Presentations: Why YOU Mustn’t Break The Rules

Having listened to more presentations than most people, I’ve seen a great many presenters break “the rules”, or certainly ignore a few of them. Some presenters get away with it, but most don’t. Those that don’t simply crash and burn – often going down in flames, cocooned in their content capsule and blissfully unaware of their self imposed embarrassment.

So when delivering a presentation, what are “the rules”? Here is an abbreviated quick check list of 20 rules:

  1. Have a clear objective, otherwise you could confuse your audience ()
  2. Be adequately prepared
  3. Know what you’re going to say without learning it off rote.
  4. If it’s a new presentation or you’ve customised it or you haven’t presented it in a while, then rehearse
  5. In your rehearsals eliminate todays classic irritators which include “You know” and “to be honest” among others.
  6. If you’re using slides, use as few as possible and ensure that they are not cluttered with text.
  7. If you’re using slides, schedule an additional rehearsal.
  8. Know how long your presentation is and stick to your time.
  9. For obvious reasons use spontaneous humour, not jokes
  10. Be prepared for questions
  11. Dress appropriately
  12. If you wish to move, do so slowly and purposefully.
  13. Use descriptive gestures but avoid repetitive ones.
  14. Arrive early – always.
  15. Stay calm and composed
  16. Smile a lot, unless the topic is a sombre one, in which case smile as appropriate
  17. Project without shouting
  18. Don’t rush
  19. Use pauses, they help the audience stay focused, slow you down and eliminate some of your “ums”
  20. Be confident and enthusiastic


There are more of course, but I’m sure you get the picture. The question is – is it possible to break some of these rules and still be riveting? Well, it may be, but do you really want to take that chance?

Is it possible to break some of the rules and get away with it? Yes, but that depends on who you are. Who you are is dependant upon your reputation. For instance, a former US President or Olympic gold medallist will get away with a lot more than you and I because of who they are, as will a celebrity. For the rest of us subject experts, our job is to first establish our credibility by sticking to the rules and earning the right some time in the future to break them – if this is important to you.

You build a reputation by doing something extraordinary, surviving hardship or establishing your expertise. Perhaps one of the most effective ways of doing the latter is to consolidate your knowledge into a book. There is no need to create a bestseller, although this can have its rewards. By becoming an author you become known as an authority. It certainly helps if the book is well written – that way it will have ”legs” and help you to build a sustainable reputation, which allows you to break some rules if you so wish.

The very best speakers, however tend to stick to most of the rules and if they break some they do so selectively. They may have a quirky dress sense or a trademark hairstyle. Perhaps they can customise ”on the roll” without planning or rehearsal. Perhaps they speak quickly but with great energy. But they stick to most of the rules because they know that the rules work. And the only way you get to present a lot and get paid for it is if you’re great on stage. The rules are a proven list of what works best. If the rules work, why would you want to discard them?

So build your reputation and become great on stage. You may find that the rules have been so helpful in getting you there that you’ll have little if any desire to break them.


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