If you’ve ever been in the audience when a talented speaker has given a presentation, you know what a pleasure it can be. A skilled speaker can keep an audience’s attention for long periods of time. They can educate, inform, and motivate without making people feel as if they are at the receiving end of a lecture.
There are many techniques speakers learn to accomplish this. Sometimes, however, a presentation is made stronger by what you do not say. By avoiding these toxic phrases, you can be more effective in your presentations.
1. Never say: “Can everybody hear me?”
This statement, usually accompanied by blowing and tapping on the microphone, are the very first words of so many speakers that it has become cliché. This statement is fluff and should be left out of most presentations, because it weakens the opening of your presentation — a very critical moment.
Try this instead: Work out audio issues in advance.
Verifying that your audio will work as planned is part of the preparation process. If you have access to an AV team, trust them to do their jobs correctly.
There are a few exceptions to this guideline. If you are in a room without a built-in audio system, it can be difficult to predict whether or not all audience members will be able to hear you. In other cases, it may become apparent that there is an audio malfunction during your presentation. In these cases, it is appropriate to ask the audience if they can hear you.
2. Never say: “Turn off your cell phones and laptops.”
When speakers use this phrase, it is to get the audience to focus on them, and not the technology they have with them, and to ensure that they aren’t disrupted by ring tones or other intrusive sounds. Unfortunately making this demand may elicit a resentful reaction from the audience. They may feel the speaker is being presumptuous by telling them what to do with their own property.
The statement may also be a bit counterproductive, because people frequently use smart phones and other technology to take notes, snap pictures of slides, and to share content on social media. These activities make them excellent, engaged audience members.
Try this instead: “Please place all devices in silent mode.”
This communicates your desire to avoid noisy disruptions — for yourself and for other audience members — while still being respectful.
3. Never say: “I’m not feeling very well today.”
To your audience, this can come off as “excuse making” or as a way to justify being poorly prepared. Ditto for statements about being jet-lagged or tired. All of these fall into the category of “not the audience’s problem.”
Try this instead: Say nothing.
Shake it off. Drink some coffee. Take an antacid. Grab a power nap. Then, walk on stage and work as hard as you can to present your material and keep the audience interested. The merits of your speaking talents and your message should make up for you feeling a bit under the weather.
4. Never say: “This won’t take long.”
This is a statement that is intended to reassure audience members that you respect their time, and won’t waste it by giving out irrelevant information or allowing a presentation to go on for too long. Unfortunately, by making this statement, you are really communicating a lack of confidence in the importance of your message and your worthiness as a presenter. In addition, this comment is often an empty promise.
Try this instead: “When you leave today, you will have gained valuable knowledge.”
Rather than making your audience believe that you aren’t confident in your message or skills, let them know that they will be on the receiving end of some great content. If your presentation is compelling, your audience will focus on the value they are receiving rather than on the duration of time you speak.
5. Never say: “I’m a big fan of your (local sports team).”
This is corny and comes off as an attempt to pander to your audience. The likelihood that anybody is going to believe a statement like this is close to nil. It’s especially risky to make this statement if you do a lot of traveling, forget where you are, and name the wrong team.
Try this instead: Tell a sincere story that your audience will appreciate.
If you are trying to make a connection with your audience, go with a sincere story. If you have one that legitimately relates to the town you are in, that’s fine, but don’t force it.
6. Never say: “There’s no need to take notes. The slides will be available later.”
This is another presumptuous statement. Audience members are perfectly capable of determining whether or not they need to take notes. After all, there is a difference between taking notes as they are viewing slides and listening to you speak, and viewing your slides on the Internet hours later while trying to recall what you said.
Try this instead: “All slides will be available online.”
You will have audience members who want copies of your slides. This lets them know that they have the option to download them without attempting to dictate whether or not they can take notes.
7. Never say: “I’d like to tell a story.”
There’s no need to introduce a story like this. Doing so is a waste of words, and that nearly always results in a speech that isn’t as interesting as it could be.
Try this instead: Just tell the story.
A good story needs no introduction. If it is relevant and interesting, you will get a good response.
8. Never say: “I’ll go ahead and read this slide to everyone.”
Whenever I give a speech, I ask audience members to visit my website to give me feedback. Usually I throw together a quick survey with a few questions to see how I was received, and then I add a place for comments. After I had given a presentation in Duluth, I received some absolutely scathing comments from an audience member. So much so that I was motivated to contact her for more detail. It turns out that her major source of frustration were my “headache-inducing, wall-of-text slides.”
If you have a slide with so much information that your audience cannot process it within a few seconds, you have a problem. Reading a slide aloud is a great way to take your audience right out of your presentation.
Try this instead: Break your slide up.
Use multiple slides to make a point rather than cramming one slide full of information. If you must, you can use numbering to indicate that the information in a series of slides is related.
9. Never say: “The answer is…”
This is not to say that you shouldn’t answer a question that is asked of you. However, if you simply provide the answer, you don’t know that all members of the audience heard the question correctly. You also have not clarified that you understand the question either.
Try this instead: “The question was X, and the answer is Y. Is this what you were asking?”
This strategy presents the question and answer together. This ensures that all audience members hear and understand the question. It also gives the person asking the question time to clarify or ask a follow-up question.
10. Never say: “You should have been paying attention when I covered this earlier.”
This statement is usually made by a speaker who is frustrated that their message was not as clear as it needed to be and is externalizing that frustration. I know this, because I was once a young and easily-agitated presenter. Over time, I learned the value of not alienating audience members. The result of statements like this is that the audience member feels defensive and embarrassed, and will likely shut down. It also creates an uncomfortable situation for everybody else.
Try this instead: “I’d be happy to go over that. I should have been more clear the first time.”
The only appropriate response to an audience member’s question is to thank them for asking, to provide the answer, and to verify that they understand the answer. Using this approach will result in your message being clearly understood, and will keep the person asking the question engaged.
The next time you have a presentation to give, try leaving these common, but ill-advised phrases behind. Your audience will appreciate it, and you will receive a better response to your message.
What do you think?
What are the phrases that speakers use which make you cringe? Please share.