I’ve been to a lot of gatherings lately. Some speakers made me jump to my feet and beg for an encore. Seriously. Others lost the epic battle for my attention to my iPhone. At Spitfire, I’ve prepped speakers for TED, Aspen Ideas Festival, Ignite Talks, large keynote addresses and critical board meetings.
Here is a central truth about any public speaking: In the attention economy, people are looking for an excuse not to pay attention. Don’t give them one. Don’t, by your own comments, depress interest in your topic, set low expectations or make attendees question if listening to you is a good use of their time. In short, don’t say any of the following.
- “I am standing between you and cocktails.” You make yourself sound like something participants have to suffer through before getting a well-deserved reward. You are a reward. (That’s your “buck up little camper” pep talk.) Instead, frame this as, “You’ll be glad you’re here so you know what people are going to be talking about at the cocktail hour.” People like to feel they’re in the know. You’ve just told them you’ll help them be in the know. Attention will be paid.
- “It is early in the morning/after lunch. Get what you need so you don’t fall asleep.” Really? If they don’t have a stimulant, you are predicting you’ll put them to sleep? If that’s true, rework your presentation so it IS the stimulant. And if this is your attempt to be self-deprecating, you are making yourself sound boring, not humble.
- “Let me echo what my fellow panelist said.” (That’s the sound of people banging their head on the table.) This isn’t Groundhog Day. If a fellow panelist just said what you were going to say, you’ll have to come up with something new. You are a leader. You can do it. If this happened because you skipped your speaker prep call, you have no one to blame but yourself. If your co-panelist just went rogue, it happens. Embrace the fact that this gives you a chance to try new material.
- “Many of you know this.” If you mean that, then skip the information you are about to cover that most of the audience already knows and move on to new ground. Otherwise, you aren’t respecting their time, which gives audiences permission to tune out until you get to something new. If you actually think no one knows what you’re about to say, but you’re being insincere because you think this is a charming way to introduce new information, rethink that. There’s a fine line between charming and condescending.
- “You probably can’t read this.” Then why is it on your slide? If you now have to read your slide to the audience, you are about to commit a cardinal sin.
- “That is a lot of information I just threw at you.” If you are just saying this to be nice, have a stronger closing. Instead of undermining your own presentation, bring it to a solid conclusion. If you mean it, have more discipline as you curate your presentation. Share what you absolutely need to share to motivate your audience to do what you want them to do, and not a morsel more. Be ruthless as you finalize your presentation. Keep it tight.
- “I know it is the end of the day and many of you are tired.” Have you ever heard of the power of suggestion? Just when you want me to be excited about hearing what you have to say, instead I am thinking, “I did get up early this morning. I’ve been going all day. It’s probably going to be a late night. I need a break.” This is not the mental rabbit hole you want your audience to go down. Instead, try, “I love when they save the best topic for last,” or “I’ve heard from many of you that you are eager to dig into this issue, so let’s go.”
- “I’m running out of time so let me skip these next slides.” This screams that you didn’t practice your presentation enough. You aren’t as organized as you should be. Attention starts to drift while you find your new place. You may not get it back.
- “I know I am out of time, but I have three more things…” If you are now encroaching on another speaker’s time, you just became THAT person. You seem to think you are more important than anyone else. Even if this is true, don’t say it out loud. Part of a successful presentation is having people like you. When you hog time, you’ll be less well liked. If it is the end of the session and you are now making everyone late to their next thing, this means you have no time for interactivity, including Q&A, which violates good presentation best practices. And just because you want to keep going doesn’t mean attendees will stay put. You may make your most important points over the racket of people packing up and leaving. In other words, they are definitely not paying close attention.
Most of these phrases are well intentioned. Maybe you are trying to be self-deprecating or respectful, but there are better ways to express that. There are certainly much better ways to get the point across that the remarks you are about to make are valuable and that listening to you is a great use of time and energy for attendees. Before you say anything that undermines you, remember: Don’t sabotage yourself. Your first job as a speaker is to get people’s attention and then keep it. Focus on that and people will be much more likely to listen and applaud what you have to say.