The #1 Reason Good Speakers Give Bad Presentations

I’ve analyzed hundreds of speakers, and nearly all the worst presenters have the same thing in common. If you don’t know why it’s a problem, you’re probably one of them.

The old way

Sixteen hundred years before PowerPoint, before Steve Jobs, before Martin Luther king, and before the VCR started blinking 12:00 in 1985, speaking was the pinnacle of art.

The Lady Gagas and Walt Disneys of the day were public speakers! “Have you ever heard of Plato? Aristotle? Socrates?”

They certainly weren’t morons. Imagine standing in front of hundreds or thousands of people outdoors, with no microphone, no PowerPoint, and no rah-rah, buy-now, pseudo-pop, digital backup track. Could YOU entertain the masses for hours on end?

Fast forward

Einstein-Chalkboard-NEWS-WEBFast forward to an American teacher in the nineteenth or twentieth century, armed with nothing more than a chalkboard and an eraser. That teacher’s students used a slide rule to put a man on the moon in 1969!

Let me ask you, are kids better at math, science, and reading now that every school teacher in America relies on overhead projectors, video on demand, and free access to PowerPoint?

The problem

Way back in the late 1980s a bunch of business people at a little company called Microsoft noticed that people were too busy to even set the clock on the VCR. “There must be money in that somewhere,” they thought, so they sat around and brainstormed ways to help lazy people create the illusion of work without actually working harder.

Microsoft_PowerPoint_2013_logo.svgThe result … PowerPoint.

PowerPoint is not the solution. PowerPoint is the problem. The easiest way to make a bad presenter worse, is to buy him a copy of Microsoft Office.

I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.

But, but, but …

I know that you probably use PowerPoint. I know that you probably think it’s helpful. I know that you are expected to use it.

I also know that you know how often your co-workers’ “slide decks” are agonizing wastes of time.

I’ve coached in fortune 500 companies that waste countless hours with the most appalling, illegible PowerPoint templates I have ever seen. I’ve begged self-righteous conference speakers to eliminate slides, only to be refused, and watch the audience ignore the slides altogether. I’ve had clients complain that the boss comes to the meeting but spends the entire time on his laptop without listening.

And yet somehow, the marketing team in Redmond, Washington has convinced these well-meaning professionals that Microsoft is the solution, and not the problem.

The principles

The design of PowerPoint, or Keynote, or most other presentation software packages violates the rules that make communication effective. Let’s quickly work through the 8 SpeechDeck principles.

Clarify Your Content – The default PowerPoint template is a slide that helps you create a bulleted list. So of course people add more bullets. Do more bullets encourage simplicity and clarity? No, more bullets encourage complexity and confusion.

Inject Anticipation – When you see a person open PowerPoint, how often do you think, “Wow, this looks like something different. I better pay attention!”? Probably it happened to you ONCE.  Maybe. Nine times out of 10 (I’m being generous here) you actually send the opposite message: “This looks familiar, I’ll catch up on my email and listen at the same time.”

Develop Relationships – If your organization expects you to use PowerPoint, then PowerPoint will help you conform to the group. But if you base a relationship on that, you’re not really trying. Warning: sarcasm ahead: “Hey Mom, I want you to meet my best friend, we have so much in common, we both use PowerPoint!”

Reveal the Messenger – This is where PowerPoint fails big time. The availability of slides tempts even otherwise good speakers to defer to the slides. When all your information is on a slide, the slide becomes the expert and you become … nobody. If there is not more information in your mouth than on your slide, you lose.

Encourage Participation – I hate to state the obvious, but you can’t interact with a computer projection. Participation can only happen with a human being–you.

Empower the Individual – Does a slide show empower the listener with more self worth? More ownership? Or help overcome their reservations? Fail. Fail. Fail.

Manage the Theater – Finally we arrive at the principle that governs visual aids. Don’t get me wrong, visual aids are good!  But if you open up PowerPoint and create slides before you create the substance of your presentation, it’s not an “aid”? It’s a crutch. No matter how cool the animation, it’s not making YOU look better.

Engage the Subconscious – Lastly, can a slide create an emotional or visual image better than you can do it with words? Absolutely. Finally we have a legitimate use for slides. However, notice that it requires PICTURES–the one thing that PowerPoint can’t actually do by itself. PowerPoint makes unhelpful bulleted lists automatically, but can never create the right picture automatically.

The Solution

Don’t start with PowerPoint, Keynote, or any presentation software. Start with the “Clarify Your Content” principle. Then use PowerPoint afterwards to ADD visual aids.

The importance of Clarifying Your content BEFORE you worry about slides is so commonly misunderstood and overlooked that all of my introductory training on the black and white “Clarify Your Content” cards is available free of charge at

As my client, after you have a clear black and white message, I ask you 2 simple questions:

  1. Does the slide reinforce your message headline?
  2. Does the slide help the listener visualize your point?

If the slide does not do one of those 2 things, eliminate it.

Save yourself lots of time, make your message more memorable, and make a better impression at the same time. Bulleted lists rarely serve either of those purposes.

I develop every class, every speech, and every presentation by starting with my SpeechCrafter editor.

Then, include visual aids only when they reinforce the takeaway message or create a visualization.

Better yet, try giving your next presentation without PowerPoint at all. Try a white board marker or a physical prop instead. I bet you’ll be twice the presenter overnight with half the effort.

For more tips on using PowerPoint right, look for posts with the Slides Tag.

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