Why Your Presentations Suck. And How to Fix Them.

Hint: Try to Leave Out the Parts that Bore People.

I know how to read. I learned a long time ago.

If you’re reading this, then in all likelihood, you know how to read as well. You’ve probably known how to do it for quite some time.

And I’m guessing that most of the people you work with know how to read. Everyone that I work with can. It’s difficult to go through school and get an engineering or business degree without first figuring out how to make sense of these funny looking Phoenician symbols.

And it’s not something that you’re likely to forget. So if you learned how to read at some point, odds are that the skill is still within your toolkit.

Overall, it’s safe to say that most of us, and most of the people we work with every day, know how to read.

And yet, someone forgot this the other day. Someone assumed that I didn’t know how to read. Not only that, he assumed the other thirty people who were in the room with me also didn’t know how to read.

I mean, what other explanation could there be for someone who insisted on reading his entire slide deck to me? He must have made all of his slides, then right before the presentation, thought: wait, what if my audience can’t read! I better play it safe and just read every bullet point to them for the next hour.

Whew, crisis averted.

After the presentation, I wanted to let the presenter know that I, in fact, did know how to read. So I told him.

He then tried to pretend that he didn’t consider me illiterate. He claimed that he knew I could read all along. He even acted shocked that I was bringing this up to him at all.

I suggested that next time, he should ask the audience in advance whether they could read. That way he’d know for sure. Although then I thought better of that. Because if I couldn’t read, and was in the audience, I don’t know if I would want to admit that in front of everyone.

So in retrospect maybe he made the right choice. Just assume that no one can read, and read the whole presentation to them. I commended him on this logic.

Still though, he insisted that he knew I could read. Further, he insisted that he knew that everyone in the audience could read. He, without a doubt, was under no assumption that he was presenting to a group of anything but fully literate people.

I don’t know why he refused to acknowledge this. The alternative — that he just stole 60 minutes of my life with his terrible presentation — seems much worse.

Quick, what percentage of presentations are bad? And not just bad, but gut-wrenchingly awful? The kind where you sit down, it starts, and you wish you’d had the foresight to eat some rancid meat just to avoid it.

The kind that makes you give considerable thought to whether “bored to death” is just an expression or a literal possibility.

What percentage? Fifty? Sixty percent? Don’t over think it, just throw out a number.

Most statistics put the number at around 80%. Four out of five times, people rank presentations as ineffective, or worse.

But here’s the trick. What percentage of your presentations are bad? Certainly not 80%. Not even close. Not yours. Not mine. The problem’s not us — it’s all those other people.

Except everyone else seems to feel the same way about their own presentations. Like those 98% of college professors who feel they’re better than average, it seems that we have yet another example of the Dunning-Kruger effect at work.

The Dunning-Kruger effect explains our tendency to be overconfident in our skills, especially in situations where we have limited abilities. When we struggle in an area, we lack the ability to accurately assess our own capabilities. So our inexperience casts an illusion of expertise.

It’s easy to see how this becomes a vicious circle. Someone gives a bad presentation. Everyone grumbles off afterwards. The presenter is wrapped in a cocoon of his own ignorance. No one seeks feedback or looks to improve. And the cycle continues.

Unless, of course, we decide to do something about it.

The human brain starts working the moment you are born and never stops until you stand up to speak in public.” — George Jessel

We work with smart people. They tend to work on interesting things. They often have intelligent, thought-provoking insights to contribute. So why are so many of them so good at being boring once they begin a presentation?

Because they’re smart people. And they want to convey the information. They’re just going about it in the wrong way.

Many presenters adopt what Richard Mayer calls the “empty vessel view of learning.” The audience is the empty vessel and if they just spout off a bunch of information, everyone will take it all in. Theoretically, it makes sense. People need information. So give them the information.

But we know that learning doesn’t work this way. We don’t retain new concepts from someone talking at us for 60 minutes. After five or ten minutes of someone droning on, our minds start to wander. If the presenter isn’t going to keep our attention, we’ll think of something that will.

It’s fashionable to criticize our dwindling attention spans. I heard the other day that we’ve degenerated to the level of a goldfish — something like nine seconds.

Which is completely ridiculous.

There’s no shortage of people who’ll sit down and commit themselves to a good book. Or a long-form podcast or engaging lecture. When we have something of quality, we’re capable of giving it tremendous focus.

So maybe the problem isn’t dwindling attention spans, but the fact that we’re surrounded by a lot of poor quality things. We don’t have an attention problem. We have a quality problem.

“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it,” wrote Elmore Leonard in his timeless 10 rules of writing. Leonard also advised us to “leave out the part that readers tend to skip,” and avoid the long “hooptedoodle” prose that causes people to mentally check out.

For presentations, we could make a similar rule: If it sounds like a presentation, stop presenting it.

People don’t want presentations. They don’t want slides of hooptedoodle. We know this not because studies show it (although they do) — we know it because we ourselves don’t want it.

Leonard’s suggestion that writers “try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip,” could easily apply to presenters as “try to leave out the parts that tend to bore everyone.” Or just as easily, “try to leave out the parts that bore you.”

“The most important information that needed to be conveyed was about humans, not about lions and bison. Our language evolved as a way of gossiping.” — Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens

One of the reasons that Kickstarter is such a success is that everyone loves a good story. Few people care about a business balance sheet or have the patience to analyze return on investment metrics, but we’ll usually take a few minutes and read a compelling narrative.

Kickstarter doesn’t give people a deluge of financial information. It lets founders and CEOs tell their story. And it lets people decide if they want to be a part of it.

Stories capture our attention. We need theories and principles to frame decisions, but its stories that anchor these points into our memory.

If Drew Dudley would have given his TED talk on everyday leadership without his lollipop moment story, I doubt I’d remember it with the clarity that I do. And if Sir Ken Robinson decided to lecture about the importance of creativity in education without adding in stories of a little girl drawing God and nativity play ad libs, it wouldn’t be nearly as memorable.

If facts were enough, we’d have climate change under control and the anti-vaccing movement would have been dead-on-arrival. But we don’t connect through facts. We connect through stories.

In Lend Me Your Ears, Max Atkinson describes a study where he put one camera on a speaker, one once audience, and monitored audience engagement throughout a presentation. He found a noticeable increase in attention at any mention of a story. In his words, “almost every time a speaker used the phrase ‘for example,’ people’s heads or eyes would move upward in anticipation of what was to come.”

If your average presentation is an hour long, people may not remember much if it. But they’ll remember a two-minute story. We rarely need more information. We just need better ways of making it stick. As the Native American proverb says,

“Those who tell the stories rule the world.”

Decide what points you want to convey, and then decide which stories you can use to connect them to your audience. Few people will care about whatever data you put on the screen. But everyone loves a good story.

“Getting better is the path to better.” — Seth

I often find that people aren’t afraid of failing, they’re afraid of failing differently.

We know that the typical presentation doesn’t work. But that expectation is already set, it’s safe to fail that way.

Changing it up — telling a story instead of just parroting out data — brings a new risk. It brings the opportunity to fail differently. And since very few of us are natural born storytellers, we have good cause to hesitate.

But to be a good storyteller, you need to start out as a bad storyteller. So start that way. And no matter what, remember that we’d all rather listen to bad stories than have someone just read us their slides.

Writing helps me realize just how little I know.