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How to Avoid the Five Cardinal Sins of Presentations

Teach the WordThis is the first article in a series by Dr. Sue Holtz, who serves as the director of technology integration and support at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, the seminary of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod. Dr. Holtz’s background is in teaching business communications at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. She has also taught technology courses at various colleges.

“What’s the point?”

”How long is this presentation going to last?”

“Man, is it hard to read the tiny words on his slides; thankfully, he is reading the slides to us.”

“And what about those dancing bears and flying bullet points?”

Have you ever had these thoughts while watching a PowerPoint presentation? Do you wonder if anyone has ever had these thoughts while you were presenting?

Over the next few months, we are going to talk about some of the dos and don’ts of using slides in presentations and sharing tools to help you create and use your slides well. We will also talk about ways to get the members of your audience involved and hold their attention. The tips will be valuable to you whether you use PowerPoint, KeyNote, or Prezi.

An important first step in preparing your presentation is to determine what your audience knows about your topic, as well as what it wants—and needs—to know. In his book, Presenting to Win, Jerry Weissman[1] refers to what the audience knows as Point A and what it wants to know as “what’s in it for you (WIIFY).” In addition, writing a clear goal—getting your audience to Point B—can help you avoid these Five Cardinal Sins of Presentations:

  1. No clear point
  2. No audience benefit
  3. No clear flow
  4. Too detailed
  5. Too long

Once you have set the goal for your presentation—maybe in a concise statement that begins with “at the end of this presentation the participants will understand that . . .”—it is time to gather the information you want to share. Group your ideas in five to six clusters, each with supporting ideas. Remember to avoid sins number four and five—keep it simple and short. The clusters should help with sin number three—clear flow to the presentation. Always keep in mind that you want to get your audience to Point B and make sure they know WIIFY.  Do this on paper, or any medium other than your presentation software. Be patient, we will get there.

Akash Karia, author of How to Design TED Worthy Presentation Slides[2], suggests that the next step is to quickly sketch a storyboard of your presentation. Instead of creating an outline or a list of bullet points, sketch, on paper or in your head, some images that capture your main thoughts. If you have ever seen a TED Talk[3] online, if the presenter used slides, the slides probably did not contain bullet points, but simple keywords and images to help the audience focus on, and remember, what is being said. Your storyboard could include very rough sketches of the type of image you might use and the keywords to reference. The benefit of doing this outside the presentation software is that you are not bound by the rules of the software and the temptations to fill the screen with words.

[1] Jerry Weissman, Presenting to Win: the Art of Telling Your Story (Pearson Education, Inc., 2009), pp. 1,2.

[2] Akash Karia, How to Design TED Worthy Presentation Slides (Self-published, 2015), pp. 31,32.

[3] TED Talks are short talks (18 minutes or less) on technology, education, and design.


Next month, we will talk about how to transfer the ideas and images from your storyboard to your presentation.