Don’t Say That!

Six Things Presenters Should Never Say

The digital world is littered with articles with titles similar to this one. A Google search turns up 750,000 of them. And most of them offer good advice, albeit a bit redundant. Just about all of them warn against calling attention to your having run out of time, asking for the audience to cut you a break because of [fill in lame excuse here], or apologizing for a technical glitch. Many of them admonish those who use too many ums, wells, and likes. And over half of the ones I reviewed are ready to hang you for phrases like “you can’t read this chart, so let me tell you what it says.”

The list of offenses on most of these articles runs 10 or higher, and one of them offers 21 things to never say, in quintessential Buzzfeed click-bait fashion. My list will include only six, with the hope that at least one of them is fresh and useful.

“How are you all doing?”

You might think that you are just being warm and friendly starting out a presentation this way, but what you are really doing is creating an uncomfortable and disingenuous moment. If you are seated around a boardroom with three or four people, and you really want to know how their weekends were, and you are willing to hear their answers, okay then. Otherwise, you’re just acting like a phony. How many are in your audience — 20, 30, 400? Are you expecting them to answer? Are you going to go around the room? The cynical members of your audience believe that you don’t really care how they are, while even the more forgiving ones don’t believe that you really expect them to answer. So most don’t. Most sit silently when asked this direct question. Others offer an under-the-breath “fine” or maybe just some sort of grunt. And everyone waits anxiously for the moment to be over.

There’s nothing wrong with showing interest in your audience’s welfare, and I think it could be perfectly fine to begin with “Good morning, I hope you are all doing well.” This shifts no burden onto them and does not require that you wait for some response that is sure to be unfulfilling. Furthermore, you could use it as an intro to an ice-breaking story: “I hope everyone had as good an evening as I did last night. My wife and I took Jennifer’s advice and ate at 52nd St. Grill, and the seafood was sensational.”

But the empty “How’s everybody doing” opening should be avoided at all costs. In addition to the criticisms that I have leveled already, the most dangerous part of this opening is that it places you just one false move away from my biggest pet peeve in the history of public speaking:

Him: “Good morning, how you all doing?”

Us: “fine…okay…uhh…grunt…mumble.”

Him: “C’mon, you can do better than that. HOW’S EVERYONE DOING??”

Us: “Fine!…Yeah!…Okay!…Get lost.”

Let me be completely clear: I HATE THIS! I despise presenters for chastising their audience for not playing along with their disingenuous introductions. We sit silent to help you get past an awkward moment as quickly as possible, and you make it worse by asking us again? And by implying that somehow the problem is in our lack of enthusiasm?

Don’t ask how we are. And if you do, by all means don’t blame us for not answering to your satisfaction.

“Without further ado…”

This expression is normally used by those introducing others. Do you even know what “ado” means? Most of us know the word from two expressions: the one at issue here and “much ado about nothing.” Merriam-Webster defines ado as “foolish babble or unnecessary talk.” Do you really mean to refer to your introduction as foolish babble? If so, then say “Enough of this foolish babble–please welcome…” That would actually be better; a bit of self-deprecation goes a long way.

In fairness, most of your audience members won’t interpret ado as foolish babble because they have never actually consulted a dictionary for its meaning. They don’t care what it means; it’s not in their lexicon. They won’t use it with their coworkers or their kids. They only hear it in ballrooms or on webinars and it carries zero significance for them.

My real problem with this expression is that it rarely signals the end of the ado. Most presenters use it as a transition from one part of their introduction to another. I once heard someone say it four times before finally having the keynote speaker take the stage. My wife and I were in Napa for a weekend wine festival and we started counting the number of times this expression was used. We lost count somewhere north of 15. Everyone says it and no one cares what it means.

So find a better way to close your introduction. Like maybe “Please welcome John Smith.” There, problem solved.

“To make a long story short…”

Many bad things can happen with this seemingly-innocuous phrase. The first is your suggestion that you indulge in long stories. He might make this one short, but what about the next five? Let’s get out of here now. The second is your implication that you are cheating the audience out of the full story. Why are you making it short? Aren’t I worthy of the long version? I didn’t pay for the Reader’s Digest of this seminar!

But the bigger problem with this phrase is that it usually comes too late: by the time that most presenters use it, they have gone well past the point at which the story could be considered short. You’re calling attention to the fact that you’ve already blown it.

This expression holds special meaning for me thanks to the time that I was meeting with three commissioners of the Port of Long Beach. One of them tried unsuccessfully to sum up his thoughts, and by the third time that he uttered the now-infamous phrase, I slipped in a quick “Too late.” Talk about your awkward silence. He was stopped in his tracks, the others in the room didn’t know what to say, and I could barely muster an apology for the frog in my throat. I would like to say that I learned a lesson about being a smart-ass in public, but the sad fact is that I have probably said stuff like that since.

To make a long story short, this was not my finest hour.

“To be honest with you…”

I know what you are trying to say with this expression. You are trying to signal a moment of candor that you expect to be impactful. There is a diplomatic or more PC response that you could make but instead you are going to be more direct.

The implication is clear, though: most of the time, I’m lying but at this particular moment, I’m going to be honest with you. Simon Cowell of American Idol fame had his own unique twist: “If I’m being honest (that was horrific).” It’s like you can get away with anything because you’re not actually crediting yourself with saying it. If I were being honest, I’d say this. But I’m not so instead I’ll just say something that you want to hear. I’ll just give you a bunch of ado.

Once again, your audience might not interpret it that way, because they have grown so accustomed to the phrase, they’re now immune to it. And perhaps that’s the most damning thing about it: do you really want to say something that holds no meaning at all? It suggests that you gave no thought to it before saying it. It’s nothing more than a verbal tick. It’s like an um.

You can do better. How about this: “You wanna know what I really think? I think that it’s all political posturing to set up that lucrative development project by the lake.”

“It goes without saying”

Same deal. If it goes without saying, why are you saying it? Why are you wasting my time with it? I suspect you are trying to convey that something is obvious–so much so that we can dispense with it. We don’t need to spend time arriving at this conclusion; we are like attorneys putting facts in evidence. It’s just lazy–try replacing it with nothing. Just start the sentence with whatever was going to follow and I suspect you’ll like the meter and tone of it better.

“Literally”

This final one saddens me. A perfectly good and useful word has been ruined by modern culture. With every I literally died and you’re literally throwing money out the window, this word has lost its potential impact. And I’m literally going to cry now because of it. Whoops, I meant to say I’m literally at a loss for how to replace the word in my speech.

You see, that’s how it happens. Public speakers get into a cadence and for some reason they feel as if they must add a few syllables before the verb of their sentence. They reach for the first one they can find and it’s “literally.” You could just as easily have said that you “virtually died” or “you are essentially throwing money out the window,” but in the moment, you knee-jerked your way to “literally.” (This becomes amusing when the sentence is one that could be taken literally, like “it literally made me sick.” Really? Do you mean that you vomited right there in front of them??)

This all means that we can’t use it, even when we want to do right by it. The word has been ruined for at least a generation. (We’ll see if today’s teens can be part of its restoration.) I rarely use the word any longer, but when I feel as if I must, my workaround is to say it twice. “It was literally, literally, just seconds later when the CEO appeared on screen to announce the merger.” The first use of the word would not have been taken seriously; I needed two in order to convey the meaning.

That’s a bummer. Maybe literally. And it goes without saying that I’m disappointed. So without further ado, I’m done. How you’all doing, anyway?

 



What tops your list of stuff we shouldn’t say? Please share below. We’re all ears…not literally…

10 Comments

  1. ‘Nuff said! | SDA on Jun 14, 2016 at 3:43 pm

    […] The guy who brought us “Why Most PowerPoint Presentations Suck” has his own opinions on six phrases that speakers should never say. Check out Rick Altman’s latest editorial. […]

  2. Carmen Simon on Jun 14, 2016 at 3:59 pm

    I loved this list. Looking at the topic from a brain science perspective, I recommend avoiding the phrase “if you remember nothing else, remember this…” The statement implies that most of the things we presented are useless and only one item is practical. If we want to emphasize one concept as critical, a better statement is “Remember concept x and the rest of the materials are here to support why concept x is important.”

  3. David William Edwards on Jun 14, 2016 at 5:32 pm

    I hate hearing “actually”.

  4. Ell-man on Jun 14, 2016 at 8:32 pm

    Excellent, Rick! Thanks for this list! Want to read your book now!

  5. Olle Bergman on Jun 15, 2016 at 2:38 am

    As a member of the somewhat aloof, what-you-see-is-what-you-get Scandinavian culture, I was very confused the first time I went to USA. Total strangers asked me friendly questions like “How are you?” and “How you’re doing?”. I felt very flattered by their concern and started to explain that “the jetlag wasn’t too bad …” etc. The reactions I got was puzzlement and ackwardness. After some confused encounters of this kind, I realised that these were totally empty phrases which just seemed to mean ”hello!”.

  6. Rex Fisher on Jun 15, 2016 at 9:54 am

    I share your concern about the ruination of the word “literally”. As you say, a perfectly good work has been bastardized, and has lost its unique meaning. In fact, it’s become an autoantonym because it can mean “literally” or “not literally”. I blame Merriam-Webster for their collusion in this.

    Good stuff, Rick. I really enjoy and learn from your musings.

  7. Deborah Reagan on Jun 15, 2016 at 2:54 pm

    I recently sat through a large group training session and when the presenter said, “Good Morning” the entire room responded. School districts have some ingrained behaviors straight out of the classroom.

  8. Craig Hadden (@RemotePoss) on Jun 17, 2016 at 3:40 am

    Interesting post, and replies.

    It’s tough to name the biggest pet peeve in public speaking – competition’s so stiff! But like you, I do hate it when speakers complain about people’s responses. I even winced when a TEDx speaker said “Good morning!” and then did a “rev ’em up” motion with his arms when the reply was lukewarm.

    The same speaker made a joke in which, in passing, he called some of his audience “dummies”. That’s got to be pretty high on the no-no list!

    (You can watch said TEDx talk and read my critique of it here. Several well-known speakers have commented on it, such as Andrew Dlugan of Six Minutes and John Zimmer of Manner of Speaking.)

  9. […] writing this article, I realize now that I left out an entry in last month’s Six Things Presenters Should Never Say. How many times have you heard presenters begin a talk by offering a proviso of some sort. It might […]

  10. […] Read Full Article […]

Leave a Comment