Bad Presentations

Learning Objectives

Identify common missteps that lead to bad presentations.

See caption for alternative text.

A 20,000 year old painting of a cave hyena in Chauvet Cave (southeastern France)

For millions of years before the invention of modern technology, humans used the tools available to perpetuate traditions and culture and to document—and often rewrite—history. Do a few internet searches and immerse yourself in the Egyptian tombs; the caves of Chauvet; or El Castillo, the Temple of Kukulcan. What you’re experiencing is a feat of both artistry and communication. Although we don’t know the full significance of these early carvings and structures, there’s no doubt that these early humans captured their worldview in a way that is still deeply resonant. While the tools have changed, the communication challenges—and opportunity—remain the same: to communicate an engaging and inspiring point of view.

Given our vibrant storytelling tradition and with so much at stake, why are there still so many bad presentations? Wouldn’t you think that modern communication technology—considering the advances in graphics and communications software alone!—would lead to more compelling presentations? Interestingly, the problem is, to some extent, the technology. It’s estimated that 30 million PowerPoint presentations are created every day, with (seemingly) a majority of presenters opting for default layouts and templates. The problem is, we’re wired for story, not bullet points. A related failure is our use of available technology.

In 2001, Seth Godin wrote a wonderful—and instructive—rant on these points: Really Bad PowerPoint (and How to Avoid It), blaming Microsoft for countless ineffective presentations:

Microsoft has built wizards and templates right into PowerPoint. And those “helpful” tools are the main reason that we’ve got to live with page after page of bullets, with big headlines and awful backgrounds. Let’s not even get started on the built-in clip art.[1]

In response to a question regarding “death by PowerPoint” on the TechTarget Network, Margaret Rouse provided this definition: “a phenomenon cause by the poor use of presentation software,” identifying the primary contributors of this condition as “confusing graphics, slides with too much text and presenters whose idea of a good presentation is to read 40 slides out loud.”[2]

So how do we avoid causing “death by PowerPoint”—or by whatever presentation software we use? The common denominator of presentation mistakes is that they represent a failure of communication. This failure can be attributed to two errors: too much or too little. The error of too much is generally the result of trying to use slides as a teleprompter or a substitute to a report, or, it would seem, to bludgeon the audience into submission. Of course, this method tends to have an alternate effect, namely, prompting audience members to walk out or tune out, turning their attention instead to doodling or their device of choice.

What bad presentations have too little of is emotion. Presentation expert and author of the classic Presentation Zen (and four related books) Gar Reynolds captures the crux of the problem: “a good presentation is a mix of logic, data, emotion, and inspiration. We are usually OK with the logic and data part, but fail on the emotional and inspirational end.”[3] There’s also a hybrid too-little-too much mistake, where too little substance and/or no design sensibility is—in the mind of the presenter—offset by transitions and special effects. Heed Seth Godin’s advice: “No dissolves, spins or other transitions. None.”[4]

The 10/20/30 rule, generally attributed to venture capitalist Guy Kawasaki, is a good guideline to help you achieve a “just right” balance in your presentations. Geared for entrepreneurs pitching their business, his advice is a discipline that would improve the quality—and effectiveness—of most presentations. In brief, 10/20/30 translates to a maximum of 10 slides, a maximum of 20 minutes and a minimum of 30 point font.[5]

A visual representation of the 10/20/30 rule as described in the text.

Your presentation should have no more than 10 slides, take no more than 20 minutes, and use type no smaller than 30 point font.

While this rule is a good starting point, it doesn’t overrule your audience analysis or understanding of your purpose. Sometimes, you may need more slides or have a more involved purpose—like training people in new software or presenting the results of a research study—that takes more than 30 minutes to address. In that case, go with what your audience needs and what will make your presentation most effective. The concept behind the 10/20/30 rule—to make new learning easy for your audience to take in, process and remember—should still be your guide even if you don’t follow the rule exactly.

Practice Question

  1. Godin, Seth, Really Bad PowerPoint (and How to Avoid It), 2001.
  2. Rouse, Margaret. "What is death by PowerPoint?" TechTarget Network.
  3. Reynolds, Garr. “10 tips for Improving Your Presentations Today,” Presentation Zen. Nov 2014.
  4. Godin, Seth. Fix Your Really Bad PowerPoint. Ebook,, 2001.
  5. Kawasaki, Guy. The 10/20/30 Rule of PowerPoint. December 2005.