Drop the Mic—Please!

Presentation skills, practice and the top 10 don’ts

By Alex Alonso, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP Sep 7, 2016
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​Alex Alonso, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP

Fear of public speaking is natural. Believe me when I say it's the same for every presenter, no matter how seasoned. I've given over 200 speeches and presentations all over the world, to audiences small enough to fit in a roadside diner and big enough to fill a convention hall, to your average group of HR professionals and to huge organizations well-known for clandestine missions. I still sometimes shiver with every syllable. 

I hear it all the time: "I hate presenting anything to my peers!" Young professionals tend to ask me for the one tip that can make the greatest difference. I usually point out that no one tip will make anyone a better presenter. Or I toss out a platitude like "Practice, practice, practice." But the truth is that practice really does make you a better presenter. Practice is a mechanism for building ease and familiarity. The more familiar you are with your topic, the more ease you demonstrate to your audience. 

Another tip—one I don't share often enough—is to stop undermining yourself. How? Stop using certain phrases that tell your audience how uncomfortable you are or that you really don't know what you're talking about. We've all heard presenters use these egregious, credibility-crushing phrases. I'm sharing them with you now, so you can avoid them forever. 

The Top 10 Don'ts: Phrases of Poor Presenters

  1. "Um … um … uh ... ." Safety phrases help us fill in gaps between cognition and speech, but they also indicate stress to the audience. Stop. Think. Even if you're nervous, thoughtful silences are better than vapid monosyllabic crutches.
  2. "This slide is intended to … ." Like a poorly constructed joke, if you have to explain it, it's worthless. The visual should work without explanation. Your voice provides context. Anything more is a waste.
  3. "Next slide." "Back up one slide." Is this amateur hour? Invest $20 in a remote control device—no public speaker should go without one. If logistics prevent you from running your own slides, at least work out signals with the person handling them for you.
  4. "I won't read these to you … ." Without fail, the only people who say this will be literally reading their slides to you. Don't use up your presentation time repeating what the audience can read.
  5. "Sorry for the eye exam." Less is more when it comes to slides. Don't present information that's too difficult to see, read or interpret.
  6. "Uh-oh, I just caught a typo." Mistakes happen, but don't call everyone's attention to them. If you spot an error on the screen, keep it to yourself, and either ignore it or fix it before anyone notices.
  7. "I won't bore you … ." Too late! Say this and your audience is bored already. Don't make them regret investing time and resources to hear your insights.
  8. "I shouldn't share this, but … ." Even good presenters think this phrase endears them to their listeners. A classic mistake. You're just making the audience wonder what you're not sharing—and whether you're sharing more than you should be.
  9. "To be honest … ." Trust is the bedrock of audience rapport. Your audience has to trust you to believe your insights and find your presentation worthwhile. Using this phrase only makes the audience question your honesty. Some will think you disingenuous, some will think you a bald-faced liar.
  10. "I'll allow you to … ." Avoid phrases that smack of superiority. As a presenter, you're providing a service to the audience, so act like a service-oriented individual. They're allowing you to share your insights.

Avoiding these top 10 don'ts may not make you the most dynamic presenter, but you will seem professional and your presentation won't be bad. (I've witnessed so many unprofessional presentations, I've wondered if the poor presenters were being intentionally bad—so they'd never have to speak in public again.)

Even if you have a deathly fear of presenting, at least start with the goal of professionalism—and get there by evading these 10 pitfalls.

Alex Alonso, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP, is senior vice president of knowledge development for SHRM.

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