Book Review: 11 Deadly Presentation Sins by Rob Biesenbach

Rob Biesenbach is an independent corporate communications pro, actor, author and speaker. He is a former VP at Ogilvy PR Worldwide and press secretary to the Ohio Attorney General. His first book, Act Like You Mean Business: Essential Communication Lessons From Stage and Screen was published in 2011.

11 Deadly Presentation Sins Today marks the publication of his new book, 11 Deadly Presentation Sins.

This handy guide is a great resource for, as the subtitle says “anyone who has to get up and talk in front of an audience.” There’s just 100 short pages (I’m guessing no more than 20,000 words) of distilled wisdom based on the author’s direct experience as an actor who has appeared in 150 stage, commercial and film productions and has written hundreds of executive speeches. Biesenbach walks the walk.

He acknowledges that the speechifying bar is set low:

…it won’t take much to dazzle people who are accustomed to the usual Bataan Death March that is the average business presentation today. By adopting just a few of the tips that I give you here, you’ll quickly stand out from the crowd of bad presenters.

The sins of the bad speaker are listed chronologically, from a failure to understand audience needs in the planning stages, to delivering a flat opening, a lack of focus, low-energy delivery, inadequate rehearsal time, through to a weak finish.

How to avoid deadly presentation sins

Each chapter provides the “sinner” with redeeming advice to save their soul the next time they worship the Church of PowerPoint, or kneel at the altar … I mean lectern. There’s great stuff on ways to avoid missing the mark by taking onboard his tips on speech structure, the use of quotes, how to be humorous, tell a story, and much more.

In addition to solid advice on content and structure, Biesenbach’s experience as an actor informs much of the book. He rightly claims there are strong parallels between performance and business presentations: make an emotional connection with the audience, express yourself creatively, share the stage, and be aware of what you do with your body.

He quotes many of the “good and great” in the world of professional speaking: Carmine Gallo, Patricia Fripp, and Nancy Duarte.

It’s from Duarte that he shares one of the most challenging of the suggestions: how to avoid The Sin of Inadequate Rehearsal. Time and again, busy executives will short-change themselves on rehearsal time. Understandable, but sad. Investing in preparation shows–not in a scripted, memorized, delivery, but in the spontaneity and comfort that comes from real planning and adequate rehearsal time.

Rehearsal time

How much time is adequate? Nancy Duarte states that she spent 30 hours rehearsing her 18 minute TED talk! It’s been seen by hundreds of thousands, and will delight new viewers long into the future. Carmine Gallo details the hours Steve Jobs put into each of his product intros. So, how much time do you spend doing email in a week? Sitting in meetings? Consider setting aside time to rehearse your next talk to the point you internalize it and the pay-off will be a better performance.

Seven Deadly Sins?

I do have a couple of quibbles with the book.

First, it’s mystifying why the chosen title is “11 Deadly Sins” since there are an additional eight bonus ones in the last chapter. So we actually get 19. However, it’s well known there are Seven deadly sins. Indeed, the numbers we all remember with ease are 3, 5, 7, 9 and 10 (for reasons that have to do with Freud, zip codes, phone numbers and, finally, phone numbers + area codes). Never 11 or 19. But, I digress.

He advises keeping notes on index cards, not floppy pieces of paper. I agree, and in my experience these should always be blue 5×7 index cards with text in 20-point font – proven to avoid glare in the lights, look good on video and easy to carry with you while onstage.

He concludes by saying that comparing yourself to a world-class TED talk is not fair. “Nobody who watches Tiger Woods on TV expects to get off the couch and join the PGA Tour.”

Perhaps so. It could be argued, however, that today’s audiences are schooled by TED talks to expect that level of performance. They now know what a good business presentation looks like. They have higher expectations than in the pre-YouTube era. Commit any of the sins the book lists and you’ll risk your audience turning to their smart phones for amusement, while you bomb.

In sum, however, this is an excellent book that is a quick read for anyone with an hour or so to spare. It will motivate you to take the necessary steps to avoid committing the deadly presentation sins that are on display every day in conference rooms worldwide. Recommended.

2 Comments so far
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Thank you for taking the time to review the book, Ian and for your thoughtful comments. (You are spot on on the word count, by the way.)

Thanks Rob. I hope your books sells well, there’s an infinite number of “sinners” out there who would benefit from it!

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