How to Make a Better Presentation: 24 Mistakes to Avoid

October 30, 2009

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By Daniel B. Hier, MD, MBA, FAAN, AAN.com Associate Editor for Education

When you are called on to speak at a course given by the AAN or another organization, the audience has an opportunity to evaluate your content, your slides, your syllabus, and your presentation. Barbara Scherokman, MD, FAAN, FACP, covered some of the key ingredients to an effective neurology presentation in the article, Effective Neurology Presentations.

Audience evaluations of AAN Annual Meeting speakers show that presenter mistakes an adverse effect on an otherwise superb lecture. Below is a list of common errors that you should avoid so you can ace your next lecture.

  1. Don't make your tables/charts too small. Tables on your slides are fine, but be sure they can be read from the back of the room.
  2. Remember the scale of your presentation. The corollary to the first point: If you have images on your slides, make them big so that they fill the screen.
  3. Don't run over your time. Respect the schedule—the audience hates it when you run over.
  4. Don't speak in a monotone. Try to put some life in your voice and vary the intonation. Speak with a sense of passion and dynamism.
  5. Don't read your slides. Use your slides strictly as a prompt for what you want to say. The audience can read the slides—it's deadly dull for someone to read through a slide word-for-word.
  6. Don't forget to update your content. Some of us have been giving the same lecture for several years. Always stimulate the audience with something new!
  7. Don't forget to rehearse your talk. Even the best speakers rehearse. You will be more effective if you have rehearsed. Get a listener who is unfamiliar with your topic to critique your presentation.
  8. Don't include too many slides. One slide per minute is almost certainly too many. A more realistic pace is to divide the time in minutes by two to get a reasonable slide count. Audiences don't want to be overwhelmed with slides and information.
  9. Don't use a font size less than 20 or 30 points. Anything smaller will be unreadable and will generate too many words on the screen. Arial and other sans serif fonts work best.
  10. Don't use hard-to-read font colors. Red or black on blue, or yellow on white, are combinations that are hard to read. Best to stick with black on white, blue on white, yellow on blue, or white on blue.
  11. Don't use lots of jargon, acronyms, or abbreviations. The odds are good that not everyone in the audience will understand some or most of your abbreviations, acronyms, or jargon, so limiting them will increase audience comprehension.
  12. Don't talk about something different than your title. Stick to the subject advertised in your title. The audience hates bait-and-switch lectures that fail to address the topic in the lecture title.
  13. Don't forget to leave time for questions and answers. The audience wants to ask questions to clarify parts of your talk that were less clear to them.
  14. Don't talk too fast. This is the most common complaint voiced by our audiences. Audiences hate it when speakers rush through the talk, skip slides, or flip through the slides too quickly.
  15. Don't drift off the main topic. In a typical talk lasting 30 to 40 minutes, you will only be able to cover four or five main points. Stick to the main thrust of your talk as captured by your lecture title.
  16. Don't forget to proofread your slides. Audiences can become annoyed and distracted by typos on your slides.
  17. Don't overwhelm your audience with excessive detail. Many of the members of the audience will be sitting through six to eight hours of lectures or even more. They will be overwhelmed by excessive detail and you will lose their attention.
  18. Don't forget to involve your audience as active learners. Good speakers learn ways to involve their audiences, through questions or intriguing case studies. Some course are now equipped with an audience response systems (ARS).
  19. Don't plug yourself, your hospital, or your books. Audiences don't like speakers who are shamelessly egotistical and boast about their knowledge or expertise.
  20. Don't try to cover too much.
  21. Don't stay at an elementary level too long. Your audience wants solid new information that they can use. It is fine to start simple, but be sure that your talk is not mired at a level that is too elementary for your audience.
  22. Don't fall in the trap of appearing sarcastic, biased, or intolerant.
  23. Don't forget case studies if appropriate.
  24. Don't neglect to balance anecdotal information with evidence-based information.

In summary, audiences at our Annual Meetings and elsewhere want speakers who are crisp, concise, organized, humble but confident, and rehearsed. Speakers who receive high ratings speak deliberately (but not too slowly), clearly, and with dynamism. Their slides are legible and their syllabuses are informative. Highly rated speakers stay on point, involve their audiences as active learners, stay on schedule, use their allotted time effectively, don't rush through their slides, allow time for questions, and end on time.

Author Disclosure

Within the past 24 months, Dr. Hier received compensation for medical legal consulting. In the same period he gave expert testimony in medical malpractice cases.