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Wise words and hilarious presentation #fails: how (not) to speak with impact

For the first issue of the Fast Track Impact Magazine, I asked future readers if they would share their top tips and ego-crushing fails, so we could all learn how to deliver better presentations. There were so many great ideas and stories that we couldn’t fit them all in the magazine, so I’m sharing all my favourites here.

I’ve grouped the tips together first, leaving the best for last: your presentation fails. Thanks to everyone who shared their tips and stories (including those I’ve not featured here to avoid too much repetition). Please feel free to comment with your own tips and stories, so we can all learn even more from each other.

If you want to read my article, 4 ways to transform your next talk so you transform your audience, make sure you subscribe to get your free copy of the magazine when it comes out, on 1 March.

Meet people where they are

“Meet people where they are, not where you would like them to be.” Rebecca Jarvis, Auckland University of Technology, New Zealand

“Never assume you will have an engaged audience. It's up to you to engage them.” George C, University of Sydney, Australia

“Focus on one key idea and communicate it through a story that resonates with your audience.” Rhiannon-Jane Raftery, Creating Cynefin, UK

Research your audience

“Know who your audience is, so that you can find ways to connect.” Jayshree Johnstone, Newcastle University, UK

“Engage without prejudice: find what you have in common to break down barriers when your values differ.” Chris Cvitanovic, University of Tasmania, Australia

“Think constantly about the kind of impact you want to make with whom, how, where, when and why, and skip the academic jargon and academitis.” Linda Baines, Independent post-doc, UK

“Do your research early and identify what matters to people if you want to make a lasting impact.” Łukasz Gałęcki, Identi.Co, Poland

“Work out what made you connect with the last presentation that impressed you and learn how you can empathise better with your audience.” Jenn Chubb, University of York, UK


“Don't smile at people, smile about your work. A genuine smile comes from your interest in the subject.” Julie Bayley, University of Coventry, UK

“Treat it as an actor treats her script. Rehearse smiling and humour so they can be delivered as if they had arisen spontaneously.” Jane Maxwell, University of Dublin, Ireland

“Before you start speaking, look around your audience and smile. Show them you are relaxed and they will relax.” Henry Leveson-Gower, New Economic Knowledge Services, UK

“Look upon presenting as an opportunity to share your passion for your work; enthusiasm goes a long way to engaging audiences.” Dr Esmée Hanna, Leeds Becket University, UK

Tackle your nerves

“To combat nerves, imagine that you are a host rather than a presenter. Your job is to take good care of your guests, put them at ease, make them feel welcome and give them what they need.” Deborah Mullins, Deborah Mullins Training Ltd, UK

“Stand by the door as the delegates walk in and shake hands with them all. They won't feel intimidated by you, and you can tell yourself you're speaking to people that you’ve already met”. Mark Wilson, Balsan Carpets, UK

“Remember your 'why.' Your higher purpose is far too important to let nerves get in the way.” Anj Handa, Leadership Coach, UK

“Take a sip of water when you get asked a difficult question to give your brain time to work on an answer.” Charles Martinez, Research Solution Sales, Elsevier BV

“Get to the venue early before anyone else, and feel like you own it.” Glenn Athey, My Local Economy, UK

“Rehearse. There is just no way around it. Once you have it in your memory, you can focus better on delivery, pace, eye contact and all the other important stuff.” Klaus Hubacek, University of Maryland, USA

Try these practical tips

“Only using images forces you to commit a much simpler story-line to memory, and ultimately makes for a more enjoyable presentation.” Prue Addison, University of Oxford, UK

“Always have your talk on two USB sticks and in a cloud, and don’t assume the internet will work.” Alister Scott, Northumbria University, UK

“Speak clearly, confidently and most importantly, with enthusiasm - it's infectious.” Andrew Thomas, University of Aberystwth, UK

“Make it relevant and practical to your audience, and above all, interactive. People learn by doing far more than just listening.” Kristine Pommert, Bulletin Academic, UK

“‪I like to start with a one slide, easy quiz; gets the audience involved and establishes rapport before I start getting technical.” ‪Tony Jenkins, retired hydrologist, UK

“Don't be afraid to move around to include as much of the presentation area as possible. People feel closer to what you say.” Paul Turner, NCFE, UK

“Be 'in' the crowd. Treat it as a conversation with a group of colleagues and friends, and don't be afraid to step off the podium and into the group.” Heather Urena, Local Government, USA

“Never lose eye contact with your audience.” Katerina Kademoglou, University of Reading UK

“The continuous feedback you need for a top-notch presentation is found in the eyes of your audience. Make sure you have eye contact, and be prepared to act on the response you get. Puzzlement? Explain what you just said in a new way. Tension? Make sure they feel more at ease. Enthusiasm? Just keep doing what you're doing – perhaps even trying to push the gas pedal a little more.” Olle Bergman, Coach, Sweden

“Always check the news that morning. There's often something useful to mention (or avoid).” Ian Holmes, Innovate UK

Avoid these presentation fails

“I managed to do a whole presentation with a grape in my bra. Not on purpose - it must have rolled down my top when I had a quick bite to eat beforehand. It rolled out again as I was finishing the talk." Amanda Ingram, Zero Waste Scotland

"It was the biggest talk of my career and I was really nervous. I had my talk written out on pieces of card, which (sadly) I did not number. It was in the days of overhead projectors, and when I got up on stage, I placed my cards on the table next to the projector, and the projector fan blew them up into the air like confetti.” Klaus Hubacek, University of Maryland, USA

“We tried to do a 'speed science' public engagement activity in a pub and the punters who thought it was going to be 'speed dating' were a bit disappointed when a bunch of academics rocked up talking about their research.” Lizzie Tait, Robert Gordons University, UK

“Grandiose title WILL lure people to your session but result in heckling.” Michelle Bowman, University of Ontario Institute of Technology, Canada

“My favourite feedback was 'I loved breaking the ice with your balls' after an icebreaker where we tossed balls.” Andrew Scott, Andrew Scott Training, UK

"My biggest fail was when Mount Etna erupted 30 minutes before my first ever international science presentation (in Taormina, Sicily). I was nervous anyway and couldn't compete with an erupting volcano!" Martha Clokie, University of Leicester

“Whilst extolling virtues of our new IT to an audience of applicants, the screen flickered and failed. Always check your equipment.” Andrew Thomas, University of Aberystwth, UK

“Don’t try to make a joke unless you are confident you know what the punchline is. I stumbled while pointing out the irony of hosting the Horticulture and Potato Initiative (whose acronym is HAPI) on Blue Monday (the third Monday in January, reported to be the most depressing day of the year), to deathly silence.” Faith Smith, University of Aukland, New Zealand

“Be early. I was delayed once and ran into the conference just as I was being introduced to the crowd. Adrenaline pumping, all my prep went out the window and I rattled off a 10 minute presentation in 5 minutes to an amused crowd. The irony was that the talk was about nature’s ability to reduce mental stress.” James Byrne, Wildlife Trusts Wales, UK

“I was once told by a colleague that they missed my 'stand-up presentation style'. I'm taking it as a compliment: be enthusiastic!” Jenn Chubb, University of York, UK

“I often say to my audience that I'll use hyperbole to get key messages across in a short space of time. The occasional big fail happens when they don't hear the disclaimer.” Paul Cairney, Professor of Politics and Public Policy, University of Stirling, UK

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