Five Things Not to Do in Front of an Audience

Audiences don’t usually throw tomatoes or pound their shoes on the table in response to a bad presentation. But they do respond in more subtle ways: they don’t buy your product, they don’t sign up for your cause and they won’t refer you.

So what audience “no-no’s” should you avoid?

1. Don’t Be Disorganized

If your material is a jumble of facts without a clear focus it’s likely that you didn’t set an objective at the outset of your preparation. Many of us ignore the planning step of setting an objective and jump immediately into the “What am I going to say?” process.

Your objective needs to answer three key questions:

• What do you want to accomplish?
• What do you want your audience to take away?
• What do you want your audience to do with the information?

If you don’t clearly understand what you want to achieve in your presentation, there’s not a chance your audience will understand either.

And while you’re at it, make your objectives SMART:

Measurable: How will you know you’ve accomplished it?
Relevant to the audience
Time: possible in the allotted time

2. Don’t Make It All About You

As presenters, we tend to worry more about ourselves than we do about our audience. We worry that:

• We won’t look knowledgeable
• We won’t be able to answer some questions
• We’ll appear nervous
• We’ll forget what we wanted to say

These concerns, while valid, have the focus all wrong. If you’re going to worry about something, worry about how much value you are providing your audience.

Your presentation is not about you, it’s ALL about your audience. They will determine, by their response, whether or not you’ve been successful.

The more you can “stand in your audience’s shoes” and look at their needs, concerns and perspectives, the more likely you will be to connect with them. Think of yourself as a guide or a translator for your audience. You explain, demystify, interpret and analyze—you present your information through the filter of the audience’s needs.

If you’re busy guiding and translating, there won’t be time to worry about you.

3. Don’t Communicate More Than Your Audience Can Absorb

Adults have various learning styles and process information in a variety of ways. But, according to a study done by the Navy, the average adult’s attention span is 18 minutes. That means 18 minutes without any variation in format or interaction.

So what does that mean for us as we present? Perhaps we should:

• Incorporate interactive exercises to involve the audience

• Do a series of presentations, particularly if the subject is complex or involved

• Lengthen the Q&A section to facilitate more audience interaction

• Include frequent stories and anecdotes to break up the format

• Supplement the presentation with handouts, to ensure that the audience has a record of the key points

• Do a follow-up with audience members to ensure understanding

4. Don’t Get Blindsided by Questions

Part of your preparation is anticipating what kinds of questions your audience will have. If you have done a thorough job of understanding your audience’s needs and concerns, you should be able to predict, pretty accurately, where they will want further clarification.

Prepare and rehearse your answers to likely questions ahead of time so you will sound comfortable.

Acting defensive or annoyed when you get a question is a sure way to alienate the audience. To keep the discussion productive and satisfying for the audience, keep these guidelines in mind:

• Always be respectful of the questioner

• Redirect the question: Get the audience
involved—”What do the rest of you think about that?”

• Rephrase the question to ensure you understand it correctly and to articulate it for the rest of the audience: “So what I hear you saying is&”

• Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know but I’ll get you the answer”

Look at questions as an expression of interest from the audience. It shows they are engaged and listening. And it may be just fine to get side tracked from your prepared comments to pursue a lively conversation with the audience. Remember: The most important thing is not whether or not you cover all your material, but whether the audience’s needs are satisfied.

5. Don’t Apologize

We apologize because we’re feeling inadequate, insecure or unprepared. We apologize to lower the bar. If we proactively point out all the things we feel aren’t good enough about our presentation and delivery, then perhaps the audience won’t judge us harshly.

Yet, multiple apologies have the opposite effect. They grate on an audience and make them uncomfortable while severely compromising our credibility.

While you will want to apologize for spilling hot coffee on someone or stepping on her toe, don’t you dare apologize for these four things:

• Misspeaking. We all have the occasional slip of the tongue. Either simply correct yourself (without apology) or use a bridge such as “rather” to get to the correct word—i.e.,The final cost will be 10 million, rather, 10 billion dollars.]

• Clicking onto the wrong slide. Simply acknowledge the slide was out of order and move to the correct one. Say something humorous if you can pull it off.

• Not covering a topic. Bringing the audience’s attention to something that’s missing, through an apology, only highlights its absence and gives the missing piece undue importance. Either ignore it or rationally and unapologetically explain why it’s missing and direct the audience where they can obtain the information.

• Not knowing an answer. If, after preparing your material thoroughly and anticipating what questions the audience will have, you still get stumped, you have nothing to apologize for. Admit you don’t know the answer and either offer to get back to the questioner with the answer or direct him to where he can find it.

Following these five steps will help you communicate more effectively and ensure a positive audience response.

Kathy Reiffenstein is the founder and president of And…Now Presenting!, a Washington, D.C. area business communications consulting and training firm, where she draws on her background in sales, marketing and customer service to create confident, persuasive speakers. She works with business executives, authors, non-profit leaders and the military to help them speak clearly, effectively and engagingly to their audiences. Visit for free presentation tips and resources. Stop by Kathy’s blog for more tips and insights.


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