Zombie Advice . . . an Especially Powerful Classic

Beware the Zombies of bad business presentation advice

Over the years, I’ve learned that the zombies of bad 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.

Bad Advice

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

Accordingly, I instruct students to stop what they’re doing now as a result of bad habits and bad advice. 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 downright decent.  But 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.

Let’s Have a Look

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 handwringing.  It leaves your right hand free to gesture, and those gestures themselves appear more decisive.

ZOMBIE #2     “Make eye contact.”

This old chestnut is insidious in that it actually carries a large kernel of truth.  On the surface, it sounds reasonable, but is such a cliche that we don’t really think about the words themselves.  People don’t really talk this way.  Instead, you “look someone in the eyes.”  You don’t “make eye contact.”  That make no sense.  This gem of a cliche doesn’t tell you how to “make eye contact.”  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.  Look individual audience members in the eyes long enough to ascertain eye color, then move on.  This connects in a way that is comfortable for all concerned.

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. 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, providing a distorted picture 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 host 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 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 and snap crisply, and they carry your audience along for an exciting and joyous 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 advice. What’s the use? Just ignore it and replace it in you own work with sound power presenting principles. 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.

Interested in more? Click here to consult the only book in the English language devoted to business school presenting.