“Because your words really do matter!” my Grandma says, with conviction.
It’s New Year’s Day, and I’m sitting with her and my friend Stephanie. They’re both subscribers to the People Business Daily, and a recent email stirred up a conversation. The email simply read:
Never begin with an apology.
More than nearly any email I’d sent before, this one generated a lot of responses. Like others, my grandma had emailed me in response to this one. Knowing I’d be around for the holidays, we dog-eared the conversation until we were in person.
Throughout the 80s and 90s, Grandma worked in international business. Since retiring, she uses her time to invest in causes that make the world a better place. I think I come by much of my hybrid of business and activism through her.
She continues her point. “Your words really do matter. And so, how do you avoid apologizing when you communicate?”
Of course, there are times to apologize. When our words wound — intentionally or not — we apologize. When our actions or inactions divide, an apology can mend.
But in the world of public speaking, most apologies should be avoided.
I explained that when I wrote what I did, I had in mind here avoiding apologies in the introduction to speeches. So often, I hear speakers start off with an apology:
- “I’m sorry, I have a cold.”
- “I’m sorry, I’m so nervous.”
- “I’m just going to apologize in advance, I’m probably going to end up crying.”
- “I’m sorry, I’m not good at this.”
The Problem with Apologies
Leading with an apology creates two problems.
First, it discounts your presence. You’ve earned the right to be on the platform you’re on. Whether you’re giving a toast at a wedding, or speaking in front of the board, you’re there on purpose. Most audiences aren’t hostile, and more often than not, they’re not looking for a reason to avoid listening to you. But, they’ll take one if it’s given to them.
Secondly, you tell your audience to listen to the wrong thing. You’re about to make the pitch and your voice quivers.
“I’m sorry, I’m really nervous.”
What your audience might have heard is deep commitment and belief in your product; instead, they’re thinking about how you told them you get nervous.
What if you had a cough yesterday and might have to clear the frog in your throat at some point in your 5 minute talk?
“I’m sorry… I’m a little under the weather and still have a cough…”
Your audience is now wondering whether or not you have the Coronavirus.
What if you’re asked to give the toast at your best friend’s wedding? You practice, rehearse, but you’re caught up in the moment and…
“I’m going to apologize in advance. There’s no way I get through this without crying…”
Your audience might have interpreted your tears as the love of a friend that stretched out from middle school on, bubbling up in tears of joy on a memorable day; instead, they remember you’re a crier.
The first set of tears wraps them into the experience of your speech, keeps them in the moment. The second set — the tears that follow the apology — are tainted, and written off because criers gonna cry.
One caveat. Is it ever time to apologize? Yes. If you can’t do what you’re there to do — your throat seizes and you cough uncontrollably, not able to get a word out; you choke, your voice cracks, and you can’t recover, sobbing in the middle of your eulogy — then, it’s okay to apologize. Here, it’s the polite thing to do, and will help your audience empathize with your situation.
What I want you to avoid, though, is the pre-emptive apologetic strike.
Sorry, Not Sorry
The next time you start a speech, bite your tongue. Don’t say you’re sorry. Take up the space you deserve, own the platform you’ve been given, and don’t apologize for being human.
Not that you need it, but in case you haven’t heard it from anyone else: You have my permission to be fully, unapologetically you on the platform.
What about you?
Are you tempted to apologize when you’re on the platform? What’s your plan for next time you’re tempted to express pre-emptive remorse?