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Zombies of Bad Presentation Advice

Posted by Stanley K. Ridgley, Ph.D, author of The Complete Guide to Business School Presenting on 9/4/2015 to News
Over the years, I’ve learned that the zombies of bad presentation advice never die.

We can’t eradicate bad presentation advice completely, because these zombies are impervious to every remedy known to 21st century civilization.

When Armageddon finally comes, cockroaches and bad advice zombies will be the only survivors.

But let’s give it a shot anyway.


Zombies of Bad Presentation Advice

The process of becoming a great presenter is not so much doing things the right way. It’s getting you – yes, you – to stop doing things the wrong way.

This is much tougher than you might expect.

This is because 1) people generally dislike the idea of change, and 2) many folks tend to think that the presentation is something that exists outside of themselves . . . in a PowerPoint software package, or in notecards, or in a book.

The notion that the presenter actually has to change is not welcome news.

Not at all.

Accordingly, I instruct students to just stop what they do now as a result of bad habits and bad advice. Just stop.

That’s much more difficult than it sounds.

And we don’t engage in lengthy discussions of various opinions of what constitutes good presenting or how people want leeway granted for their own tics or habits. This is not a time for a “conversation on presenting.”

All it takes is one film session to disabuse people of the notion that a bad habit is somehow acceptable.

Once they stop engaging in bad habits and misconceptions about presenting, they become de facto reasonably competent presenters.

That’s right.

Just stop the bad habits, and what remains can be reasonably good.


But Bad Habits Die Hard

Bad habits can be perpetuated by exuberantly following bad advice. The problem is recognizing what constitutes bad advice.

This isn’t easy, because much bad advice paradoxically masquerades as good advice, and lots of these bad advice zombies stalk the land.

Here are some of the most common examples of awful, vague, or incomplete presentation advice you invariably hear during your business school career from the most well-meaning of folks.


ZOMBIE #1 “Don’t put your hand in your pocket . . . it looks ‘unprofessional.’”

This is absurd and carries the stink of oral tradition about it.

From presidents to preachers, the hand in the pocket – if done properly – conveys assurance and confidence.

For many speakers, it also removes one hand from the equation as an unnecessary distractor.

Put that left hand in the pocket and you keep it out of trouble.

No more strange finger-play.

No more tugging at your fingers.

No more twisting and hand-wringing. It leaves your right hand free to gesture, and those gestures themselves appear more decisive.


ZOMBIE #2 “Make eye contact.”

This advice is insidious in that it actually carries a large kernel of truth.

It sounds reasonable.

But it doesn’t tell you how to do it. And, yes, there is such a thing as bad eye contact.

Too long, and you come across as creepy. Too short, and you come across as untrustworthy.

Make eye contact with people in your audience long enough to ascertain eye color, then move on.


ZOMBIE #3 “Move around when you talk.”

This gem was given to me by a student, passed on from one of his other professors.

This advice suggests that you wander aimlessly about the stage in hopes that it will improve your presentation in some unspecified way. Or it might mean to roll your shoulders as you step side-to-side.

It actually can mean most anything, and as such, it’s terrible advice.

In this case the bad advice is worse than no advice at all. See my previous posts on movement for ideas on how to incorporate movement into your talk . . . and how to incorporate pauses for effect.


ZOMBIE #4 “Just the facts.”

Really? Which facts are those?

What does it mean, “Just the facts?”

Folks believe that this phrase makes them appear no-nonsense and hard-core. But a more pompous and simultaneously meaningless phrase has yet to be devised.

Again, it means nothing and is arrogance masquerading as directness.

“Facts” must be selected in some way, and context must be provided to give them meaning. “Facts” must be analyzed to produce alternatives and to render a conclusion.

This is a euphemism for “I don’t like what you’re saying . . . tell me what I want to hear.”


ZOMBIE #5 “The numbers tell the story.”

This is a favorite of finance folks, who seem to believe that the ironclad rules of presentations do not apply to them.

“We’re special,” finance majors like to say. “We don’t deal with all of that soft storytelling; we deal in hard numbers.”

There is so much wrong with this, it is difficult to locate a reasonable starting-point.

Not only do numbers, alone, tell no story at all . . . if the numbers were conceivably capable of telling a story, it would be a woefully incomplete story, a distortion of reality.

Numbers provide just one piece of the analytical puzzle, important to be sure, but not sufficient by themselves.

Moreover, the business presenter who elects to serve the god of numbers sacrifices the power and persuasiveness that go with a host of other presenting techniques. Underlying this myth is the notion that you “can’t argue with numbers.”

You certainly can argue with numbers, and you can bring in a wealth of analysis that changes completely what those numbers actually mean.


ZOMBIE #6 “You have too many slides.”

How do you know I have “too many” slides?

Say what? You counted them?

I assure you that you don’t know. You can conclude nothing about my presentation by looking only at the number of slides in it.

You will hear this chestnut from folks who believe that the length of a presentation dictates the number of slides you use.

Absurd on its face, people who use this believe that every slide will be shown a fixed amount of time.

They likely do some sort of calculation in their heads, dividing the time available by the number of slides to yield a number they believe indicates there are “too many” slides.

This is because they usually deal with folks unschooled in Business School Presentations methods.

If you follow the presentation principles laid down here in Business School Presentations, you will learn the glorious method of crafting frugal slides that pulse with power, surge with energy . . . slides that people remember, because they are smartly crafted. They snap and pop, and they carry your audience along for an exciting ride.

And no one can tell anything about this by the number of slides in your presentation.


Bad Advice Zombies – these are just some that will come after you.

It’s probably not a good idea to argue with folks who give this sort of presentation advice. What’s the use? Just ignore it and replace it in your own work with enduring and especially powerful presenting principles – especially powerful presentation advice.

You can’t eliminate the zombies, but you can outrun them and outfox them.

And continue your upward trajectory toward becoming a superior business presenter.

If you’re interested in acquiring powerful presentation skills, consult The Complete Guide to Business School Presenting.


Dr. Ridgley is Assistant Professor of Management and International Business at Drexel University’s Lebow College of Business. He holds a Doctorate and Masters in International Relations from Duke University and an International MBA from Temple University.

He is the author of the book The Complete Guide to Business School Presenting, and he regularly contributes articles to his blog
Business School Presentations.