Stop Opening your Presentations with a Stupid Apology!!

Posted: 2nd March 2016


As a professional speaker, and a person who is very connected to my industry, I sit through a lot of presentations and it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that I think about half of the ones I see begin with some kind of apology.

I’ve told a few people this and they normally disagree at first, until I start to describe all the ways in which speakers do this:

  • “I’m just going to say a bit about [some subject or other] for the next 10 minutes…”

  • “I’m sure you are all looking forward to lunch, so I won’t take much of your time.”

  • “I don’t know how I’m going to match up the [the previous speaker] but anyway here goes…”

  • “I’ve had a cold and lost my voice. I hope you can hear me at the back [tap tap on the mic]…”

  • “Can you hear me ok? I don’t talk very loud…”

  • “Thanks for the lovely introduction [from the organiser], I’m not sure I’m all that [all the good stuff that was said]...”

  • “I don’t normally present, so please bear with me”

  • “I’m sure none of this is new to you…”

  • I actually once heard, “I’m really not very good at this and my slides are a bit boring!!”

I mean, that last one in particular... seriously?!!

The message to your audience using this language is that the presentation is likely to be a waste of their time, that it’s not worth listening to. If you use words like these when you start speaking you will quickly find you are the only person in the room listening to yourself, and you won’t even have the luxury of being able to play on your smartphone to pass the time away!

I don’t think presenters who say these things actually believe they are wasting everyone’s time and have nothing to share. It’s just that standing in front of an audience, even a small one, is uncomfortable, especially if you aren’t used to it. It’s likely that at no other point in human history did having so many pairs of eyes looking at us at once lead to a good outcome. So we do that thing that little dogs do when a big dog wolfs at them. We get into the verbal equivalent of the submissive crouch position, where we cower down, get as low as possible, wimp, and let our predators know that we are so small and puny that we’re really not worth eating!

Further evidence of this discomfort are giveaways such as arm-swinging, pen clicking, pen fiddling, loose-change-in-the-pocket jingling… all grown-up presenter equivalents of having a “blankie” on stage with us to soothe our anxiety. (Powerpoint remote controls are great for this too.)

So what can you do about it? The answer is prepare for it. I don’t think any presenter plans to start their session with a humbling apology. It just happens. It seems sometimes the apology words just fall out all by themselves. I have seen the look of building horror on the faces of some presenters as they don’t appear to be able to stop themselves doing it, even though they realise they are sabotaging the impact of their start.

The start of the presentation is so important that I always plan this part carefully and lock down every word in the first 10-15 seconds or so. I make sure that the very first things I say are exactly what I planned and nothing else. This keeps me in complete control of the way it begins. The problem with rehearsing and memorising presentation material is that it always comes out differently if you are trying to memorise a script than when you are simply sharing a story. Repeating words from memory subtly affects the pace and tone of your voice, so I wouldn’t memorise more than the first couple of lines or you might end up sounding like a really bad actor.

There is a problem with this strategy though. What happens if you nail the first two lines (from memory) but then totally lose your place the moment you get to the end of the bit you rehearsed so well, as you try to shift into a different, more strory-telling mode of thinking to continue. I learnt this the hard way, once started a keynote with a really powerful punch and then completely lost what I was going to say next! Not a moment I’d recommend you try. To stop this happening I now also learn about 4-5 words of how I want to start the following line, just to keep that transition fluid.

So, in summary, learn and completely control the first two lines, plus 4-5 words of the next line. Definitely have no space for any apologies anywhere.

Try it in your next presentation and tell me what you think. And listen out for apologies in other speakers too. Now that you are aware of them, you will spot them more easily.


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