This article is part of an ongoing series Presentation Skills: The Secret Weapon of Career Success.

Like it or not, presentation skills can dramatically impact the trajectory of one’s career. Indeed, presentation skills are really leadership skills. National Speakers Association CEO, Mary Lue Peck insists, “When leaders invest in their presentation skills, they become more effective at working and interacting with others. Perfecting presentation skills help ensure that their message is not just being heard but understood.”

Unfortunately, that lack of investment can have dire consequences. A dreadful performance in front of the wrong audience may not just result in immediate negative impact for that particular project or task, but maybe more importantly it can undercut an employee’s confidence and credibility in the organization long term. Let’s face it – organizations are mesmerized by those who seem comfortable speaking to a group, are persuasive in front of the client, or prove themselves to be an effective, charismatic representative of the product or the organization, and once you’ve developed a reputation as someone who isn’t, career advancement options may be limited.

Unfortunately, many professionals make these five very common presentation mistakes that can yield disastrous consequences. Learn the mistakes and how to avoid them!

Mistake #1 – Not Practicing Enough

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The best speakers often seem like they just glided on the stage and gave the presentation of their lives without much effort, but the truth is that the best speakers practice, practice, practice! When you try to “wing it,” you’re much more prone to stumble through the material, default to reading slides or get rattled by questions. Also, when you’ve not practiced much, you’re just not as confident and that lack of confidence comes across big time!

Instead, Do This – On a macro level, invest in honing your presentation skills on an ongoing basis by joining Toastmasters International, National Speakers Association or another speaking organization. On a micro level practice your presentation – over and over. Remember that writing the report and presenting the findings are two entirely different things. Practice – for real – stand up, speak to the slides, use a timer, etc. to try to simulate the actual event. Clicking through the slides on your laptop as you just think about what you’ll say isn’t true practice. For a major presentation you probably want to visit the room (even practice there if possible). Keynote Speaker Heather Monahan shares, “Going to the venue or meeting location days or weeks ahead of time helps too. When you run through what it will be like in real time and you envision yourself doing amazing, you will deliver on that.” K.V. Scott, President of Kossen Communications LLC also recommends conducting a dry run because it provides an opportunity to test out videos and slide animations to work out kinks in advance if needed. We’ve all witnessed a presenter being horribly embarrassed by technology failures – don’t be that presenter!

Mistake #2 – Reading Presentation Slides

There’s nothing worse than watching a speaker stand with their back to the group (mostly) reading slides projected on a screen. Of course, if the speaker is just reading the slides, they’re not really necessary, right? That’s about the time most people start rolling their eyes wondering what they could be getting accomplished if only they hadn’t come to this presentation. Remember that slides should be a point of reference – they’re an accessory, but you’re the main event. If you’ve avoided mistake #1 by practicing, you know the content – don’t read it! It’s there. It’s not going anywhere. Avoid the temptation to talk to the screen and robotically read bullet points.

Instead, Do This – Review the content enough in advance so you know what’s there and don’t need to read it as a crutch. Instead, for each slide focus on answering these two primary questions:

  • What is the big idea on this slide?
  • Why should they care?

Also remember that reading slide content often complicates the overall message. Certified Speaking Professional and Founder of MotionFirst, a speaking and consulting company, Meridith Elliott Powell insists, “It’s a mistake to over complicate the message and share too much information. Presentations should be simple and focused.” It’s also important to intersperse a variety of techniques – asking questions, sharing anecdotes, using descriptive examples – to engage the audience and make the presentation more dynamic and interesting. (More on this in a future post in this series.)

Mistake #3 – Talking Too Fast

This is such a common mistake so don’t be surprised to realize that you might be talking 100 mph and leaving your audience in the dust. Remember that the best presentation becomes a train wreck if the speaker speaks too fast. The more familiar the content is for you, the more tempted you will be to speed through it so slow down!

Instead, Do This – First, trim your content so you’re not trying to fit a 30 minute presentation into a 10 minute time slot. A general rule of thumb for pacing is 1-2 minutes per slide so if you’ve got 30 slides for a 30 minute presentation, you may be setting yourself up for failure. Also, remember that reviewing data heavy, dense slides, responding to questions or interjecting stories will take more time so plan for that. If you’re staying on one slide for more than 4-5 minutes, you might want to consider breaking the content into two slides. Also, don’t be too proud to use a post it reminder on your practice podium or your mirror to remind you to slow down! You’ll be glad you did!

Mistake #4 – Relying on Filler Words Unconsciously

Virtually all speakers rely on “filler words” (e.g. um, uh, ok, etc.) unconsciously during their presentations. When I practiced a presentation in high school in front of my dad, he told me I’d said “you know” more than ten times, and I didn’t even remember saying it once. Once I started recording myself, I was horrified to hear myself say it over and over without even realizing I was saying it.

Instead, Do This – Don’t beat yourself up – just try to figure out what your filler word/phrase is so you can begin to remove it. Record yourself so you can identify your fillers, then consciously work to minimize them. Another approach is presenting in front of a friend and asking them ring a bell or hit a buzzer every time you use your filler word/phrase. Speaking more slowly should make it easier for you to remove the filler words so this is yet another reason why speaking slower is usually a smart move.

Mistake #5 – Getting Overwhelmed/Psyched Out

I’ve always heard that the average person is more afraid of public speaking than death. I’m not sure how true that is, but I definitely understand the anxiety created by the thought of speaking in front of a group. Anxiety and nerves can create a career limiting event, and no one wants that.

Instead, Do This – Find a technique that helps reduce your anxiety – taking deep breaths, repeating a reaffirming phrase, etc. Monahan suggests using lavender to kill the nerves right before you speak. I also find that the best defense is a good offense. By that, I mean be prepared! I find that the more rehearsed and confident I am with the content, the less nervous and anxious I feel. In fact, if I’m truly well versed and interested in the content, I’m usually just looking forward to engaging with the group and not as focused on the mechanics of the presentation. Also remember that people are typically more anxious the less comfortable they are with the topic so avoid presenting on topics that aren’t your area of expertise. One of the worst feelings is presenting on a topic where you don’t feel like you have the necessary expertise and competence to speak so just avoid putting yourself in that position and stick to what you know!

Stay tuned for the rest of the series which will explore how professionals can move their presentations from good to great.