Before the current crisis, it was already a huge challenge to connect with audiences because of the diminishing attention span caused by social media and cell phones. Given today’s new obstacles to listening and even more distractions, this detailed guide is designed to help you identify and avoid the most common presentation mistakes online or in person, so you can improve the odds of success when it’s your turn to speak to others.

To minimize any of the notorious “F†words that come to mind when you think about speaking online or in public, I will give you a rundown of the most common presentation mistakes speakers make and how you can avoid them. First, I’ll explain why a lack of preparation dooms most speakers. On the flip side, if you find yourself doing impromptu speaking, it doesn’t mean you can’t do a terrific job.

You’ll learn how a presentation that maintains the interest of those in your audience differs from a deadly lecture. Next, you will also gain an understanding of the need to delete more content than you expect, strategically, before you speak. And I’ll give you pointers on storytelling and reading your audience that will keep you on top of your speaking game – online and in person.

At the end of this blog you’ll know exactly what not to do during a presentation – and have a clearer path to avoiding the most common presentation mistakes.

Presentation Mistake 1: Winging It

While it’s true that most people know what they’re asked to talk about, it’s also true that the most common presentation mistake is the most obvious: not enough preparation.

How to Tell If a Speaker Is “Winging Itâ€

Here are some clues that let you know when a speaker (maybe you?) has not prepared enough for the presentation:

  • The speaker is obviously unprepared for the situation or question and looks uncomfortable or nervous.
  • You hear many fillers such as “er,†“uh,†“um,†and “you know,†between sentences because the speaker doesn’t know what to say next.
  • The message is disorganized, hard to follow and not particularly impressive.
  • The speaker asks the audience or the person who made the introduction how long the presentation is supposed to last and is clueless about the expectations of the organization that invited them.

You’ve no doubt seen presenters exhibiting behaviors in the examples above. It’s painful for everyone hearing the presentation and especially in 2020, during online meetings. It’s also painful for the person who’s in front of the group or on camera.

Experienced speakers and leaders never make the mistake of “winging it†when they get up to speak extemporaneously. They are pulling up content that has previously worked from their experience “bag.†They know how to pace themselves, how to interact with the audience, and how to make their points. Public or persuasive speaking is an acquired skill you can develop with practice and commitment.

No one in an audience appreciates sitting through an awkward, poorly crafted message, which is what happens most often when someone wings it.

A woman sitting at a table with papers and a laptop.

Tactics to avoid this most common presentation mistake:

Preparing better will help you reduce presentation nerves. Ideally, you want to have the points of your whole presentation written and practice them aloud several times. In my free 5-day minicourse to create a presentation, I explain some of the best ways to organize your content.  Here are some tactics I find really effective to avoid falling into this common presentation mistake:

  • Give yourself ample time to clearly identify the two or three main points you want to get across in your remarks and build your message around them.
  • If you receive a last-minute request to speak or answer a question, write down the two or three critical ideas you want to get across, on a napkin or in Notes on your cellphone, if necessary. You can also do this mentally by allowing yourself to envision those two or three points.
  • Try to recall a good, relevant story that you tell with comfort to incorporate into your comments.
  • For best results, always practice aloud, out of order, and time each element to make sure you are not exceeding your scheduled allotment of time. For last-minute situations, assume control as if you had practiced.

Presentation Mistake 2: Lecture versus Interaction

If you think about a classic sermon by a member of the clergy, or a typical university lecture, the majority are one-sided affairs. Somebody talks. You listen. It can often by dry and dull, or worse, dreary and draining.

Sometimes we’re lucky, yes? The speaker is riveting. Thoughtful. Inspirational. Full of valuable ideas and data. After all, there are clergy who know how to connect to their congregation and there are also a few wonderful professionals and teachers out there, right? Additionally, every once in a while, we’re thrilled when corporate or nonprofit leaders, coaches or entrepreneurs can make feel glad were on hand when they spoke.

What Kind of Presenter Do You Want to Be?

In 2020, online audiences – and the live ones when we return to that kind of presenting – are expecting cinema-like experiences when they sit before you. Whether it’s a team meeting, sales presentation, speech, webinar or fundraising effort, they want to enjoy themselves, too.

Instead of patiently and politely listening to a speaker drone on and on about a particular area of expertise or point of view, audiences can and do whip out their cell phones to text or Google.

How to avoid this mistake to keep your audience engaged:

For you to avoid committing this common mistake in your presentation and to counteract the chance of being boring or otherwise not connecting with your audience, I recommend you incorporate what I call The Speaker’s Three E’s:

  1. Entertain them. First, strive to create entertainment value in your message. Examples of this first Speaker E are a relevant and preferably humorous story or a set of delicious, smile-evoking comments. You can also use a funny sign, prop, video clips or a combination of elements.
  2. Educate a bit. The Second Speaker E is to plan the educational value you are including. What practical take-aways are you giving in your message? No one wants to waste time there days. Are you sharing your expertise and experience in such a way that your audience feels lucky to have been listening to you? What tips, pointers, references, visual examples or other content can you impart so that the message does not seem like a dull lecture? How can you organize what you know so that the audience can absorb it as painlessly and completely as possible?
  3. Energize with inspiration. The final Speaker E is energizing inspiration. What can you impart that will help people overcome the feeling of being overwhelmed, stressed, pulled in too many directions at the same time and needing inner strength – especially in these troubling times? When you are the presenter, no matter what your role or objective, I believe you have a much better chance of accomplishing your goal when you tune into the motivations of your listeners and charge up the atmosphere with your own brand of energy.
A woman sitting at a table with papers and a laptop.

One thing to consider when you’re choosing an online format is whether you plan to deliver a lecture-style presentation or a participatory experience. You can make your virtual meeting more interactive. If you use the webinar option, your audience can ask you questions by writing in the Chat or by electronically raising a hand. You can choose to unmute them or not to answer a question, but you can’t see anyone. It becomes even more critical that you can come across energetically by projecting your passion and knowledge in a strong, deliberate way. If you use a Meeting format and what is called the Gallery or Speaker view, you can see everyone who’s in your session, and unmute them to ask or answer questions more interactively. Each format has advantages and disadvantages, and we’ll go over more details in a coming blog post.

While it’s true that each of us is motivated by different things, I believe it’s our obligation as a speaker and as a leader to build into your messages a genuine taste of your passion for the topic as well as why you believe in its importance. When you build the 3 E’s into your message, you’ll be the kind of speaker and leader we all want to hear.

Presentation Mistake 3: Overlooking Storytelling

Ever since we were children, stories have delighted us, scared us, and motivated us to action. It’s been my experience that your audience will not remember the facts you so diligently gathered and organized, no matter how impressive. What they will value and repeat to others are the relevant and well-told stories you share about your expertise, your trip, your project, or whatever has led you to be in front of them that day.

Your Storytelling Has No Limits

Ideally, when you present a story, you take us with you on your adventure so that we can re-experience it with you, and sample the full range of emotions, colors, sounds, tastes and conversations that left their mark on you.

In the beginning of my speaking career, I deliberately kept myself out of the story equation – staying true to my journalism roots. With experience, though, I realized my responsibility was to really connect with the audience. I started to share my relevant life and professional experiences with my audience and individual clients. If you’ve read some of my previous blogs, you’ve already had a taste.

Good storytelling is a form of live theater and the top actors always practice extensively before appearing on stage or on camera. The actors’ job is to make you believe that they are actually the character you’re seeing.

A woman sitting at a table with papers and a laptop.

Here is how you can avoid this common presentation mistake of overlooking storytelling:

While the stories you tell may be a part of your personal or professional life experiences, it’s one thing to describe to your family members and friends what happened, and a whole different challenge to present it to an audience or meeting room full of strangers. Take your cue from the world of fine actors and allow yourself ample time to fine-tune the pieces of your stories with spoken-out-loud practice, so that you come across as natural and credible.

One technique that actors use to elevate the energy level in their delivery is to attach certain emotions or a set of emotions to a particular group of lines, or an individual line of text, i.e., angry, happy, frustrated, satisfied or light-hearted.

Go through the story you’ve written out that you want to tell and highlight critical parts in different color markers, on paper or using the feature in your document software. What you don’t want to do is tell the story in only one color, a sure-fire way to lose your audience’s attention.

You can embrace your nervousness as an ally. You can also deliberately look for opportunities to use storytelling to interact with your audiences.

One of my favorite former newspaper editors, David Lawrence, Jr., shared his approach to public speaking with me:

I like to be nervous before every speech. Really.

A speaker always knows – or at least I do – when it has gone well, and when it has not. There have been occasions when I’ve approached the podium and thought to myself: ‘Piece of cake. I’ve got this one knocked.’ In every one of those occasions, I’ve not done my best. Being a bit uptight makes me think harder, perform better.

Every chance I get, in starting a speech, I play off something the introducer said or something happening in the room, and I almost always do this with humor. I do that to loosen up myself, and the audience.

David is the retired publisher of the Miami Herald and founder of a pioneering nonpartisan grassroots organization that supports the need for increased investment in the first five years of a child’s life, The Children’s Movement of Florida. He is a recognized community and educational leader.

Here’s some of more of David’s advice:

Before I speak anywhere I do a bunch of research – much of it on the Internet – about the real world for children of that community or state. People know when you’re really prepared, and when you aren’t. They appreciate that you’ve really worked to know their community.

I just about every speech, I insert the personal. That frequently includes stories about my own life, including my growing-up years, and my family. People are hungry for people of values = people who inspire them – and for just plain, straight talk.

To connect – to create the kind of relationship you want with your audience of team members, potential or current clients or donors – avoid hiding emotionally or personally, even if that is a more comfortable route to take. You can do it!

Presentation Mistake 4: – Ignoring Audience Reaction

If two thirds of your audience are fully engaged with their cellphones or other devices during your presentation, chances are you’re losing the global attention span challenge( Other clues include an excessive amount of yawning and coughing, and nose blowing, not attributed to a sudden or existing epidemic.

Widespread slumping in the seats – visible online in a Zoom call or in person – or a sea of knees inching towards the door (live) are also not good signs.

How to avoid this fourth most common presentation mistake:

What is recommended when you find yourself with an audience or a group at a virtual meeting that is not paying attention to you and your message?

First, I do not recommend that you ignore their reaction, no matter how upset you are. It’s not necessary to get on your knees and grovel in apology. It’s also not a good idea to take off your clothes, whistle loudly or stomp your feet. You do need to change course and move away from the tone and direction you planned or risk things going even sourer.

It takes guts, practice, and true knowledge of your subject – and the audience’s interests – but you can reengage a group or meeting that has drifted away, out of your control.

One tactic is to have ready, in advance, a set of purposely stimulating questions that can easily provoke interaction with the audience members. Why? If things start going south, you won’t need to make up questions on the spot. You can also prepare a set of polling questions in certain online platforms that allow you to pose questions and get responses, to which you can also react.

Avoid this mistake by using some of these re-engaging questions

  • What have you done when faced with this kind of situation?
  • What worked best and why?
  • Would you share what didn’t work well and why you thought that happened?
  • When do you think is the best time to change the direction your group is doing?
  • How do you introduce a new concept like this in your office?
  • What use do you see for this kind of approach to work in your world/office/community or personal life?

Another way to salvage a failing presentation is to switch tracks and move to an area of your message that you know has worked well before. If you’re covering three points, for instance, and the first one is falling flat, give yourself the okay to jump to the third and most compelling part of your message. Then, strive to create an interactive environment where you are not the only one speaking.

Remember, most audiences want the speaker to succeed. No one likes to be bored or feel as though their meeting is a waste of time. By recognizing you’re off track and then getting yourself back on, everybody wins.

A woman sitting at a table with papers and a laptop.
Common Presentation Mistakes In 2020: A Guide on How to Avoid the Biggest Four

Other types of mistakes to avoid:

The mistakes I have included in this blog refer to key parts of the presentation process, but there are many other things that I recommend you do to assure that you make the impact you want. One is using a Presentation checklist, which always comes in handy for me.

Here are other common presentation mistakes to avoid:

  • Not familiarizing yourself with the online platform (i.e. Zoom or Go To Meeting) you’re using.
  • In-person, not checking out the venue before you’re there to speak.
  • Failing to understand the role of visuals (
  • Using inappropriate language or humor.
  • Failing to persuade your audience into action (


  • The expression, “fake it ‘til you make it,†does not bring about the optimal results in persuasive speaking online or in person.
  • Designing a presentation that strategically involves your audience and gets them to respond periodically helps assure that you keep people engaged throughout.
  • You can convey both emotion and valuable information through carefully planned and practiced storytelling, helping assure the results you’re seeking from your presentation.
  • Good speakers learn to listen to an audience with their eyes and react with strategies to rekindle interest. Be on the alert for telltale signs that attention may be waning such as too much texting, looking at their watches or phones, unexplained coughing, paper shuffling, or multiple private conversations around the room.

Free Resource

A woman sitting at a table with papers and a laptop.