• Paul McGovern

Better Presenting – Stop Apologising

Updated: Jun 30, 2020

Starting a presentation with an apology is as British as enjoying a cup of tea and a whinge. Many a presenter seems to think a bit of repentance in their warm-up routine is somehow charming.

A sad looking cat
Don't give me that look, sorry doesn't cut it buster. Image (c) Maggie Liu https://www.instagram.com/lanlan731/

It’s not charming. It’s usually a pointless public self-flagellation that does nothing to advance the subject or the speaker’s reputation. Here are some of the most common and irritating examples of apologies in presentations.

Sorry, I only did these slides late last night This tells your audience that their time doesn’t matter and that you are happy to waste it. Not only could you not be bothered to prepare properly, you want to highlight this to your audience so they know just how low they are on your priorities list. If you did the slides late last night and you’ve prepared a good presentation, great. There’s no need to mention it. If you know you’re presenting a load of old rubbish, get through your time quickly so people can at least check their emails when you finish early.

Sorry, these are someone else’s slides By all means credit someone else’s work. The apology here, though, has a hidden meaning: the presenter has the slides but knows they don’t have a clue how to give the presentation. This is avoided by looking through beforehand, preparing what you’re going to say, and taking out anything you don’t understand or can’t talk about. Certainly, it can be tricky when your boss dumps a presentation on you five minutes in advance and tells you to get on with it. Find out what the original presenter wanted to say, and make the best sense of it you can. There is nothing for you to apologise for, unless it’s on their behalf.

Sorry, I’m not going to be as good as the last presenter It’s difficult to follow a great speaker. No-one likes doing it, and anyone who does worries they may look bad as a result. What do you want to achieve by apologising for it though? Gain forgiveness from your audience? There’s nothing to forgive you for, you’ve been asked to speak and you’re supposed to be there. Worry about you own presentation and get feedback if you can afterwards to make your next one better. Eventually someone else can one day make a pointless apology for following you.

Sorry, I don’t know if the video will work…does it? Oh…maybe? No. OK, well I was going to show you a video… Being surprised about video not working in presentations is like being surprised when the Sun comes up. Even if you’re not tech-savvy there’s no reason not to have a contingency when the technology falls over. The contingency can be as simple as having a slide to summarise the video if (when) it fails.

Don’t blindly trust the AV person you’ve just met, who tells you the video should be fine while refusing to make eye contact. It’s your talk so it’s your responsibility. Go through the presentation before anyone else gets there, run the slides, and test out switching between the Powerpoint and the back-up YouTube page. Make sure the sound works and is at the right level. It’s terribly frustrating watching someone ask how to do this when they’re in the middle of their talk. Once you’ve tested everything, it’s very rare for the computer to crash or do something completely unexpected. Most of the time the video fails, it’s the presenter’s fault for not checking beforehand.

If you won’t be able to test in advance, prepare a version of the presentation without any fancy media and use that. Don’t even bother trying video for the first time in front of an audience, with equipment you haven’t used before. It won’t work.

Sorry, this is a busy slide You’re not sorry. If you were really sorry you’d have seen that this was a busy slide before you started, and taken it out. If you’re showing a busy slide strategically, using it to illustrate a specific point (say, by highlighting one piece of information in context, or to show something in overview), this is fine and you have nothing to apologise for.

If you’re putting up a slide with 20 bullet points in microscopic font and you apologise for the busy-ness of the slide, consider what you were trying to achieve. Did you want to alienate yourself from your audience? Did you want to demoralise them as they tried to read it while listening to you, fail, give up, and get back to tweeting? If you didn’t, spread the information out over more slides. Better still, take the irrelevant stuff out altogether. I have yet to see a slide with 20 points on it that couldn’t be trimmed by at least half.

Exceptions Of course, there are times when an apology is necessary. If your mobile phone goes off because you forgot to check it, you should apologise. If you try to open a flowchart and, inexplicably, strong pornography is displayed, you should apologise. These are mistakes you presumably didn’t plan to make, and warrant at least some display of remorse.

The errors above, though, happen because presenters plan for them to happen. They are completely predictable, and while we all forget things once in a while, their frequency means we should be wise to them. Repeated committing of these heinous presenting crimes is normally down to negligence, and for the most part, ‘sorry’ is a meaningless word if there’s no effort to remedy the cause of the mistake.

Plan ahead, and make your presentations better by avoiding the need to apologise in the first place.

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