Brian McCarthy

Don't say it!

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There are many things that we would be better off not saying when speaking in public, but here are three definite no-no’s. And yet I hear them all the time!

1. Never open your presentation by asking the audience, “How is everyone today?” (or other variations such as “How are you all doing?”, “Is everyone having a great time?” etc.

The reason you shouldn’t ask this is that 99% of the time the audience won’t answer back. And yet presenters that ask either respond to the ensuing silence by saying “I can’t hear you! I said, how is everyone today????”, which comes across as aggressive or needy; or they say, “Great, glad to hear it”, which is absurd as no one answered them.

The mistake the presenter is making is that they are greeting the audience as they would great a person and they are forgetting that presentations run according to very different dynamics compared to conversations. Of course an individual will respond to this question when someone asks them. However, audiences don’t feel obliged in the same way to answer a presenter that asks this question. Another example of the different dynamics in conversations and presentations is that an audience doesn’t feel obligated to make eye contact with presenters, while interlocutors in conversations do. So, don’t ask this question at the beginning of your presentation. Instead you could ask a more specific question without looking for anyone to answer, or, if you do want the audience to answer, get them to raise their hand to a non-judgmental yes/no either/or question.

2. Never say, “I’ll give a quick/brief/short overview of X”.

The problem here is that it doesn’t sound like important information and it gives the impression that you are going to give this overview only because it’s necessary to understand something that is coming later. Audiences will often stop paying attention to you when they hear this phrase and this is the last thing you want in your presentation. Remember, it is very difficult to recapture the attention of an audience that has drifted away from you.

So, instead say to them “I’m not going to bore you with the details but instead I’m going to quickly give you the most 3/5 most important things you need to know about X”. Notice how I said 3 or 5 things. Remember that the human brain expects and remembers the triangular numbers 3 and 5 better than the numbers 2 or 4 (be careful about having more than 5 items in your lists or 5 parts to your overall presentation structure as it will seem overly complicated). If you give them a list comprised of 2 or 4 things, audiences will expect a third or fifth element to complete the list.

3. Never say, “I’m sorry, I haven’t had a lot of time to prepare”, or “I’m sorry for my bad English”.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard someone say this at the beginning of their presentation. The immediate and nearly irreversible affect on the audience? It flinches at the thought that they have to spend the next 20 minutes in your company. They switch off their ears and swipe on their twitter feed.

Regarding lack of preparation – no one ever feels like they’ve had enough time to prepare their presentation. Even if it is true that you really didn’t have a lot of time, there is no need to say it. Do the best you can and who knows, some or all of your audience might not even notice. Regarding your poor level of English – if you’ve accepted the invitation to speak then you should have at least the minimum level required to make yourself understood. Nobody speaks perfectly and there is no such thing as the correct accent for speaking English. If you are very nervous about the language you have to present in, write a script for what you want to say. Generally, I don’t advise reading from a prepared script, but in this case it can be a solution. Don’t focus on speaking perfectly, instead focus on making the audience understand. Remember, the presentation is not about you; it’s about the topic/problem you are talking about.