Article Category: Delivery Techniques

Should a Speaker Apologize to the Audience?

SorryConventional public speaking wisdom states that one should never apologize.

However, I recently argued that there are very few public speaking rules.

  • Is “never apologize” a strict rule?
  • What is the rationale? What’s wrong with apologizing to the audience?
  • Under what circumstances, if any, is it okay to apologize?

Is “never apologize” a strict rule?


I think that, in general, too many speakers apologize for too many things unnecessarily, but it isn’t a universal rule.

What is the rationale? What’s wrong with apologizing to the audience?

The fundamental rationale for this guideline is twofold:

  1. You usually gain little by apologizing.
  2. You may damage your credibility.

Consider the situation where you are designing a presentation. You’ve assembled a wealth of information, and it is time to edit your material. With each component — a slide, a prop, a story, a joke — you ask yourself whether it adds to the core message, or whether it detracts. Is there a net gain by keeping this?

You might ask the same question of inserting an apology into your presentation. There is often very little to gain by apologizing. On the other hand, you may damage your credibility with the audience. If you apologize for not being an expert, for example, your audience will begin to question why they are listening to you.

Under what circumstances, if any, is it okay to apologize?

Magic 8 ballThere’s no magic eight ball which will tell you when an apology is warranted. Having said that, you may find it helpful to consider these questions:

Question #1: Is the audience even aware of what you are apologizing for?

  • Norman Wei recently suggested: “Never tell your audience you are nervous!” The audience is usually completely unaware of your nerves. They can’t feel your butterflies. They don’t know if you lost sleep over this presentation.
  • Similarly, you need not apologize if you forget to include something that you had planned. Only you know what the plan was. The audience will never guess.

How to handle it:

  • Don’t call attention to negatives. They will only distract both you and your audience.

Question #2: Are you apologizing because you are really sorry, or because you are embarrassed?

  • If it is the latter, it is quite possible that an apology will only call attention to and amplify the source of your embarrassment.
  • For example: “I’m sorry. I was rushing to get these slides together.” The audience has probably already judged the quality of your slides. They likely don’t care that you are embarrassed, and are unlikely to think “Oh, that’s okay. No problem.” Instead, their mental response is more likely “You didn’t prepare adequately. You are wasting my time.

How to handle it:

  • Prepare adequately so that you have nothing to be embarrassed about or apologize for. Additionally, your confidence level will increase and improve your delivery.

Question #3: Are you apologizing for something completely out of your control?

  • Example: Your presentation is interrupted by a very noisy air conditioning unit that has just “clicked on.” Some speakers may ignore it. Others may express their own disappointment with an apology “Oh… sorry for that.
  • Example: You are booked to teach a course into a room which is too small to accommodate your students comfortably.

How to handle it:

  • If there is some action you can take, and that action improves your ability to deliver your message, then act decisively. (“Why don’t I move closer to you so that everyone can hear over that air conditioner.“)
  • If there is no meaningful action for you to take, you might try to relieve the stress of the situation with some appropriate humor. The key is to acknowledge the problem without apologizing for it.

Question #4: What if I need to apologize?

  • A speaker I mentored once told me of a presentation where she felt a compelling need to apologize. She described a strong feeling of guilt which was negatively affecting her ability to speak. Ideally, such feelings would not impact her ability to continue, but that was not reality for her.

How to handle it:

  • If you feel this need, then deliver the apology quickly and sincerely. Don’t dwell on it or repeat yourself. Just resume your presentation. You may or may not lose credibility points from the audience, but there are far worse things you can do.
  • The key thing is sincerity. A sincere apology may even gain favor of the audience. It all depends on the context.

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Comments icon7 Comments

  1. TJ Walker says:

    If you were really sorry, then why didn’t you prepare for your speech more thoroughly in advance?

    1. Andrew Dlugan says:


      I certainly agree with you in the large majority of cases. Speakers tend to be embarrassed by their own lack of preparation. (e.g. Question #2)
      However, there are cases where a speaker has made their very best effort, and still come up short. Usually this is when things are out of their control.
      e.g. they are asked to fill in for a sick speaker on very short notice
      There’s no reason for them to apologize in this case, but they would very likely feel sorry that their presentation was not optimal.

  2. Jo Jameson says:

    I think you make some fabulous points in this post – so often I see speakers apologizing for things that the audience are completely unaware of (e.g. skipping over something, being nervous etc.) and it’s like sticking a big neon sign up to them saying ‘I messed up!’ I think the readers of my blog would benefit from reading your article so I’ve placed a link on my blog to alert them to it – keep up the good work!

  3. Keith Davis says:

    I agree that it very much depends on the context – if aplogising for a deficiency in the room etc – then it is good to make sure the audience knows it isn’t as you planned.
    BUT never ever aplogise for any aspect of your performace. If you miss out a point, lose your way or something of that nature, don’t apologise. It just draws attention to it – they most likely wouldn’t notice if they are interested in what you are telling them.
    In the ASC we say never apologise and never thank the audience – they should be thanking you!”

  4. Simon says:

    Hi – good points. In my experience, most apologies are because of nerves and/or embarrassment, not genuine contrition. What we tell people on our training courses is that they should never apologies… not because they shouldn’t apologise when they do something wrong but because they should never *need* to apologise! πŸ˜‰


  5. Great post, Andrew!

    Your country just did a great job hosting the Winter Olympics.

    I didn’t see any of the skaters, skiers, bobsled riders or anyone else apologize. (Well, the coach who waved is skater into the wrong lane did, I hope, apologize.)

    Everyone did their very best and all were cheering for them.

    It was especially notable with the figure skaters that when they fell, and were most likely out of the competition, NONE OF THEM walked off the ice. They all got up, and continued their performance. This is what speakers should do, too.


  6. Rich Watts says:

    Great article – thank you.

    I have to say I regularly advise others not to apologise for nerves, forgetting their words or similar. I always point out to the nervous speaker that this is because they shouldn’t need to apologise for being braver than 99% of other people and standing up in front of an audience and speaking.

    We can all relate to having the odd stumble, even the most experienced of us!

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