Apologizing may just ruin your presentation.
Every presentation is an opportunity to demonstrate your confidence, competence and character. You have the chance to prove that you understand your audience’s concerns, and show how you can meet their needs. And, when you do it well, you also get to boost your personal and professional credibility.
Until you say, “I’m sorry.”
Saying, “I’m sorry” in a presentation is like shining a giant spotlight on something you don’t want to audience to see. Saying, “I’m sorry” in a presentation is like blasting the volume on something you don’t want your listeners to hear.
What’s the impact? It makes you sound insecure and unprepared. It also puts others in the position of having to reassure you that whatever you’re apologizing for isn’t a big deal. And you don’t want your audience to be focused on tending to your needs; it’s your job to focus on tending to theirs.
Here are three things that presenters often apologize for, and what to do instead:
1. “I’m sorry, but I’m nervous.”
Being nervous for a big presentation is a given. If you have something at stake, like a business outcome, a relationship, or your reputation, you’re going to feel it. Here’s what I can tell you from three decades of experience helping people become better presenters: more often than not, your anxiety is barely visible to the audience until you say, “I’m sorry, but I’m nervous.”
Your shaking hands or fluttering voice may encompass all of your attention, but your audience is likely thinking about how they look and sound (as well as what they need to do after this meeting) more than they’re thinking about you. And if you’ve gotten feedback that your anxiety is evident to others? Plan to take a break early in your presentation (perhaps asking others to introduce themselves, or for you to distribute materials) where you can take a breath and regroup.
2. “I’m sorry – it looks like the technology isn’t working…again. Give me just a minute here….”
As someone who has presented in two separate blackouts (one where even the toilets didn’t flush), I can say that there is no substitute for three things: 1) doing a test run with the technology right before the presentation; 2) identifying in advance who your emergency tech guru will be onsite; and 3) having a power-free Plan B.
If the technology isn’t cooperating even after a successful tech rehearsal, spend no more than 5 minutes trying to get it going (and tell your audience that as well). At that point, immediately implement Plan B. If it’s a PowerPoint presentation, then come prepared with backup copies available for everyone to refer to. Or, if you really know your stuff (as you should), skip the slides all together. If it’s a webinar, you may need to cancel and reschedule – which is better than having everyone hang on for 10 or 15 minutes while you desperately try to work out the glitches.
One caution: whatever you do, don’t throw your technology team under the bus. It may feel good to let off a little frustration in the moment – and you might get a laugh – but it will be at the expense of the people who are trying hard to get this right. And whose help you will need again.
3. “I’m sorry, but I don’t know the answer to that question.”
Leave off the apology and get down to business. If it’s a question you should know the answer to, say, “I should know that offhand, and I can’t recall it at the moment. I’ll get back to you with that information by end of business today.” If it’s a question that someone else might know, offer it up to others: “I don’t know that but I’m wondering if someone else here does.” And if you just don’t know, say so: “I don’t know, and I’ll find out and get back to you.”
So when should you apologize? When you’ve said something that hurt or insulted someone (or a group of people) in the room — whether or not you meant it, and whether or not you see it their way.
I once watched a speaker address a woman who was making some noises by asking her in front of several hundred people, “Are you deliberately trying to distract me?” She explained to her that she had Tourette Syndrome, and that her noises were involuntary. The speaker was embarrassed, and apologized to her, and to the entire audience. Without that apology, his credibility (and likeability, for that matter) would have suffered a fatal blow.
Save “I’m sorry” for if and when you’ve done something that absolutely requires apology. And use your confidence, flexibility and resilience for everything else.