So, Um, Er Stop! Avoiding common presentation pitfalls

“SO! Before I begin, I’d like to start today by saying thanks to everyone for coming. Today I’m going to talk to you about… is this thing on?… Oh yes. Before I begin, can everybody hear me ok?… I’ll take that as a yes. So, let’s crack on as I know some of you are already thinking of the bar…”
Having read that excruciating paragraph, I hope you are now suitably wincing! It looks bad enough as words on the page, but how many times have we heard presentations that have been poisoned with these pointless fillers? They are the death of any presentation – platitudes and common phrases that come across like bad jokes that didn’t even work the first time round, yet still keep getting told. They don’t do the teller any favours and will often only serve to undermine all that follows.

Purge Those Hackneyed Expressions

So why do we do it? It’s a good question and one I’ve asked many times over the years. The usual response from culprits is the feel of a need to ‘lighten the tone’. Well, let me tell you, there are many ways to lighten the tone without being unimaginative and tedious.

Let me unpick a couple of lines that can offend the ear:

I’d like to thank everyone for coming…

If people have made a very special effort to be at your presentation or event then they deserve thanks and that needs to be duly acknowledged along with a recognition of why you are thanking them. If they are there because your firm has paid their travel and accommodation expenses and it’s part of their job requirement to be present, they don’t need thanks. Indeed, they should be thanking you.

Can everybody hear at the back?…

Often seen as a matey ice breaker, I have never once heard a person at the back reply ‘no’. This is probably because if they heard the question, they can hear you and if they can’t hear you they won’t know what you’ve said… It’s worth adding that if you are presenting in an auditorium used for speaking events, you can trust the fact that the conference organiser/sound engineer has done their own work. On that note, always (and I mean always) be very nice to the sound engineers who sit at the back of conference venues dressed in black. These are the most important people you have when it comes to how you sound on the big day – treat them as inferiors at your peril.

Avoiding Common Presentation Pitfalls

Aside from this misguided perception that some speakers feel – the need to entertain – these well- worn phrases are often reached for as an easy default when stuck for something to say. What’s the solution? It’s easy. Don’t do it! If you have a little voice in your head prompting you towards one of these clichés, resist. On the day itself, stick to your script. Don’t as lib unless you are very good.

Um, Er and Phoneme Fillers

The business of fillers on the other hand is a little more complex. This is a language issue. Again, common practice makes for common use but the use of little words like so, um and er (phonemes to use the correct phrase) is hardwired into how we converse.

These are the most common fillers used in English, the equivalent of a verbal comma in a sentence that gives the brain brief pause for thought before the conversation continues. According to socio- linguists, ‘um’ is currently the preferred filler of choice for the English.

Once in a while it is worth monitoring your use of fillers. It’s surprising how often they pepper our everyday conversations, which stands to reason because they are rooted in spontaneity. Spoken from the stage however, they bring the kiss of amateurism to any presentation.

When it comes to delivering a presentation, some play their content close to the script, while others prefer to play their content a little looser. Each to their own, but at the base of every good presentation is preparation and a solid idea of what you are going to talk about. Running through your material before a talk – out loud – is the best antidote to your brain dropping in those little fillers on the day, as it works double time to piece together your next bit of dialogue.

Always remember that it is not a barnstorming performance and a standing ovation you should be aiming for, as that expectation will inevitably be dashed upon the ripple of polite applause. Giving your audience a thoughtful and informative ride should be something that every speaker aims for. If you’ve got to the end without using pointless platitudes and tired old devices, then that ride will be the more enjoyable for all.