One of the most popular Ted Talks ever is by Global Health Expert, Hans Rosling. He takes the audience through a mind boggling journey of global health statistics across the last 40 years or so. There is LOTS of detail and data. And he kills it. He’s great. The presentation has millions of views on YouTube. It’s been described as the best display of stats ever. I agree.

There’s only one problem. Based on just about every “presentation don’t” I’ve ever read in a blog post, article or training program, this presentation should have been terrible.  If we experts are right, the audience should have been distracted, or even bored. During this 20 minute talk, Dr Rosling: 

  • Reads directly from notes, or from the slide
  • Stands with his back to audience, talking to what’s on the screen
  • Stands in front of the screen, letting the projector cast its light on his upper body
  • Speaks really quickly, without a lot of pausing
  • Seems to find it hard to stand still
  • Rarely looks at the audience
  • Works with a key slide with lots and lots of words, small fonts, visual clutter etc

And yet it’s a brilliant piece of effective communication. As an audience member I am immersed, engaged, educated. I’ve subsequently checked out many other popular TED Talks, looking for presenting “rules” being broken, and to my surprise, there are examples everywhere!

How is this possible?

Presentation skills trainers out there; how is this possible? If we’re right about all of the don’ts we keep offering up as advice to our readers and participants, how is it that Dr Rosling goes over so well?

For me the answer is simple – we’re going too far. We keep using the word don’t, when in fact it’s far more truthful to say “Do it, but take care!”

In other words, in presenting there are few, if any, outright don’ts. There’s just things that works for most people most of the time, and things that needs to be thought about before you go there. Let’s take one example – reading from slides.

What, you can read from a slide?

I’ve read “don’t do this” more than once. But why not? Do audiences really care if, every now and then, a presenter does this? I don’t. In fact, I’m often assisted by it. It gives me a break from just looking at the presenter – a mini attention reboot if you will. Also, reading and listening work very well together to assist in retention of information, so presenters need to read from the slide at times in order to achieve their presenting goal. Unless your goal when delivering a presentation is for the information not to be remembered!

So what’s the solution? My suggestion is this. Instead of saying don’t, say things like “Do it, but:

  • Only once or twice in a presentation
  • Only after checking with trial audiences that it’s not a major distraction
  • Don’t rely on it to make yourself feel better. Do it for your audience.

There’s a time and a place for everything!

A great world is an inclusive world. There’s a time and a place for every presentation choice out there, as long as it works for your audience. It’s all about them. We need to focus equally on what does and does not distract, bore, frustrate them, etc. Going back to Dr Rosling. Sure, he’s not Anthony Robbins or Martin Luther King in his presenting style, but so what? What is he instead? To me, he’s a true believer. Passionate, authentic, hopeful. 

So I challenge you to  turn your back, glance at your notes, dial back your energy, talk really quickly or softly, lean, not start or end with a bang, laugh at your own jokes… occasionally. When it works. The fun bit is finding out where and when the opportunities lie. And that takes the kind of creativity, open-mindedness, fun and play that can really only exist when all the don’ts have left the building.

Anything can work, depending on when and how you choose to do it! 

Find more information on how you can learn to present like a pro over here.

There are no presentation don’ts!
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