Say sorry to your sister. I grew up being told to say sorry. Say sorry for pulling her hair. Say sorry for “being mouthy.” I suppose I am still “mouthy,” but now I hope I can often get paid for it, rather than paying for it often when I was a kid.
“He’s on my side!” Did the rear seat in the car that you grew up in have an imaginary line that you were not allowed to cross? Ours did. When you crossed the line … “say sorry to your sister.” Or perhaps that biggest sin of all, going into her bedroom, The Holy of Holies. Say sorry to your sister.
Being made to say sorry doesn’t work, does it? To be truly sorry, the dictionary says, is to feel regret, to have compunction, sympathy or pity. I rarely had those feelings when I was forced to say sorry to my sister.
Saying sorry voluntarily is different. The Brits are mocked around the world because we seem to say sorry far too often. We say “sorry,” with an inflection, when we are in a queue and someone wants to push in. We say “sorry” when we bump into someone on the street. “Sorry” when we ask for something in a restaurant. Oh, sorry, I’m sorry. Sorry.
In an interesting experiment called the “Spotlight Effect,” quoted in the book, 59 Seconds: Think a little Change a lot by Richard Wiseman, Thomas Gilovich and colleagues from Cornell University undertook a series of tests where they forced embarrassment on subjects. I mean, how more embarrassing could it be forced to wear a Barry Manilow T-shirt! The poor subject was sent 5 minutes late into a meeting room full of fellow students after being forced to wear an “I love Barry” shirt. After a couple of minutes they were then told to go back outside and were promptly bundled back out of the room!
Two interesting things happened. The rest of the students were asked if they had noticed the image on the T-shirt. At the same time, the subject was asked what percentage of students noticed you were a die hard Barry fan? After many tests only about 20% of the students noticed the flowing locks and pearly whites of Barry on the T-shirt. The interesting fact was the blushing T-shirt wearing subject estimated the figure to be around 50%.
Here is a valuable lesson – mostly, we over estimate the impact of an embarrassing encounter. Wether it be a trip on the way up to the stage, the failure of powerpoint slides, forgetting part of our prepared speech, a bad hair day, noticing spinach in your teeth after talking to your boss for 20 minutes or wearing a Barry Manilow T-shirt.
CONFESSION ALERT – Ok, on the Starve The Doubts podcast where I was interviewed, I confessed to the world that I once went to a Barry Manilow concert. They say that confession is good for the soul. (And yes, I did wave a candle when we sang “Mandy”) So I feel better now, but my credibility will have sunk to an all time low. (BTW – do take some time to listen to this podcast library, there are many, many outstanding interviews)
Elton John says, sorry seems to be hardest word to say. Barry Manilow taught me that sometimes it’s better not to say sorry. Barry taught me sorry is the last word that we should be saying, even when something goes wrong.
Stay Calm and Don’t Say Sorry
When you chose, or your role choses you, to stand in front of an audience no matter small or large, you will have times when things go wrong. It will be embarrassing. They could be your fault or someone else’s. Your video will work 10 times out of 10 in rehearsal. During the actual presentation you will turn to the screen and say, let’s look at this video clip,” and then … nothing. The room fills with an uncomfortable silence. Seconds seem like hours. You wait. And wait. And wait. Some speakers at that moment are lost. They put even more pressure on the AV team who are frantically trying to find the way to play the clip. I recently heard a speaker say to the AV team at this moment, “Ok guys, we can wait while you get your act together,” No, No and No!
Don’t say sorry, say, “I know the AV team are working hard to bring us the clip, if we can get it working soon, we will come back to it.” Sometimes, you just have to move on. This comes back to rehearsal. If you know your material by heart. If you own the words rather than rent them, you should be able to carry on with out the AV, just with the power of well written and well rehearsed words.
Don’t say sorry because you haven’t had enough time to prepare your presentation. Never. Ever. Even if it’s true. Even if at the last moment you get called to speak, be a professional and get on with it, don’t blame someone else by saying sorry.
Don’t say sorry when you realise that you missed a key point in your speech. “Sorry, I meant to say there …” either say the point or carry on. The audience doesn’t know what you are going to say anyway!
When something goes wrong, we need to think of a Barry Manilow T-shirt. We often over estimate the negative impact a mistake or AV failure will have on our presentation. These things will happen, it’s more about how you handle yourself in the moment that matters more. Keep Calm and Don’t Say Sorry!
Have you ever had a complete breakdown, stage collapse or calamity happen during a presentation? I would love to hear about it and how you handled it. Let’s start a conversation today.
By Peter Billingham
Picture by Keep Calm-o-matic