Why Some Presentations €¦ Um-Ah €¦ Stink

It was 9:15 a.m. on a typical day of presentation coaching.  My video camera was fixed on a software company [...]

May 15 2008 by Chief Executive


It was 9:15 a.m. on a typical day of presentation coaching.  My video camera was fixed on a software company executive, and I was sipping Starbuck’s.

Forty minutes and more than 300 “um-ah” stammers later, I thought: “Why do so many great executives give such crummy presentations?”

Here’s why: presentations in corporate America are created backwards.

Tell me if this sounds familiar:  You’re assigned a date for a presentation.  To customers, partners, employees, analysts, industry peers, whomever.    You follow one of three paths:

One, you email your marketing department for a suitable PowerPoint presentation you can use with this group.  After reviewing the slides, you think about how you’re going to talk to each one.

Two, you search the corporate server for relevant decks you could smash together into a new presentation (the path my software exec had taken).  After the great mash up, you think through the verbal connective tissue.

Or three, you nobly set forth to create a set of slides specifically for this particular audience.   Only then do you consider what you’re going to actually say.

All three paths are dead ends.  Roads to a presentation wasteland where audiences don’t understand or care about what you’re saying and where none of what you say sticks after the fact. 

That’s because you prepared backwards.

Too many presenters simply don’t practice out loud as the first step to nailing the content.  I can’t tell you the number of times company executives have blown off presentation rehearsals because “their slides aren’t done yet.”  Slides should be the last things you focus on, not the first.  

That lack of preparation really shows on presentation day — not only in the length and content of the presentation but also in the delivery style.  Incoherent content is what draws out those ums and ahs and distracting non-verbal ticks.  And that’s when your audience checks out.  That’s when the prospect in the back row pulls out her Blackberry and goes to work.  And it’s all because you took the easy path, the lazy path.  The wrong path.

You didn’t put in the hard work in advance of your presentation.  As a result, you ask your audience to work hard to follow your Death by PowerPoint presentation and the blather loosely associated with it. 

“But I have a real job and can’t give that much preparation time to a 30-minute speech,” you argue. 

I’ve got news for you: this IS part of your job.  Steve Jobs knows this.  The CEO of Apple, Fortune Magazine’s “Most Admired” company, practices on stage, out loud for two full days before every Macworld keynote.  Two full days.  Out loud.  On stage. That’s not counting all the prep time and effort committed leading up to the rehearsals.  Wintson Churchill was said to prepare 45 minutes for every one minute of speech he delivered.   Even in the midst of war.

There’s simply no substitute for out-loud practice.   If they can do it, so can you.

Going Forward

For the next two months, make your company’s presenters rehearse out loud 2-3 weeks ahead of their presentations.  No PowerPoint.  Just talk out the content and messages.  Videotape it, and play it back.  Then repeat.

Once you’ve got the narrative ironed out, then you can apply visuals to support it.  I guarantee the number of slides you use, if you even use any, will be cut at least in half.

Mandate this approach.  There will most certainly be howls of indignation, screams of outrage, yelling and even a few tears.  Do it anyway.  It’s proven, and it works.

It sure worked for my software company executive.  Two weeks removed from our first session, he rocked my world with a 15-minute slide-free presentation.  It included a clear message and a powerful narrative to illustrate his points.  

Even more important is what he didn’t say.  Those 300 um-ah stammers were reduced to two.  Now that’s forward progress.


Andy Craig is a presentation coach and owner of Elevator Speech, Inc.  His clients include Microsoft, CA (Computer Associates), Deloitte, Humana, Reebok, Ingram Micro, Petrobras.