How not to give a presentation

The invitation arrives. You are invited to speak on the same programme as the Pope, Bill Clinton, Madonna, and Chomsky. Beside yourself with excitement, you forget that you’ve had these sort of invitations before—and that for some strange reason none of the famous people ever turn up. They are all replaced by people you’ve never heard of who turn out to be even more boring than you. Having accepted the invitation, you get your own back by forgetting it completely. Two years later—15 minutes before you are due to start speaking in Florence—you receive a phone call at your office in London asking where you are.

“I’m sorry,” you answer lamely, “I forgot.”

“Don’t worry,” answers the cheery voice at the end, “We’ll just ask Madonna to speak for 20 minutes longer. The audience of millionaire surgeons will be disappointed you’re not here, but extra Madonna will be some compensation.”

Far from ruining this presentation, you may have improved the surgeons’ conference. But forgetting altogether that you agreed to speak is a good way to make a mess of your presentation. A variant is to arrive late. Don’t arrive too late because they will simply have cancelled your session, probably sending a thrill of pleasure through an audience facing the prospect of five consecutive speakers. The best thing is to arrive about eight minutes late when the chairman has exhausted his puny supply of jokes and is just starting to introduce the next speaker. Rush up to the podium, waving your hands furiously, and apologise profusely. If you can, trip over on the way. Once at the podium you can either spend five minutes searching for your notes or else say: “I’m sorry I’ve not had time to give my 87 slides to the man in the projector room.” Or you could try saying “I’m sure that my Powerpoint presentation is on this disc somewhere,” as you project onto the screen a list of hundreds of similar file names.

My initial point is that there are many, perhaps infinite, ways to give a bad presentation. Tolstoy writes in the first line of Anna Karenina that “All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The same may be true for presentations. Good ones resemble each other, but bad ones come in many forms.

Preparing for a bad presentation

One way to prepare for a bad presentation is not to prepare at all. Step up to the plate, open your mouth, and see what comes out. With luck your talk will be an incoherent ramble. This is, however, a high risk strategy because spontaneity may catch you out. Most medical presentations are so premeditated that spontaneity may inspire both your audience and you. Inspiration must be avoided at all costs. Similarly you might be caught out by truth. “I’ve been asked to promote this new drug but actually I’d be fearful of throwing it into the Thames because it might poison the few homunculus fish that survive there.” Truth is compelling to an audience, even if mumbled.

A really bad presentation needs careful preparation. A useful standby is to prepare for the wrong audience. If asked to speak to Italians speak in German. If the audience is 15 year olds then prepare a complex talk that would baffle a collection of Nobel prize winners. It’s much the best strategy to give an overcomplicated presentation.  “Nobody ever lost money underestimating the public’s intelligence,” said Barnum, Richard Nixon, or somebody, and so you may be surprised by how well your grossly oversimplified presentation is received by your audience of professors.

Be sure to prepare a presentation that is the wrong length. Too long is much the best. Most of the audience will be delighted if your talk is too short, not least because it may provide more opportunity for them to hear their own voices. But something that is too long always works, even if what you are saying is full of wit and wisdom.

Another trick is to ignore the topic you are given. Simply give the bad presentation that you have honed to the point of perfection by giving it time and time again and deleting anything that raises a flicker of interest. With luck most of the audience will have heard it several times before.

Extra help for your bad presentation is to send the organisers in advance a very long and dull cv. Your bad presentation may be given a tremendous boost by the chairman reading out your whole boring life story in a monotone. With luck you might find yourself beginning your presentation after you were supposed to finish. That always depresses an audience.

Aids to a bad presentation

When it comes to aids, standards are rising for those who want to give bad presentations. Indeed, it is probably impossible to give a truly awful presentation without aids. This is an area where new technology is enormously beneficial. First rate bad presentations are usually multimedia: poorly filmed videos that are long and incomprehensible; tapes that are inaudible; music that is out of tune;  props that can’t be found and then break; and Powerpoint presentations that use every feature the software offers. Satellite links that keep breaking up can often be the icing on the cake of a bad presentation.

Bad slides are the traditional standby of a bad presentation. There must be far too many. They must contain too much information and be too small for even those in the front row to read. Flash them up as fast as you can manage, making sure that they are in the wrong order with some upside down. Include lots of data and complicated graphs, and be sure to say at some point: “I know that this slide breaks all the rules but…” Ideally there should be little connection between what you are saying and what is on the slide. A good trick, especially with a politically correct audience, is to insert a slide of a naked woman and say something like “My beautiful assistant is, I’m sure you will all agree, a little top heavy.” Don’t, however, start a riot—otherwise, your presentation will be universally agreed to be the best and most memorable.

Powerpoint presentations will usually be preferable to slides because they allow more information to be presented faster, can use a wider range of fonts and colours, and can include moving and flashing signals that can easily be designed to add to the complexity and subtract any meaning that might be getting through.

Unusual aids—like animals or children—sometimes work. Try introducing all your children plus your pets and parents to the audience. Well done, it might make everybody cringe and create new highs in bad presentations.

Making your bad presentation

The essence of a bad presentation is to be boring. Anything that isn’t boring will detract from your bad presentation. Don’t wear interesting or unusual clothes. Never look at the audience. Mumble your presentation, and preferably read it. A presentation that is read will usually be satisfyingly bad, but for the full effect you should have long complicated sentences with dozens of subclauses. Try for something as complex as Proust, but get the grammar wrong. Then put all the emphases in the wrong place to ensure that your audience can’t understand what you’re saying.

Try to torture your audience. Speak for about 10 minutes, and then say: “This is what I’m going to talk about.” Then after another 20 minutes say: “I’m now coming to my central point….” Ten minutes later, start saying “Finally.” Say it at least five times in the next 15 minutes.

One of the best ways to be boring is to speak for too long. If the chairman tries to stop you, say something like “This is very important.” You will, of course, made sure that it isn’t important because important things may not be sufficiently boring. It’s best to concentrate on the unimportant but to speak with great pomposity. Arrogance and pomposity always enhance a bad presentation. You could also try insulting your audience, but this could be dangerous—because it may become interesting. An electric atmosphere, even if it’s electric with anger and embarassment, is a sure sign that your bad presentation has failed.

Winding down

A truly bad presentation rarely produces any questions. Most people just want to get away. If you do get questions, you may have failed. But all is not lost. By sticking to the basic rules of being boring and overcomplicated and speaking too long you may be able to rescue your bad presentation. The extra rule on answering questions is that under no circumstances should you answer them. Once you have finished say: “Does that answer your question?” If the questioner has the affrontery to say no, then don’t answer his question again—only at greater length. This formula can be repeated if necessary, but a third non-answer is hardly ever needed.

This guide is written, you will have judged, from long experience. I’ve made all these mistakes—and more. Kurt Vonnegut boasts that he gave such bad lectures when a lecturer at New York University that he fell asleep during his own lectures. I remember giving a lecture in Manchester on creativity in science where the entire audience was almost unconscious and I suddenly thought; “This is rubbish, utter rubbish. “ I was tempted to stop and say: “You’re not enjoying this and nor am I. Let’s stop and go down the pub.” I didn’t, and thank goodness that I didn’t—otherwise it wouldn’t have been an outstandingly bad presentation.


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