There are conference keynotes, presentations and panels that leave you breathless and excited, inspired to go forth and do something momentous.

And then… there are the other ones.

The sad fact is a lot of conference content just isn’t all that good. I can think of nine deadly sins of conference presentations — and the next underwhelming conference presentation you attend will probably be guilty of at least one of them.

The tragedy, of course, is if that presentation is one of yours. But good news: you can avoid eternal audience damnation if you pay a little penance before you hit the stage.

Sin #1: Your presentation should be a white paper.

Yes, you have a dizzying array of facts and figures at your command, and a lot of insight to offer. But there’s no narrative arc. And by the time you get to your fourth Excel table, your audience is checking their email… or the insides of their eyelids.

Your penance: Reframe your presentation around the story you want to tell. Choose a few crucial facts and figures to buttress your case, and leave the rest out. As for the previous version of your presentation, redeem it of its sins by making it into a literal white paper, and let your audience know where they can download it.

Sin #2: Your presentation is predictable.

Remember the old Holiday Inn slogan, “No surprises”? So will your audience if all you do it state the obvious, stick to safe terrain, use the same-ol’-same-ol’ case studies, and generally don’t say anything they could have predicted from their bio and the session description. They’ll learn nothing, and they won’t appreciate it.

Your penance: Research new cases and examples, and look for them in surprising places, such as fields that might appear unrelated to yours. Take a hard look at your argument and the data behind it. What’s a new insight you can offer? What’s something you can say that your audience wouldn’t expect to hear from someone in your position, or representing your organization?

Sin #3: Your speech is mechanical.

You let your speech intrude on your speech, with references to the mechanics underneath it. Phrases like “Moving to the next slide,” “My next point is,” or “Now let me hand the mic to Avery” make the audience do the work of lurching from one part of your speech to the next.

Your penance: Reconnect to the narrative flow of your speech. Why are you moving to this next point? Because there’s a causal relationship — or because this implies that — or because that insight raises this question. Even something as handing off to another speaker is a chance to connect what you’ve just said to what they’re about to.

Sin #4: You’re pitching, not presenting.

Oh, there’s a thin veil of content… but you’re selling your organization’s product or service. People know when they’re being sold to, and if they’ve invested money and time to be here, they won’t appreciate it. Even if you’re a conference sponsor. (You could fritter away whatever goodwill your sponsorship has earned you with one hamfisted pitch.)

Your penance: Throw out your presentation and start over. You need to tell a story and deliver something of intrinsic value to your audience. And the hero of that story isn’t you and your product; it’s the audience member (whether directly or because they’ll identify with the protagonist).

Sin #5: Your presentation has no drama.

“Drama” doesn’t mean stark photos, high-contrast slides or cool lighting effects on stage. It means your story has conflict: inner conflict, conflict with others, a clash of ideas, a confrontation with a force of nature, a battle to achieve something against all odds, a struggle against forces of historical or societal proportions. Without it, you might as well be reading a software manual.

Your penance: At the very least, you’re going to need to channel your Id a little. What does your point of view clash with? Is it the status quo, a competing explanation, a different approach? What’s the competition for your audience’s hearts and minds, and why does it fall short? Now, drama-wise, that’s your bare minimum… but you need to go a little deeper to be fully on the side of the angels. Look at your presentation’s narrative from the audience’s point of view. What obstacles are they facing? Who or what stands between them and their goals? Explore that conflict, and show them how they can come out on top.

Sin #6: You’re aiming your presentation at the wrong audience.

You’re delivering basic content to a ninja-level audience. Or you’re offering advanced material to folks at the 101 level. Or you’re using examples and illustrations that don’t mean anything special to your audience.

Your penance: Do some research. Talk to the conference organizers or past presenters. Check out the Twitter hashtags for last year’s conference and for this one. Get to know the people who are likely to come to your session, and tweak your content accordingly.

Sin #7: You’re pulling a bait-and-switch.

Your session description promised one thing, but your presentation delivers another. And people are going to be peeved.

Your penance: This one’s pretty simple: deliver what you promised. Now, if you have a compelling reason not to — if the landscape has shifted because of some tectonic new development, for example — then talk to the event organizers, and flag up-front that your talk has changed (and why). And consider whether there might be some way you can still deliver a little on your original promise in your new presentation.

Sin #8: You’ve ignored all your storytelling tools.

There’s a reason novelists don’t write “This happened, and then this other thing happened, and then this other thing happened.” There’s a whole galaxy of narrative techniques you could be using to keep your audience engaged… but apparently you forgot them for this speech.

Your penance: Read a little about storytelling, and borrow at least one literary technique to apply in your presentation. Here’s just one, a tool that both holds an audience’s attention and helps propel a narrative: suspense. Hold something back — something important to the audience. Take them on an investigation or an exploration that culminates in the discovery of a key insight.

Sin #9: You’re spending your speech on the astral plane (or in the muck).

Your speech is abstract and high-level, never descending from the 50,000-foot view. And at the end your audience shrugs and says “Sure, I guess… but I don’t see how that really applies to anything.” Or you’re mired in the weeds, churning obscure technical details and factual minutia without getting to a larger point. (Marie Della Mattia, my colleague from my days at The NOW Group, calls this “pitching your tent at the right emotional altitude.”)

Your penance: Come down from your cloud (or up from your swamp) and strike a balance: enough specifics to make your topic real and concrete to your audience, with enough loft to make it inspirational — or at least to let them generalize to cover their own challenges and opportunities.

Have you paid your penance? Great. You’re officially forgiven. Now go forth and speak some more.

Photo by Flickr user amygwen. Used under a Creative Commons license.

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