Stop BREAKING THE BASIC RULES of presenting!

09 Apr

Public speaking and giving presentations is becoming more and more important in many career paths. There are nervous public speakers, confident public speakers, and many people who are making the journey from one to the other. But ALL of them could do with avoiding breaking just the most basic rules of presenting – it’s amazing how often one or more of these will crop up at a conference, training day or event.

I hope this is taken in the spirit it is intended. :)

Stop Breaking The Basic Rules of Presenting
(click through for transcript via Slideshare)

View more presentations from Ned Potter
Incidentally, this is really aimed at people who habitually do all this stuff, without really knowing they do it. If you already know these rules, then you can probably break them and still make a great presentation!



Read all the guides I’ve ever written (to Prezi, Twitter, Public Speaking, Evernote, Netvibes, etc etc) linked from one page.


{lang: 'en-GB'}
Print Friendly

Tags: , , , , ,

  • Ned Potter April 9, 2011 at 1:34 PM

    Stop BREAKING THE BASIC RULES of presenting! #Raaar!

  • Lukas Koster April 9, 2011 at 1:42 PM

    Eveybody look here! RT @theREALwikiman: Stop BREAKING THE BASIC RULES of presenting! #Raaar!

  • Kimberly Blessing April 9, 2011 at 2:36 PM

    RT @theREALwikiman: Stop BREAKING THE BASIC RULES of presenting! #Raaar!

  • david lee king April 9, 2011 at 3:20 PM

    Funny – and true, too! I had a speech professor in college who would assign one of his students the job of holding a metal can with a rock in it. Every time someone giving a speech would say UM … we had to bang the rock in the can …. and in that room, with tile floors and wood ceilings, that sound was LOUD. It really helped me break that habit!

  • Adrienne Cooper (@sphericalfruit) April 9, 2011 at 3:35 PM

    Can’t see @theREALwikiman’s presenting rules not to break Waving one’s Andrew Marr monkey arms about on there? Hope not

  • thewikiman April 9, 2011 at 3:44 PM

    That’s funny, my echo chamber presentating partner Woodsiegirl was just telling me about a similar excercise, written up on her blog, where you speak in groups of three and everytime one of you says ‘um’ you have to stop and let someone else take over… I think it’s great to be made aware of how much we say ‘um’ and ‘er’. It’s really noticeable in fiction versus non-fiction conversations. In fiction it’s often the nervous or indecisive people who are characterised by lots of ums, but when you read transcripts of real life conversations, even very confident people do it all the time!

    I’ve not forgotten I owe you an email, by the way – I’m on it…

  • Andrew Nacin April 9, 2011 at 4:25 PM

    Excellent, excellent advice. RT @theREALwikiman: Stop BREAKING THE BASIC RULES of presenting! #Raaar!

  • pmilkman April 9, 2011 at 4:26 PM

    RT @nacin Excellent, excellent advice. RT @theREALwikiman: Stop BREAKING THE BASIC RULES of presenting! #Raaar!

  • Dan Cole April 10, 2011 at 12:19 AM

    RT @nacin: Excellent, excellent advice. RT @theREALwikiman: Stop BREAKING THE BASIC RULES of presenting! #Raaar!

  • Elena (@eleneena) April 10, 2011 at 12:59 PM

    Very witty and through-provoking, however I disagree with some of your points and probably also with the whole premise of having to follow certain rules. It’s following rules that got people to write presentations with so many slides per minute and so many points per slide, whether this suited the information they had to convey or not. Plus, as someone once said, rules are there to be broken ;-)

    I also disagree that there is something inherently wrong with using bullet points. Their original purpose was to help the presenter emphasise the points they were making. Nobody said a presentation had to consist simply of bullet points, but bullet mania took over and the rest is history. It’s not the bullet itself that’s the problem, but how it’s used. Some things suit being written as a list, others don’t. Abuse anything, be it bullet points, images, block text and you are likely to lose the audience. People also forget that slides are only there as prop. Nobody forces you to use them. I’ve seen people give excellent presentations to a single slide or no slides. It’s all about finding what suits your content. If the slides don’t do the job easier or better, ditch them.

    I agree with your comment about ‘ums’ and ‘ers’ to a point, but if the talk is interesting, for me they become background noise. I rather have a fluent presenter with their ums and ers than someone who’s trying so hard not to say any of these things that the presentation becomes robotic and ends up being distracting for that very reason.

    I also think the double-checking with co-presenters is not always using them as a crutch, as you put it. You may end up having to present with someone you don’t know too well, and you may just want to check that what you are saying is along the tracks of what you agreed, and you are not messing things up for what they are going to say next. Keeping an eye on your partner is not only a considerate thing to do, but also a necessity in every joint performance, whether it’s a presenting, acting, singing or dancing. Maybe people just need to be a bit more subtle with their checking ;-)

    Getting most of these things right comes with practice and people have to start somewhere and make ‘mistakes’. I think watching recordings of yourself, if available, or getting feedback from friends or colleagues is the best way of improving, rather than trying to follow prescribing rules that may not work for all people and circumstances.

    Ultimately, a presenter needs to understand their content and their audience. That’s probably the only hard and fast rule I would adhere by. As long as you manage to connect with your audience and keep them interested in the story, the rest is irrelevant.

  • thewikiman April 10, 2011 at 1:42 PM

    Wow, those are some great points! Should be a blog post all of its own, really…

    Basically my short reply is, I agree with pretty much everything you say. :) If my presentation had been a blog post, I could have added a footnote to each slide with exactly the kind of caveats you mention there. But it wasn’t, it was designed to be as brief and as punchy as possible, so it made things pretty black and white. My justification for that is, I see a LOT of presentations where, if people followed all those rules, they’d be better than if they didn’t. You have to know the rules to break them, and too many people literally look behind them at the screen the whole time, don’t have conviction in what they’re saying, and (my personal mega-hate) come to a 20 minute presentation with 30 minute’s worth of material! So I went for the real basic, overly-harsh-but-I-was-trying-to-be-in-drill-sergeant-character stuff.

    I agree with you that following certain rules is probably a bad idea in principle – but for people who aren’t natural or experienced at something, rules provides a framework for them to work successfully within. Once learnt, they can certainly be broke. The same applies to bullet points – yes they CAN be used well, but when literally 95 times out of 100 they are used badly, the message has to be STOP USING THEM rather than something more subtle. It’s like if someone is powersliding their car on their driving test – the message that needs communicating is, don’t powerslide your car, rather than ‘maybe you should apply a little bit of opposite lock earlier and drift the tail out wider’. :)

    Ums and Ers, someone else made the point that if you as a presenter focus too much on cutting them out that can in itself make the presentation bad, which I agree with. But again, this is more about making people aware of simple things they might not know they are doing, so they can think about it and engage with it – rather than to provide expert advice on tailoring presentation technique.

    Good point about not knowing your co-presenter too well, yes. I just get angsty when co-presenters start presenting to each other rather than to the audience – it’s an easy and comforting trap to fall into.

    Now your point about people having to start somewhere and make mistakes, is the crux of the matter. A lot of what I do in this blog is effectively write to the me of five years ago… I’m not a brilliant public speaker but I can identify easily fixable problems, and there’s so much stuff I wish I’d known earlier. So I’d love other people not to have to make so many mistakes and just jump ahead to the ‘knowing some of the common pitfalls’ part – about public speaking but about lots of other things too. So that’s why this presentation is in broad strokes like it is, really – a presenter knowing they want to improve would read a detailed analysis (complete with caveats!) but someone starting out just needs to be made aware of stuff in the first place. That’s where I was coming from with this – I see people who are nervous and who aren’t natural presenters and I think, hey, you could be absolutely fine, and probably enjoy this a lot more, if the nerves were the only problem (rather than the looking backwards, walking in front of the projector, etc etc). It’s really about that rather than trying to get everyone to follow rules. But I do think you need at least an awareness of the rules so you can break them better. :)

  • Elena (@eleneena) April 10, 2011 at 2:22 PM

    Thank you for the quick and in depth reply. I appreciate you were going for ‘shock and awe’ :D and I agree sometimes you just have to be bold to get heard. I think your presentation conveys the message really effectively.

    Just wanted to point out the caveats for people who might be taking things too literally. Getting rid or their ‘ums’ and ‘ers’ may not be a priority for an inexperienced presenter, compared to finding the right amount of content, or like you say, standing in the right place :)

    In any case, I totally agree that it’s important to share presenting tips. A few simple changes can make all the difference :)

  • Roth April 11, 2011 at 10:47 AM

    So what about the scores of academic who – in spite of it being A FUNDAMENTAL PART OF THEIR JOB to present in an inspiring way – still read out academic papers at conferences / symposia etc. This is beyond maddening and borders on ineptitude. What possible excuse is there for this?

  • thewikiman April 11, 2011 at 10:51 AM

    Well I guess if there had to be an excuse for them, it’s that the government has imposed such restrictive finding related criteria on their research, academics have to churn out this stuff even if they don’t have enough time to prepare… but yes, reading out = pretty bad.

  • CILIP April 11, 2011 at 11:30 AM

    Good advice for presenters RT @therealwikiman Stop BREAKING THE BASIC RULES of presenting!

  • Neil Infield April 11, 2011 at 11:54 AM

    You are a very brave man Mr Wikiman. You realise we will all be bringing along rocks in a can to your talks, and watching you like a hawk…
    Death by bullet point – what a nasty way to go!

  • Bobbi Newman April 11, 2011 at 2:02 PM

    Stop BREAKING THE BASIC RULES of presenting! « thewikiman

  • Fiona Forsythe April 11, 2011 at 2:04 PM

    …can I add one more ‘rule’ …if you can’t use the mouse/clicker to move your slides on – find some other way than yelling ‘NEXT’ at the top of your voice to the techie….shouting NEXT at the end of every slide means that the audience never gets the chance to have a decent sleep!…oh and DON’T cuddle your boyfriend whilst you are supposed to be watching the presentors time, listening in order to propose a vote of thanks, and in general providing support to the speaker. It is off putting, and just a little unprofessional….

  • thewikiman April 11, 2011 at 2:18 PM

    Wow, do people really do those things?! Those are definitely good rules not to break…

  • Steve Teeri April 11, 2011 at 2:39 PM

    RT @phepbu: Advice to live by at conferences! RT @librarianbyday: Stop BREAKING THE BASIC RULES of presenting! « thewikiman

  • [...] Posted by Editor on April 11, 2011 09 Apr – here [...]

  • deevybee April 11, 2011 at 4:45 PM

    Well said! In my experience, more senior presenters are often worse than junior ones.
    see my blogpost on how to captivate your audience in 10 easy steps

  • thewikiman April 11, 2011 at 7:55 PM

    Yep, I agree about the seniority. People new to presenting who run over are forgivable – senior people who can’t be bothered to keep to time? Nothing is more annoying..

  • The WI, advocacy and me | sarahcchilds April 11, 2011 at 9:35 PM

    [...] there was a bit too much umming and erring. I think this is the only one of the wikiman’s Basic Rules of Presenting that I broke (here’s to a 100% strike rate next [...]

  • Ned Potter April 12, 2011 at 2:57 PM

    Anyone (@slewth?) with knowledge of accessibility help me out here? Wondering what the commenter Liz @ is getting at?

  • Sarah Wolfenden April 12, 2011 at 2:57 PM

    I'm always surprised when people still get the basics wrong.Stop BREAKING THE BASIC RULES of presenting!

  • Liz R April 12, 2011 at 3:29 PM

    Have to disagree with most of this. The author needs training in accessible communication. These guidelines are based on the assumption that all members of the audience don’t have communication support needs. You would not be able to identify people with hidden impairments by sight and sticking to these recommendations you would exclude people from understanding the content of the presentation and participating in discussions that might be part of an event where a presentation was made. The presentation is an example of poor practice in accessible communication. We should be aiming to remove barriers to participation and challenging institutional discrimination – this won’t do it.

  • thewikiman April 12, 2011 at 3:50 PM

    Liz, I don’t quite get where you’re coming from here. You disagree with most of these rules because if followed they would make the presentation inaccessible – I have had some training in accessible communication so I’ve highlighted in bold the ones I think this could apply to:

    Face the front
    Don’t read prose aloud
    Don’t read the slides out
    Don’t use several bullet points

    Don’t use your co-presenter as a crutch
    Finish your thoughts
    Stop saying ‘Um’
    Stop apologising
    Don’t walk in front of the projector
    Don’t go over your time limit

    … is that right? I don’t see how the rest of them, such as facing away from the audience, or going over time, have any impact on accessibility or how “sticking to these recommendations [...] would exclude people from understanding the content of the presentation.” But if they do, I’d genuinely like to know about it. Having someone with your expertise (who works at such a high level in this area), commenting on my blog post, ought to be a great opportunity to learn – but the comment above doesn’t feel like that. Tell me how I can make things better rather than just telling me I have things wrong!

    In terms of this presentation being held up as an example of poor practice in accessible communication I’ll admit it’s not perfect, but I have tried. For example:

    - The colours are generally dark against light, rather than light on light
    - There are no small font sizes
    - There is a degree of consistency in the layout
    - The fonts used are neither cursive nor from the serif family
    - There are no blocks of italics or underlined text

    In addition to which, the words ‘click through for a transcript on Slideshare’ are part of the hyperlink above the presentation, so people who can’t use embeded presentations such as this still know where to find the full text.

  • Shannon Robalino April 12, 2011 at 8:40 PM

    Good advice. I know lots of ppl who could use this too! RT @TopsyRT: Stop BREAKING THE BASIC RULES of presenting!

  • Morwenna April 12, 2011 at 9:12 PM

    This made me laugh out loud! I think the capitals in the presentation indicated ‘the spirit in which it was intended’! I agree totally, in principle, with these rules – especially the whole facing the screen rather than the audience business. Many of these things can be put down to nerves but good advice nonetheless.
    (by the way, for some reason Sarah Wolfenden’s image is coming up, even though I’ve checked my gravatar…grrr! I must be doing something wrong. Sorry Sarah!)

  • Neil Infeld April 12, 2011 at 9:23 PM

    What on earth are ‘communication support needs’?

  • Dewey Doofus April 13, 2011 at 3:36 AM

    Stop BREAKING THE BASIC RULES of presenting! I especially like the parts on bulletpoints & NO APOLOGIES

  • Dave Pattern April 15, 2011 at 10:54 AM

    @theREALwikiman It's an internal Computing & Library Services staff blog. Someone has add a post linking to

  • Aaron Awad April 16, 2011 at 12:49 PM

    Handy reference! Stop BREAKING THE BASIC RULES of presenting! « thewikiman

  • [...] 1. Stop BREAKING THE BASIC RULES of presenting! « thewikiman another great presentation from Ned Potter, I think this one spent most of last week on the front page of [...]

  • [...] rush to look at them, they are library induction slides and I doubt they meet any of the Wikiman’s recommendations. In the few pages on google that I looked at neither blog came up which is to be expected with the [...]

  • [...] mind and keep them entertained! When I do use words I roughly stick by the advice in this post, though rules are there to be broken etc. I didn’t know there was a way to embed fonts in [...]

  • [...] message that the presenter is trying to deliver?  There are some good ideas from thewikiman in ‘Stop breaking the basic rules of presenting’.  Enjoy Share this:ShareEmailLinkedInFacebookTwitterLike this:LikeBe the first to like [...]

  • [...] to speak in presentations at University. I have been reading the advice given by Phil Bradley and Ned Potter  and will certainly take what they have said on board. I used to get a bit scared by presentations [...]

  • Post a comment

    Threaded commenting powered by interconnect/it code.