The 5 Deadly Sins of Presentations

Written By John Brien

 “The film is set in 1933, at the height of the Depression, in Winnipeg…Beer baroness Lady Port-Huntly announces a contest to find the ‘saddest music in the world’ as a way to promote her brew…. The self-styled Beer Queen of the Prairie invites musicians from around the world to compete for the $25,000 prize… She even has a slogan: ‘If you're sad and like beer, I'm your lady.’”

Jonathan Rosenbaum Review of The Saddest Music in the World

Okay, so you have to be something of a movie buff to know about The Saddest Music in the World and its director, Guy Maddin. Musicians representing various countries compete to deliver the “saddest” performance, with the winner(s) of each round sliding into a giant vat of beer (if only the contenders in American Idol had it so lucky).


Whereas being the “saddest” is an honor in The Saddest Music, the saddest presentation in the world (with “sad” used in the more colloquial sense, i.e., “pathetic”) isn’t a title to which many care to aspire. You wouldn’t know that, though, from the presentations you see. “Am I mistaken or did that expert merely jot down some ill-formed ideas and transfer them to PowerPoint?”

What makes presenters think they can get away with an anemic effort? Maybe it’s just arrogance – the “I’m a brilliant orator” syndrome. Your every word is spellbinding. All it takes to beguile an audience is a procession of bullet points.

Sorry, Charlie. You’re not in the same league as Demosthenes, Cato, and Bill Clinton.

(I can imagine your mother scolding, “Would you put so little oomph into an interview or a sales call?”) How do those who are gilded-tongue-challenged breathe life into a comatose presentation?  How do you take a seedling of an idea and nurture it into a ravishing garden, rich and unforgettable?

Simple. Steer clear of the Five Deadly Sins:

1. Rely on bullet points.

We’re all agreed – in the worst presentations, the presenter simply reads the bullet points off the screen. The presentation becomes a crutch, a prop to avoid the audience and, God forbid, ad lib. The presenter? He or she may as well be a mannequin: wooden, unsure, inept. And the presentation? No imagination. No desire to draw in the audience.

When you consider all the options available to colorfully convey information, it’s baffling for someone to resort to a clinical, antiseptic report. (My theory: bullet-point proponents inhabit a survival-of-the-fittest world where emotional/evocative = weak.) To transcend the rote and robotic, the presenter can:

Approach the subject from an odd angle – We’ve all sat through movies where you know what the entire film will be about after the first five minutes. We sit through the rest to see if our assumptions are correct (they invariably are). This is the appeal behind horror movies – that they won’t be predictable. The thrill of the unforeseen. Startle me. Frighten me. (But never grab my ankle at the end of Carrie, as someone once did.) Granted, the presentation still has to be cohesive. If it isn’t – if the association with the topic seems arbitrary or far-fetched – expect a frenzy of whispers in the audience: “Did I miss something? What’s the connection?”

Mix it up – Presentations thrive on variety: a couple slides with bullets, a cartoon, another bullet slide, a graphic, a bullet slide, a bar chart, etc. Your goal: keep surprising your audience. Pacing and rhythm are key. It’s easy to add inexpensive photo images and cartoons; resources are close at hand (bookmark and Why settle for a lecture that makes watching paint dry shine in comparison when, for a few hundred dollars, you can gussy up your presentation so it struts rather than slouches. (For those who balk at spending money, who assert “It’s only a presentation,” I say: “Yeah, and it’s only your reputation. What is that worth?”)

Keep it readable – I suppose the bullet-ridden presentation succeeds on one count: it allows the audience to follow along (with the bouncing ball). The only problem in using graphics is if they’re overly complex or if the text that accompanies them is too tiny to read. Remember Ray Kroc’s admonition to “Keep It Simple, Stupid.” Type should be minimal and large enough to decipher from the back of the room (one exception: bar charts, which may have small labels identifying the bars but should have a readily readable heading)

To spice up presentations, I use a technique I call the “cinematic intro.” This opening sequence – set on automatic advance – establishes the dilemma and tone. For example, I kicked off a presentation on outsourcing with the following slides:

  •  A Short History of Outsourcing
  • 2500 B.C. – Up to 100,000 non-Egyptians used to build the pyramids [image of pyramids]
  • 400 A.D. – Less than 5% of Rome’s soldiers are Italian [bas relief of Roman soldiers in battle]
  • 1664 – The Dutch East India Company operates fleet of 150 merchant ships and trading posts around the world [image of galleon at sea]
  • 1868 – 2,500 Chinese laborers help build the transcontinental railroad [sepia-toned image of locomotive]
  • 2002 – Forrester Research predicts 3.3 million jobs will move offshore by 2015 [image of rows of Chinese workers in assembly plant]
  • The day after tomorrow… will your workplace look like this? [images of empty offices and factories]
  • The day after tomorrow… What will your business be? What will your objectives be? What mission critical skills will you need?
  • Beyond the Horizon – Putting Offshoring in Perspective [title slide] 

In the space of several slides, you’ve shown you’ve done your homework (that outsourcing isn’t a new phenomenon, despite all the sensationalistic stories) and you pose the core problem: Will all your work go overseas? How do you decide what stays and what goes?  

2. Make it relentlessly sober.

This Sin goes hand-in-glove with the first one. For some of us, hell is sitting through an endless conference, one soporific presentation after another. Where’s the passion? The wit? The humor?

“Passion? Wit? Humor?” you gasp. “Blasphemy!” No. Marketing. You can subject your audience to the equivalent of a mind-numbing Latin lesson. Or you can have them exclaim, “Wow, a presentation can be entertaining? I’ll have to postpone my nap till I’m back at the hotel.”

Why do presentations all tend to look and sound the same? Presenters feel there’s only one way to make the proper  – objective, measured, staid – impression. They feel a driving need to emulate a dispassionate newscaster (after all, that’s the definition of “professional,” right?). They believe that to use humor would be to lose credibility. That anything less than a poker-face would undercut the seriousness of the subject.

But who said the subject was so serious?

Try this: find a risk-taker in your company (this will be one of the smartest people in the firm, an individual you’d want to ally yourself with anyway). At one company where I worked, this happened to be an attorney who, on the face of it, might seem to be the last person to champion a “wild and crazy” presentation (how often do jovial and innovative come to mind when you think of the legal profession?). This consultant, though, had been through enough interchangeable presentations, and had such an appreciation of marketing, that he longed for something different. 

The result: a presentation titled – “Death by Documents” – that got IRS agents laughing (though, admittedly, that could be one of the signs of the apocalypse).

I’m not saying you have to be a stand-up comic or orchestrate a manic, dazzling lightshow (“Step right up. See graphics that shrink and swell, words that scroll and spin.”). I’m not pushing “All flash, no substance.” I’m not advocating a one-note approach at either end of the spectrum. As Roger Ebert observed in a recent review: “action does not equal interest. Objects endlessly in motion are as repetitive as objects forever at rest.”

Believe me: your audience will remember the presentation imbued with a singular, human voice. Instead of a “Fugue in Four Parts,” many presenters compose “A Precis for Sleep-walkers.” Try a spry cantata. It’ll get your audience on their feet.

3. Showcase the self-evident.

Too many presentations – like too many books, articles, etc. – state the obvious. In most cases, you’re standing before an audience of seasoned professionals. Do you think they carved out time from their busy schedules to listen to trite observations?

I don’t know about you, but I want to watch someone who’s vivacious, wide-read, bursting with ideas. Out of respect for your attendees, have something fresh and insightful to say. (I’ve seen presentations in which people basically summarize findings from a book. Heck, in a fraction of the time I could’ve gleaned as much from the book jacket.)

Discuss the topic in a broader context. Link it to other disciplines. In Metaphorically Selling, Anne Miller refers to “observers and connectors.” Miller describes them as “curious beings who notice and register everything around them all the time. They can see similarities in ostensibly dissimilar things. They can connect seemingly unrelated ideas and concepts to new situations.”

You’re the authority, the thought leader. Put some thought into it. Craft a presentation as unique as you are.

4. Use clashing graphics.

A visually schizophrenic presentation, a mish-mash of styles, can prove grating to your audience. (They could end up paying more attention to the clashing graphics clash than the compelling content.) Maintain a single style throughout – if you’re using black-and-white photos, stick with black-and-white; if you’re using retro images, stick with retro. And, for heaven’s sake, never use clip art.

5. Forget to proofread it.

All the work you put into a presentation can be thrown out the window if there are errors in formatting, grammar, or punctuation. It goes without saying: get someone competent to proofread the thing. The most frequent offenders are inconsistent use of capitalization, commas, and periods (typos are especially embarrassing).

After seeing millions of print and TV ads, your audience is attuned to every nuance. They will register the slightest misstep. And your credibility will crumble like a house of cards.


So, how does all this tie into The Saddest Music in the World? In many ways, Guy Maddin makes silent movies with a skewed vision. In many ways, this is what a good presentation is. Devilish. Diverse. Distinctive. 

And a presentation is a lot like directing a movie. The beauty is that you don’t need a 30-person crew to do it. What you do need is daring, creativity, and intelligence.

Presentations have been straitjacketed for so long, many companies can’t conceive of anything outside the norm. Take comfort: presentations are an area of boundless opportunity. The audience is in the palm of your hand. Get their adrenaline pumping. This is an amusement park ride, a carnival funhouse. Make them shriek. Make them wonder “What’s lurking around the next turn?”

Don’t get me wrong: presentations have a very serious side. With every presentation, you’re in competition – competing for business. Unlike The Saddest Music in the World, you don’t have a single judge but a roomful of them.

As The Saddest Music in the World reaches its conclusion, a conniving impresario bribes the one-legged Lady Port-Huntly with a glass prosthesis. An artificial leg brimming with brewski.

That presentation you’re working on isn’t a walk in the park. It’s your glass leg of beer.

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