If you gave little consideration to the design theme, your presentation is probably lame. Look for a theme that supports the topic. A business presentation should be clean and sharp, while a presentation hawking a vacation timeshare might be colorful with lots of graphics.

5: You have how many slides?

There's no formula for determining the right number of slides. Your topic's complexity supersedes any rule you might try to apply. If you need a starting point, don't display more than one slide for each 30 seconds of discussion. But to be honest, that's still more slides than the average presentation needs. In contrast, you might get three minutes of discussion from a single slide. That's a wide range -- 30 seconds to three minutes, but it's a place to start.

If you have more than 60 or fewer than 10 slides for a 30-minute presentation, your presentation is somewhat lame. Now, the truth is, your presentation might be perfect as is. Try to represent each main point with at least one slide, because ideas are more important than aiming for an enigmatic number.

6: Is everything animated?

Good animation engages your audience and keeps their attention. But animation abuse will distract your audience -- they'll be watching for the next clever trick instead of listening to you. Where animation is concerned, less is definitely more.

If this answer is yes, your presentation is pretty lame. If you add an animation because you think this is cool, where can I put it, get rid of it. Animations worth keeping are those you purposely seek out to make a specific point. Transitions are animations too; use the same transition scheme throughout the presentation unless you have a specific reason to deviate.

7: Do you read to the slides?

Don't watch your own presentation! You should face your audience and talk with them, making eye contact if possible. You already should know what's on your slides. You don't need to watch them go by.

If the answer to this one is yes, your presentation skills are lame. You might have a great set of slides, but your delivery needs work.

8: Do you read from the slides?

If you're reading each slide, you are unnecessary. Your audience can read the slides to themselves. Presenters who read from slides are boring and ineffective -- remember you college economics professor? You are the presentation and the slides should support you.

If your answer to this question is yes, your presentation is extremely lame. Slides should be a visual aid to your discussion, not a book you read to the audience. Use slides to summarize or simplify your key points. Have a conversation with the audience and leave the slides for interesting and important details. You have a lot of work to get this presentation into shape!

9: Is your audience uncontrollably noisy or suspiciously quiet?

A noisy audience can be a good sign. It's great if the audience is showing enthusiasm by commenting or asking questions. It's bad if they're snoring or breaking into clutches to discuss the stale Danish you provided. On the other hand, you might think a quiet audience is a good sign -- they're riveted! At least, you might think so until you turn on the lights and find them all snoozing.

If your answer to this one is yes, you have a hopelessly lame presentation. An inattentive audience is a clear sign that you should turn in your clicker.

10: Do you know your presentation's purpose?

Are you creating a professional presentation for a client or for an in-house sales meeting or are you trying to sell vacation timeshares? Who is the audience: the public, your accounting staff, or a potential client? You must know the presentation's specific purpose and your audience. You should be able to write a short mission-type statement clarifying the presentation's purpose and audience before you generate your first slide.

If the answer to this question is no, your presentation is hopelessly lame. Why did you even bother? Without a specific focus, you'll be as interesting as the adults in the Peanuts cartoons... wah, wah, wah.

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Susan Sales Harkins is an IT consultant, specializing in desktop solutions. Previously, she was editor in chief for The Cobb Group, the world's largest publisher of technical journals.

Horse Collar
Horse Collar

Actually I find that some of the best presentations have more slides instead of fewer due to the below: A. Only one concept per slide and no sub-bullets. Details are covered orally by the presenter, but detail text belongs in a separate handout distributed at the end of your presentation. This also has the advantage of putting more focus on you the presenter and less on the slides. If a concept can be supported by a powerful or evocative graphic and no text, so much the better. B. Transition slides or place marker slides can help your audience understand the logic and flow of your presentation. These slide might appear for only 3-5 seconds and serve as sign posts that give the audience a sense of place and a structure that communicates. C. The attention span of today's audiences is much shorter (which is more a function of our society and pace of life than a function of intelligence). Give people the variety and manageable sound bytes they desire.


*baffle* with BS" was how I always heard it (BS, even when 'effective', is not ever likely to dazzle, but a baffling dose may sometimes preclude one from being called on it)... ;) Enough buzzwords (inherently vague and/or ambiguous) can achieve bafflement, and still dazzle no one.

Franky Gee 3
Franky Gee 3

Reading the slide to your participants reinforces your message. There's been plenty of research on this and, in reading it to them, no matter how lame that seems, it forces them to carefully consider the statement or question and soaks up the two primary channels of input: Aural and visual. Yes, it's tedious, but it's also very effective in boosting recall, especially if you don't fly through it. Reading it carefully and thoughtfully - even with a touch of announcer - is acceptable and beneficial vs. reading as fast as you can or in a monotone. Pause for 2 seconds before reading it as that silence is an effective attention-getter and also signifies that a change in topic or material is on deck. If you talk to professional trainers, they'll likely tell you this. Again, it's about recall, not convenience ... that is, unless you don't care about them remembering it.


Great article Susan, I just wanted to add my two cents in. [b]Within Item number one,[/b] knowing the equipment is vital. Too often, presenters only know the material. They possess no technical knowledge of their equipment. Waiting, for your IT guy to get there, looks bad! If presenting is going to be on a regular basis for you, then ensure you have you own equipment and learn how to use it in different situations. Its shocking how often presenters dont even know how to turn a projector on and off. Seasoned presenters can make humor of it but timeliness in presenting is a key to an audience leaving with a positive attitude about you. Keep in mind that the lamps on projectors are expensive and not easy to obtain on short notice, so have an extra on hand or at minimum, at your office. Dont wait until the day of the presentation to find out that your batteries are dead, keep extras, they are very cheap relative to the cost of losing a deal. [b]On item number two,[/b] remember that you are the presentation. The screen is only an aid to help illustrate and bring clarity to your point. If its not doing that, then its simply a slideshow in the background distracting people like me, with ADD, from paying any attention to what youre saying. Its very easy to make charts confusing to everyone EXCEPT the person who created it. Charts should be overly simplified to the point that someone not familiar to the point can understand what they are seeing. I strongly suggest testing this before presenting it to your intended audience. [b]On item number six,[/b] please keep in mind that the more animations you have, the more unexpected glitches there will be in the presentation. Software like PowerPoint cannot support a lot of animation or transitions on the same page. More importantly, the presentation may need to be run a computer that is not a strong as the computer it was created on. This can make for an embarrassing moment that leaves the appearance that you have no idea what youre doing. Its more appealing to have a clean presentation that works flawlessly than a presentation that looks like it cost $15,000 but never consistently displays the whole screen. [b]On item ten I would have to add,[/b] have more than one version of the presentation. Like resumes, just using one generic presentation for everyone is obviously noticeable and can often give people that since that this presentation isnt really for me. Nothing is more impressive than seeing a potential clients own logo on the front screen. Thats a 20 second upgrade that goes a long way.


The number is less important that the messages they convey. By considering the number, you kind of force yourself to re-evaluate each slide's importance.

Horse Collar
Horse Collar

I think the research supports you if you are reading the slide text word for word so it matches exactly with what the audience is seeing/reading. I think the research also shows that if your spoken words differ from the exact wording on the slide, then comprehension is less than if only one channel of input is used. Comprehension is also high if the slide has an evocative image with no text or maybe 1-3 words from which the presenter can speak to in detail. (The image or key words can be remembered more effectively than a sentence or paragraph of written text.) I would use the technique of reading a slide to the audience rarely, maybe once in a presentation and only if exact wording is a must. Otherwise you risk alienating your audience since most resent a presentation that is read to them. If you are reading your presentaiton from beginning to end, why are you doing a presentation at all? Just pass out your report and let them follow along while you read it to them. If your audience will also need the details in writing, provide the complete text at the end of your presentation in a hand out.

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