"And last," the speaker said, "we have the resolution—no, wait, I'm sorry, that's wrong. There's one other thing, excuse me, I'm sorry, but first we need to look at the data compiled for the West Coast." He grimaced and shuffled some papers. "Sorry! My notes were out of order. I'm a little nervous still."
In the space of a few seconds, the speaker apologized at least four times. Each apology focused the audience on a single error, a relatively minor one, one that could have been corrected smoothly without distracting listeners from the message.
The best practice to follow when it comes to apologizing during a speech or presentation?
While an occasional apology may do little harm, repeated ones lessen the speaker's credibility and distract or annoy the listener. Apologies tend to become habitual, at times almost filler material, so removing them from your presentation repertoire will make you a stronger speaker.
The speaker who apologizes for losing her place in a data or message stream is calling attention to her disorganization. Doing so probably confuses listeners because they are cast into the uncertain waters of disorder; it will take them longer to emerge from it than it does the speaker. Rather than apologize for the muddle with an account of what went wrong, the speaker could backtrack much more smoothly and simply provide the omitted information: "And last, we have the resolution of the action items. To get to those, we first need to look at the data compiled for the West Coast."
Almost all speakers are nervous or fearful, and announcing that you are one of them will not calm you, increase your confidence, or win listeners' empathy. Instead, such a confession will focus audience members on any signs of anxiety you display—real or imagined. They might also be embarrassed on your behalf, an emotion that moves their attention away from your message. So don't apologize for your nervousness. Instead, practice techniques to control fear, to transform it into useful energy. The nervousness or fear you feel is almost always more apparent to you than it is to your audience.
There's no need to apologize for a mispronunciation or use of the wrong word; if you say "Paris" but meant "Parry," pause a moment, say what's correct, and go on. If you've made a mistake with facts or data, alert your listeners to the correction you are about to provide by saying something like, "I just realized I gave you an incorrect figure. The actual difference between our 2009 and 2010 retention rates is 8 percent."
It may happen—especially during a Q&A session—that a speaker does not have requested information. If he is part of a team, he can ask his colleagues to locate the required information while he takes the next question. He can then return to the request and offer a response. He need not apologize.
If the information cannot be supplied during the session, the speaker needs to say so, again without apology. He may offer to furnish it later via email or other means if doing so is appropriate to the occasion.
There may be a couple of exceptions to the "never say sorry" practice. The first is if you've arrived late; do apologize but then move swiftly into your presentation. Another is if you're asked for information you'd promised to have or really should have had; apologize for the omission and then, as a follow-up, locate and forward the required information, even if it arrives after a deadline.
Spare your audience the staccato of "sorry" that, with each utterance, detaches them a little from you and your words. Instead, work to achieve a seamless and strong recovery from any mistakes, one that keeps your listeners with you and keeps you in control of your messages.