Why Smart People Give Dumb Presentations

Christopher Witt —  June 4, 2015

Don't Give Dumb PresentationsI work with smart people. With people who run businesses or lead universities. With engineers and with senior researchers who have doctorates in subjects I’ve never heard of. With authors and small business owners.

And I frequently (several times a month) observe other smart people giving presentations.

And I’ve come to the conclusion that smart people give dumb presentations…frequently.

I define a dumb presentation as one that is disjointed and confusing. It lacks a central theme. It leaves people wondering, “What was that about?” or “What am I supposed to do now?”

A dumb presentation is a wasted opportunity both for the audience and for the speaker.

Why do otherwise smart people give dumb presentations?

1. They think they can wing it.

Smart people sometimes think that because they know what they’re talking about, they can simply stand up and hold forth.

But winging it – speaking without thorough preparation – is one of the surest ways to give a dumb presentation.

Lesson learned: No matter how well you know your subject, you have to prepare. Know your audience, what they already know and feel about your topic. Determine your objective: what you want the audience to do as a result of listening to you. And create your message around one clear idea, with logically presented supporting material.

2. They leave things out.

For the most part, smart people know what they’re talking about in detail and in depth, because they’ve studied it and worked with it for years.

They assume that other people – the audience – will understand from a twenty-minute or one-hour presentation a concept that it took them years to master. So they skip over basic information, definitions, and explanations. And they omit transitions, the logic that ties things together.

Lesson learned: Realize that people, even the smart people in your audience, don’t know your subject as well as you do. (If they do, why are you speaking?) Explain the basic concepts underlying your idea. Give examples and definitions. Make connections.

3. They confuse people.

I’ve come across many smart people – especially technical experts – who seem to think that confusing an audience proves how smart they are. “I must be smart. People couldn’t even keep up with me.”

Lesson learned: Smart people don’t confuse people, at least not intentionally. Smart people know how to explain complex ideas simply and clearly…without dumbing things down.

4. They’re impersonal.

Smart people often confuse being fair or objective with being impersonal.

They try to erase themselves – their personalities, personal opinions, insights, convictions, and experience – from their presentations.

They stand to the side of the stage in semi-darkness and have people look at slides projected on a screen as if to say, “Don’t look at me. What matters is up there.”

And God forbid that they ever tell a personal story.

Lesson learned: A presentation isn’t a disembodied idea. It’s your idea, filtered through who you are, what you know and care about, how you think. Investing yourself into your presentation strengthens it.

5. They downplay Q&A.

Smart people generally don’t realize the value of engaging the audience’s questions.

They think of Q&A as a last-minute add-on, not as an integral part of a presentation. They reserve a few minutes at the end of their presentations – if there’s enough time – and ask, half-heartedly, “Does anyone have any questions?”

Lesson learned: Make Q&A a prominent component of your presentation. Plan when you’ll address the audience’s questions. Think of the questions you might get asked, and how you would answer them. Don’t avoid questions, actively solicit them. See How to Handle Q&A.

What’s your opinion. Why do smart people give dumb presentations?

(Disclosure: I have, sadly, done all of the above on several occasions. I like to think I’ve learned from my mistakes. And I hope others can learn from my experience.)

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Christopher Witt

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Chris Witt was born in Los Angeles, California. He currently lives in San Diego. He works as a speech and presentations consultant, an executive speech coach, and an orals coach.