Dale Ludwig - Mar 15, 2011

What’s the Presentation Rule for…?


During every workshop we’re asked about rules. Some of them we’ve addressed here on The Orderly Conversation Blog:

Other common rule questions focus on:

  • The best place to stand in the room
  • Whether and when to deliver a presentation seated
  • How long eye contact should be

While it would be nice if every aspect of the presentation process could be boiled down to a simple up or down rule, it’s not possible.

So our response, as I’m sure you can guess, is, “It depends.” The right answer always depends on context, the needs of the audience and the presenter’s habits and preferences.

Rules Confuse the Situation
The problem is that there are so many rules floating around they confuse the situation. While they look simple and executable, they often aren’t. So in an attempt to clear things up a bit, what follows is a list of rule categories. See if any of them look familiar.

  1. Some rules are actually goals:
    A lot of the rules people apply to the presentation process aren’t rules at all. They’re goals. “Be enthusiastic” is a goal. As is “be sure to adapt your content to your audience” and “don’t let the Q&A session get away from you.” Everyone shares these goals. Because they don’t focus on specific behaviors, they don’t really help. I could say to the person driving away from your house, “Be safe,” but all I’m really doing is wishing them well. No one would confuse “be safe” with a driving tip.
  2. Some rules don’t apply:
    Many rules prescribe certain behaviors. “Try not to say, ‘you know’ so much,” “don’t fidget,” and “no more than five bullet points per slide” are examples. The problem with these rules is that they may not be relevant for everyone. Making the effort to follow them could make the process more complicated than it needs to be. For example, if the person driving away from my house is my 85-year-old mother, saying, “Don’t go over the speed limit” is completely irrelevant. Unless it’s meant ironically.
  3. Rules that make things worse:
    Some rules come from an attempt to make presenters feel more comfortable, but they don’t work. “If you have trouble looking people in the eye, focus your eye contact on the back wall,” is a classic example of this. So is “use a pointer if you want to look more professional” and “leave your hands at your sides because gestures are distracting.” These rules need to be thrown out. They are built on faulty assumptions and encourage a flawed approach to the process.

This brings me to a fourth category I’ll call Your Rules. Your rules are useful. They describe specific behaviors—things you can do in the moment to be more successful. One of your rules might be to “pause a little longer than you feel is necessary at the beginning of your presentation” because you know that doing so helps you breathe and think. Or “move to the screen to point something out on your slide” because you know that you need to loosen up and gesture more freely. Your rules aren’t for everyone, but they work for you.

Successful presenters understand their individual, personal response to the presentation environment and have developed rules that will work for them. They are the result of an objective perspective, careful assessment and experimentation.

What rules have you tried to follow? Did they work?

by Dale Ludwig, President and Trainer at Turpin Communication

Written by Dale Ludwig

Dale Ludwig has a Ph.D. in Communication and, prior to Turpin, taught at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He founded Turpin Communication in 1992 with the mission to provide the best presentation and facilitation skills training possible. Since then he has worked to do just that. In addition to being one of Turpin’s lead instructors, he also serves as our Chief Learning Architect when tailoring learning engagements for our clients. Dale is a frequent blogger and the co-author of the book "The Orderly Conversation: Business Presentations Redefined." He’s excited about his latest book, also co-authored with Greg Owen-Boger, "Effective SMEs: A Trainer’s Guide to Helping Subject Matter Experts Facilitate Learning."