11 Presenting Mistakes That Make Your Audience Cringe

As presenters we are in the privileged position of being able to share our knowledge, experience, and passion with an audience. We may be motivating our team at a meeting, presenting a new idea to senior management, promoting our business at a networking event or sharing our expertise or our opinion at a conference or other event. However, with this privilege comes responsibility – a responsibility to ourselves to ensure we don’t kill our credibility, but more importantly, a responsibility to our audience to ensure that our message is relevant and interesting to listen to.

You’ve probably sat through presentations that have made you squirm for one reason or another so when your own professional reputation is on the line, it is vital that you avoid these 11 mistakes that will make your audience cringe.

1.       Apologising

Starting with an apology for any reason is a big no no. Your audience doesn’t care that you got stuck in traffic, you forgot your notes, you didn’t have time to prepare anything or you haven’t had a chance to practice with the equipment. Just like the old “the dog ate my homework” excuse, it doesn’t cut it. Neither does “I know this subject is a bit dry so I’ll try not to bore you too much”, “I’m sorry I’m really nervous; I hate speaking in public” or “I’m sorry this slide is really difficult to read.”

There are always exceptions and an audience will usually appreciate a genuine apology for an unexpected situation. However, remember that they have given up their precious time (and sometimes money) to listen to you so you owe it to them to prepare well and ensure you have nothing to apologise about!

2.       Bad Jokes and Controversial Material

Humour in presentations is an excellent tool to relax your audience, build rapport and enhance your presentation. However, bad jokes will always be bad jokes. And someone laughing at their own bad jokes is even more uncomfortable to watch. Know your audience and always avoid jokes about politics or religion or anything sexist or racist.

Instead look for humorous stories in your own life to share, especially when the joke is on you; self-deprecating humour can be very funny and endearing.  When people are relaxed they take in information more effectively so making them smile and laugh can be very useful during your presentation; just leave out the bad jokes and controversial material.

3.       Talking about yourself

A mistake many presenters make is starting a presentation speaking about themselves or their company. But despite what you may think, a presentation is never about you. To engage an audience and make them curious about what you have to say, you need to help them understand why they should listen. Part of that may be to include a line or two about why you’re the best person to speak to them about the topic; however, never make the mistake of starting with a list of all your qualifications and expertise.  

Ideally you will have someone introducing you who will establish your credibility for you before you begin to speak. (Tip: always provide the host/meeting planner/MC with an introduction.) You can share stories about yourself that illustrate your point, but ensure they are appropriate and interesting for your audience.

4.       Information overload

“The more you tell me the less I remember.” I’m not sure where I first heard this quote but it illustrates the problem of including too much information in your presentation, which can leave your audience totally confused about your actual message. Of course when you are passionate about a topic and you have a lot of knowledge about it you will want to give your audience great value and share as much as you can in the time you have available. However, if you are trying to cram too much information into a short space of time, you are also more likely to speak too quickly making it even more difficult for the audience to process and recall anything you have said.

A more effective way is to choose a few key points that demonstrate your main idea and elaborate on those. That way you won’t muddy the message and the audience won’t suffer from complete overwhelm.

5.       Lack of structure

Meandering from one idea to the next with no clear direction or point is extremely frustrating for an audience and makes it very difficult to follow your presentation. Even more frustrating is when you back track and repeat points that have already been covered.

Preparing effectively is key to resolving this problem. Take time to get very clear on your objective for the presentation and ensure that everything you include supports that objective. Keep it simple; provide the audience with an outline of what you will be covering and then stick to it. 

6.       Speaking in a monotone

Some presenters have a tendency to drone on and on in a monotonous tone which has the unfortunate effect of lulling their audience to sleep. When there is no light and shade in your voice, it is really difficult to keep an audience’s attention or highlight the most important parts of your message. Combine a monotonous delivery with lack of structure and your audience will definitely switch off!

To address this, aim to vary your vocal delivery by changing the pitch, pace, tone, rhythm and volume to emphasise key points. Carefully placed pauses can also be a powerful way to reinforce your message, as well as to help people to process the information you are sharing and give you a moment to collect your thoughts before you continue.

7.       Poor slide design

Using visual aids created in programmes such as PowerPoint, Keynote or Prezi can be useful to support your presentation. However, there are numerous mistakes presenters make that result in the audience cringing. The biggest blunder is using too many bullet points, which has led to the phrase ‘Death by PowerPoint’.  Other mistakes include inconsistent design, clashing colours, too little contrast, tacky irrelevant clip art, distracting animations and inferior quality images.

Good slide design takes time and requires simple, clear slides with good quality images or graphics. If including words, keep them to a minimum and use a large easy to read font. Think carefully about the colours and ensure they are easy on the eye; remember it is all about the audience and enhancing their understanding of your message. Show your audience you value them by spending the required effort to develop a great slide show, or don’t use slides at all.

8.       Inability to use equipment

Most presenters will have challenges with equipment at some time and most audiences will be forgiving of this if it is a genuine technical problem. However, they will cringe when you keep walking in front of the screen, if you don’t know how to use the clicker to advance your slides, if you forget to advance your slides or if you keep toggling from PowerPoint to show a video or something else on the screen. They’ll also cringe if you spend too much time trying to resolve a problem rather than just getting on with your presentation.

To avoid this, ensure you allow time to familiarise yourself with the equipment and practice with it prior to your presentation. If you are demonstrating something, make sure it works - I’ve seen several entrepreneurs and sales people pitching new products which haven’t worked during the demo and it’s an incredibly cringe-worthy experience! If you are delivering an online presentation, in addition to the checks you would do for a face to face presentation, ensure you check your webcam works, your audio is connected and you know how to share your screen. Always have a back-up plan for when things go wrong.

9.       Lack of eye contact

Many presenters find maintaining eye contact with their audience quite a challenge. This can be because of their own nerves or lack of confidence, but also because they are tempted to look at their slides, face the flip chart or read their notes.  The moment you lose eye contact with your audience you break the connection and you will struggle to engage them.

Therefore, avoid words on your slides or using fully scripted notes – if they are there you will read them which means you are not looking at your audience. If you must use notes, reduce them to a few bullet points to keep you on track so that you can be fully present and connect with your audience in a meaningful way.

10.   Going over time

Timing is fundamental. If you go over time, especially if you’re speaking just before lunch or the end of the day, no one will be listening to what you have to say anyway; their mind is already deciding what they want to eat or worrying about picking up their kids before day care closes. Not only is going over time disrespectful to your audience, it is also disrespectful to the event organiser and any speakers following you who may have to cut their material short.

The remedy for this is to prepare effectively and practice your delivery so that you have a good idea of the timing. Know the approximate length of each point or story and work out where you can expand on or cut out material. And never just stop if your time is up; ensure you always allow time to summarise and include your conclusion.

11.   Allowing nerves to impact your delivery

Nerves play out in many different ways. If you are nervous you are likely to experience physical symptoms such as a dry mouth, shaking knees, sweaty palms, heart palpitations and quite possibly brain freeze! However, it is unlikely the audience will notice these indicators unless you allow them to. What is cringe-worthy is when nerves are highlighted by a presenter fidgeting, pacing, littering their presentation with ‘ums’ and ‘errs’ or getting completely flustered.

Nerves are normal; they mean you care. And even with the most thorough preparation most people will experience symptoms of nervousness.  Simple techniques for managing your nerves include taking slow deep breaths, using positive self-talk and reframing your nerves as excitement so that you can use that positive energy for a powerful engaging delivery.

If you enjoyed this article, click here to access Mel Sherwood’s ‘Top 5 Tips for Public Speaking Success’

Mel Sherwood is a pitch and presentation specialist who prepares ambitious entrepreneurs and business professionals to take centre stage, embrace the spotlight and present with more confidence, credibility and conviction.

Mel's book 'The Authority Guide to Pitching Your Business - how to make an impact and be remembered... in under a minute!' is available on
Amazon. To find out more go to www.melsherwood.com or follow Mel on Twitter @MelSherwood_