18 tips for giving a horrible presentation

David Sholl
David Sholl

Too many of us have sat through too many bad presentations. And no one wants to give one, either.

Someone who’s seen his fair share of bad talks is David Sholl, of the Georgia Institute of Technology. In this helpful video, “The Secrets of Memorably Bad Presentations,” he presents some tongue-in-cheek advice on how to torture your audience.

(If it’s not immediately obvious — Sholl wants you to do the exact opposite of what he’s suggesting, below.)

  1. Everyone always says lead with a joke. Instead of that, spend the first few minutes of your talk fiddling around with the computer, loading up the right presentation, etc. Don’t bother checking all that ahead of time — awkward silence is a good ice-breaker.
  2. If you do want to start on a light note, include a time-wasting — and completely unfunny — anecdote.
  3. Provide a long-winded introduction that includes stock art and unnecessary explanations. Talking about geochemical engineering? Why not start with the Industrial Revolution, and work your way to the present?
  4. List only your own citations (particularly if you’re first author, so all the citations say “your name, et al”) — if you end up ignoring the work of other people listening to your talk, so be it.
  5. Include a generic slide that provides an outline of your talk. The less specific the better: Introduction/Method/Results/Conclusion, etc.
  6. If you get nervous, don’t worry. Just talk really quickly.
  7. This goes without saying — make bad slides. Suggestions include using different fonts in different places, and cramming in as many acronyms and as much jargon as you can.
  8. When presenting data, include multiple, dense tables. The smaller the font, the better.
  9. Don’t bother explaining why certain data points are more significant than others — let the numbers speak for themselves.
  10. The same advice holds for figures and images on slides — don’t waste space by including words that explain what the images are depicting, or why certain features are important — let the audience do the work to figure it out for themselves.
  11. Check the clock — if you realize you’re short on time but still want to make a point, just click through some slides quickly. Your audience will get it.
  12. If you want to include text on a slide, just copy the long figure legends from a few of your images.
  13. Keep everyone guessing. In the corner of a slide labeled “conclusions,” note that it’s only slide 27 out of 104, so they’ll never know when the talk will truly end.
  14. On that note, talk about something totally different after your “conclusion” slide — maybe throw up some new data from an entirely different project, which you haven’t analyzed yet.
  15. When you really do end up concluding your talk, just assemble a bullet-point list of everything you discussed, and read it off, line by line.
  16. When acknowledging people and places who contributed to your project, mention everything — extensive acknowledgments are a great climax to a talk.
  17. Of course, continue talking long past your allotted time, showing no sign of ever stopping. This is particularly important if your talk is followed by refreshments, which should be plainly visible to the audience — but out of reach until the talk is over.
  18. If you have time for questions, use a question to talk further about another topic, unrelated to what the person was asking. (As a shortcut: Cut off the question before the person has finished, so you can really say whatever you want.) Even if the question appears to have a simple answer, make it long and complicated.

Some of this should seem painfully familiar to readers who attend multiple talks. If you foresee having to sit through some painful ones in the future, you can download “bad talk bingo” from Sholl’s website, which enables you to check off every negative element as it appears.

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22 thoughts on “18 tips for giving a horrible presentation”

  1. Use the word “basically” every 15 seconds. Read the text off the slides, word for word. Face the wall the presentation is projected on, so no one can hear you. Insert spelling mistakes. Think that it’s cool to have flashing visuals on your slides. Get definitions off Wikipedia. In other words, present like my grad school professors did.

  2. For graduate students- try to impress the audience with how much you know and every step of your methods. Because everyone at conferences is secretly a member of your thesis committee, trying to decide whether you really deserve a Ph.D.

  3. Excellent! I must admit that I myself fell into the trap of at least seven of the Sholl’s bullets.
    Two more:
    19. If you have a 1000 mW powerful green laser pointer, use it to describe a frenzied Brownian-like motion on any available surface: the screen, the roof, the walls, the floor, your body, your audience (the eyes are a target of choice), etc.
    20. If the presentation takes place in a closed location, ensure that all lights are turned off, in order to prevent the audience to take notes and steal your good ideas.

  4. use a company/university laptop with automatic updates implemented by the IT department so that the computer has a better chance of rebooting in the middle of your talk….

  5. Avoid saying “That’s an excellent question ” after EVERY question. Not all questions are excellent. Simply thank them for their not so excellent question. Avoid asking if they were paying attention.

  6. – use yellow and light green to highlight what is *really* important to understand your talk
    – talk to the wall or the floor, preferably facing away from the audience as much as possible. This also makes it easier to ignore any question during your talk as a good side-benefit.
    – don’t practice! ever!
    – use changing numbers of total slides – on each slide!
    – when using a microphone, feel free to fiddle around with it as much as you like.

  7. Here is one of my favourite ones:

    Check the slides in your talk on the train, or 5 mins before you are up, or in the previous talk, but use the rehearse tool to do this. This then automatically embeds the timing into each slide, if you are not careful. Of course you have now just blasted through your slides in seconds, so now….

    Then wonder why your slides keep moving forward after a second or two, when to come to give your talk.

    You then start blaming the “broken” trackpad, mouse, keyboard or computer. Of course in that time you talk has moved on more slides.

    So start thinking the computer is possessed!

    Then I kid you not I have seen this, think the audience is playing tricks on you and someone else is moving the slides, and start looking accusingly at the audience.

  8. 17 needs some modification: make sure you have several final points to keep the audience and the moderator guessing about when you’re actually going to finish.

  9. I have seen all of these happen:

    – Give a keynote talk where you cover mostly elementary topics suitable for an undergraduate lecture when the audience consists of renowned experts in the field.

    – Inversion of the “ignore others’ contributions” – discuss extensively what others have done but forget to actually mention what it is that you have done yourself.

    – Move back and forth the slide stack constantly because all your arguments are spread over multiple slides.

    – Have two presenters who switch in the middle of the presentation. For an extra challenge, try it with three people (professor, post-doc, grad student).

    – Ignore the chair’s attempts to tell you your time is finished and instead keep on talking to the wall or your shoes.

    – Realize you’re running out of time so start speaking three times as fast for the last five minutes.

    – Ignore the chair’s directions when taking questions and start an extended conversation about minutiae of your research with your friend in the audience when you’ve already exceeded your allotted time by 10 minutes.

  10. Not so sure the “generic slide” is necessarily useless. OK, a conference room is not a restaurant but having the menu can prove helpful to the audience. Of course if the menu just says “starter-main dish-dessert”, it IS useless.
    Another good thing to do is to point the laser in the face of the audience, random selection of faces works well, but targeted pointing – e.g. someone falling asleep – is way better!

  11. The flipside:

    7 Tips For Being A Horrible Audience Member At A Presentation:

    1. Tap away loudly on a laptop keyboard throughout the entire presentation.
    2. Use a large camera to take photos of every slide as it comes up, complete with loud click and flash. Completely ignore any attempt by the speaker or organizers to explain that photography is forbidden/discouraged or that the slides will be available online later.
    3. Fall asleep after a big lunch, snore loudly and blame the speaker for not being interesting enough.
    4. When asking questions, say “I actually have two questions…”
    5. When asking questions, blatantly accuse the speaker of plagiarism/unoriginality because their work is vaguely similar to that of others working in the same field.
    5b. Do the above when the people you’re accusing them of ripping off are in the room. (Why yes,
    this has indeed happened to me.)
    6. When asking questions, spend 5 minutes describing your own research or telling a tenuously related anecdote.
    7. When asking questions, betray the fact that you weren’t listening during most of the presentation.

    1. Also, have a long-winded comment, poorly disguised as a question and with minimal relevance to the presentation you have just listened to, on every presentation, all day, every day of the meeting. After all, the most important aspect of any meeting is that everyone realizes how clever you are.

  12. If some of the work is published, why make new slides? Just slap that 16-graph figure with axes labeled in 2 point acronyms into the middle of the slide, wave the pointer around, and say “as you can see here …”

  13. Don’t bother embedding the videos in the presentation. Everyone will be happy to wait as you fumble through the folder full of files labelled “viudeo1.mpg” “video_2_.old.mpg”, “F.flv” and “zzzNotThisOne.docx.mp4” and watch them at postage-stamp resolution at random positions on the screen. Bonus points: lose your place in the presentation and decide that the best way to get back is to start at the beginning and click through every transition from slide 1 to slide 44.

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