Why You Should Stop Apologizing

And What To Do Instead When Things Don’t Go As Planned

It’s easy when you’re feeling nervous about giving a presentation to start with an apology.

As a teacher of public speaking here are common apologies I often hear:

I’m so nervous right now…

I really hate giving speeches.

Sorry, I don’t know how to say this… (the speaker goes ahead and mispronounces the word)

I was going to bring X but I couldn’t find Y, sorry…”

Sorry for the technical difficulties. It was working at home…

I don’t know if you can see this…” (pointing to a slide that no one can read)

The impulse to apologize is understandable: You diffuse the fear of being judged by others, by beating them to it, with the idea being that if you reveal your insecurities, the audience will be more sympathetic and less likely to judge you harshly.

Except that’s not what actually happens.

Problem #1: You call attention to your insecurities and mistakes the audience may not ever be aware of

It may make you feel better in the moment to publicly confess your insecurities, and offer a disclaimer, but in doing this you are giving the audience information about you that they wouldn’t otherwise have. Consider the following apologies:

I’m so nervous..” or “I’m not really good at this…”

Translation: Just in case you aren’t aware of my insecurities, let me point them out to you.

I really hate this. Here goes nothing.”

Translation: I would rather do anything besides talk to you.

No one likes to feel like an obligation.

I was going to bring X but I couldn’t find Y, sorry.” or “I forgot X at home…” (In case you weren’t aware of it, I didn’t come fully prepared and I’m not as organized as I’d like to be)

Translation: Just in case you might not have noticed, I am not as prepared as I intended. So if you haven’t yet formulated a reason to think I may not be competent, here’s one for you to consider.

Your audience doesn’t know what you intended, or what you are feeling in the moment. By confessing your insecurities and pointing out your shortcomings, you are prejudicing the audience against you. You plant negative (pre)judgements in the audience’s that they would not otherwise have.

Let the audience come to their own conclusions. Chances are they will come to a much better opinion of you than your internal critic.

Problem #2: You lower your credibility by lowering the audiences expectations of you

Habitual apologies issue a disclaimer to audience warning them not to expect too much from you.

Consider the following apologies:

How can I follow that?

Translation: Don’t expect me to be as good or as competent as previous speakers

I’m sick today…”

Translation: So don’t expect my performance today to be good.

“I’m not very good at this…”

Translation: So if give a poor performance, don’t hold it against me.

You effectively are asking the audience not take you seriously or not expect too much from you.

Instead of apologizing, which only reinforces your insecurities, develop the skills you need to feel genuinely confident.

Problem #3: You are asking the audience to excuse you for things you could, with more effort, do better

By telling the audience to accept what you could, with more effort change, you are asking the audience to excuse your incompetence.

Consider the following apologies:

I don’t know how to say this…” (the speaker then proceeds to mispronounce it)

Translation: I didn’t put the time or effort into learning how to say it correctly.

I don’t know if you can see this…”

Translation: I know it’s too small for the audience to see but I haven’t taken the time or effort to make it readable.

Sorry for the technical difficulties. It was working at home…

Translation: It’s not my fault. Don’t blame me or hold these technical difficulties against me.

If you don’t know how to pronounce someone’s name, ask them and repeat it until you can say it correctly. If there’s a key term you don’t know how to pronounce, there are multiple sources online to hear the correct pronunciation. Correct pronunciation shows respect and demonstrates competence.

If there’s something you are aware, such as unreadable visual aids, fix it.

If there are technical difficulties, even if it’s not your fault, it still reflects on you. Technology routinely fails. As a speaker you should anticipate this and have plan B ready to go.

That way you demonstrate to the audience you commitment to deliver, no matter what. People who are ready to go, no matter demonstrate to others that they are ready to show up and be there no matter what.

You may feel nervous giving a presentation. Nervousness comes with the territory. Just don’t confess your feelings to the audience. Let them come to their own conclusions.

In the long term it serves you better to focus on demonstrating competence and expressing confidence

This is one meaning of the phrase, Fake It Until You Make It, or as Amy Cuddy in her popular Ted Talk argues, Fake it Until You Become It.

With enough practice and a willingness to keep going no matter how nervous you feel, how you feel will begin to reflect the competence and confidence you show others.

Here’s another way to approach making mistakes:

Storyteller, poet, rabble-rouser. I love to talk to strangers. suzannelagrande.com

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