Picture it – an empty stage. An audience leans forward in anticipation. Lights come on. The speaker steps out, and, for the next hour, you sit through what is possibly the worst presentation you have ever heard.

We’ve all been in that audience at least once. Some of us have been that speaker. Ouch! Most of us just want to put it behind us as soon as possible. But wait! Don’t overlook the opportunity to turn a wasted hour into a valuable learning experience.

A pointed example of what not to do when giving a speech can be just as instructive as a stellar presentation, maybe more so. When a presentation doesn’t work, we can learn from the presenter’s mistakes. This is what makes a poor presentation so good. And who better to illustrate just this point than the over-educated, under-socialized Dr. Sheldon Cooper of the CBS sitcom “The Big Bang Theory”?

What can Sheldon teach us? Watch and learn:

Scene #1: The pitfalls of the paper script

The Big Bang gang wishes newlyweds Howard and Bernadette well with a few speeches. Sheldon attempts to deliver his scripted message in Klingon even though he knows his audience will not understand.

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In this clip, Sheldon’s delivery illustrates some widespread presentation mistakes. Here are tips to avoid these faux pas:

  • Speak a familiar language. While you may not be fluent in Klingon, many business leaders use industry jargon that is the equivalent of a foreign language. The goal should be to share information with your listeners so they can quickly grasp and act on what you have said. To do that, keep it simple and use language that is familiar and will resonate with your audience. If that means having to invest a bit more time and effort to learn the language of your listeners, be assured that it will pay off with big returns.
  • Make it conversational. Let’s face it, in today’s world, who has time to memorize a presentation, especially if you have several in any given month? However, that doesn’t give you permission to hunch down and read straight from your notes. While it is perfectly acceptable to refer to your notes, reading notes or slides is unacceptable. Why? When you speak, it is important to stay in the moment, thinking about what you are saying while you say it. Typically when people read they are simply saying words and are not mentally or emotionally engaged. If you aren’t personally engaged in the message then why should your listeners be? The goal is to be familiar enough with your message that you can glance at your notes, grab what you need, and continue the “conversation.”
  • Be expressive. Sheldon’s presentation lacks expression — he is singularly focused on making his point and consequently isn’t concerned about establishing an interpersonal connection with his audience. Be sure to use an animated and conversational style and let your face expresses the words that you’re saying. Use direct eye contact, and smile to build rapport. You should maintain an erect posture but let your arms and body move naturally to reinforce your message.

Scene #2: The pitfalls of the PowerPoint presentation

“Big Bang Theory” enthusiasts may recall “The Large Hadron Collision” episode, when Leonard is offered a trip to Switzerland on Valentine’s Day to visit the CERN laboratory. During this show, Sheldon used a PowerPoint presentation to support his argument that he is more qualified than Penny to accompany Leonard on his business trip to Switzerland.

Sheldon’s misuse of this familiar visual aid is all too common. Here are some lessons we can take away:

  • Commanding the remote. Right from the get-go, Sheldon uses the remote to transition from point to point, dramatically clicking and pausing until the next slide appears. While the remote is a valuable presentation tool, it is there to facilitate, not dominate. If you are using a remote to advance your slides, remember, the technology behind your presentation should not be obvious to the audience. Visuals should magically appear. Simply keep your finger on the advance button to quickly and easily progress to the next slide.
  • Using the slides as a transition. This issue goes hand-in-hand with the conspicuous use of the remote. Instead of providing a verbal transition as Sheldon moves from one point to the next, he relies on the slides to serve as a cue to move to the next point. The result is an uncomfortable, lecture-like presentation that limits his ability to connect with his audience. By incorporating short phrases to serve as transitions you will help listeners easily follow the progression on your presentation.
  • Reading the slides. Sheldon and Penny both stare at the slides as he reads his presentation. Slides should not serve as a teleprompter or stand in for the speaker. They should serve as visual aids to support your message — not be the message. If you are reading your slides, you will not be authentically delivering your message and consequently will lose your audience. Let your presentation flow in a seamless combination of slides and speaking.

A poor presentation is painful — whether you’re in the audience or the speaker. Its lessons, however, are infinitely worthwhile and will not leave you empty-handed. The key lies in turning “what not to do” moments into the “must-do” techniques that will give your presentation the right kind of Big Bang!

Do you have any memorable presentation missteps? Share in the comments.

Stephanie Scotti is a strategic communication advisor specializing in high-stake presentations. She has 25-plus years experience of coaching experience and eight years teaching presentation skills for Duke University. She has provided presentation coaching to over 3,000 individuals in professional practices, Fortune 500 companies, high-level government officials and international business executives. Learn more at ProfessionallySpeaking.net and ProfessionallySpeakingBlog.com.

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6 Responses to “How not to present: Lessons learned from “The Big Bang Theory””

  1. Netflix vpn says:

    Where did you get these ideas to write such wonderful articles.

  2. Stephanie Scotti says:

    What a great story! Thank you.

  3. Peter Phan says:

    it's a COMEDY show !!! not a BUSINESS PRESENTATION!!!

  4. Stephanie Scotti says:

    Thanks CM . . . the sitcom imitates real life!

  5. Stephanie Scotti says:

    Wholeheartedly agree! Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Mark.

  6. Stephanie Scotti says:

    Well Said. I couldn't agree with you more. Thank you for commenting.

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