The number one rule

The number one rule of public speaking is: “do not apologise”.
Countless times I have seen a speakers confidently swagger to the front of the room and in a clear, booming voice they will announce… that they’re sorry for being so nervous. The illusion of confidence is completely destroyed. Now the whole audience is aware of of the presenter’s nerves and will start picking up on all those nervous ticks or voice fluctuations.
I recently held a traditional Burns’ Night celebration and invited a friend to deliver the Immortal Memory Speech. After I introduced him he apologised for not learning the speech, being forced to read it off his iPhone and being slightly nervous. Then he delivered a really funny, fantastically well prepared speech; but the impact was reduced as we were all looking out for signs of nervousness.
In most public speaking situations the audience want you to succeed (perhaps standup comedy and politics are exceptions). Some nerves are expected, but will rarely ever be noticed. If you apologise then you divert attention away from your content and highlight some negative aspect of your delivery.
I’ve recently caught myself apologising for speaking. When I let people know that they can view a recording of my Toastmasters Icebreaker, I will often try to manage expectations by saying something like “the conclusion is a bit cheesey, but I felt I had to keep it in there”, or “my body language makes me cringe”. This is the wrong thing to do. Instead of making them aware of my negative thoughts I should let them come to their own conclusions. They probably won’t even notice the negative aspects.
At Toastmasters I’ve noticed that some speakers have a chat with their evaluator beforehand and ask them to look out for certain things. Invariably these are the things they are worried about. Again, this is essentially apologising for your lack of confidence in your material or delivery. You’ve drawn attention to what you think is negative and you’ve biased the evaluator’s oppinion. Now your feedback will be based on the aspects you’ve highlighted, which might not be the most noteworthy aspects of your speech. I think feedback is far more valuable when the evaluator is a blank slate.
So, when practicing, delivering or telling people about your speech, don’t apologise for anything. Your delivery will appear more confident and your audience will be able to focus on your message rather than your nerves. Your feedback will be based on real audience reactions that have not been tainted by your own negative opinions.

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One Comment

  1. Mo
    Posted March 9, 2009 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

    I always do this. I always tell my friends before a uni presentation that I’m sorry but I’m really nervous. I guess it is better to just suck it up and keep up the illusion.

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