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  • Writer's pictureBethany Huebner

3 Things You Should Never Say in Front of an Audience

Updated: Feb 17, 2020

“What are you working on?” My mentor asked.

“I am working on a presentation I have to give next weekend.” I said. (With a smile, because I was honestly excited about the opportunity.)

“You have to give? Hmmm…that doesn’t sound like you are excited. Wasn’t one of your goals to have more opportunities to speak in front of others?” He said.

I was taken aback; I was excited about the opportunity. I was going to speak at the local APTA meeting about injury prevention, a passion of mine. I had recently had the opportunity to present and actually enjoyed it (I know, for most people public speaking is a nightmare…for me it is like an exciting game.) What made him question my enthusiasm for the preparation? What made him think I wasn’t excited?

My words. “I have to give…” The choice of words I used told a different story than I really wanted to tell, but I had no idea that was happening. After my encounter with my mentor, I learned that if I simply exchange one word in my sentence, the meaning would completely change.

Do you ever notice that happens in the classroom or in front of your audience? You think something sounds funny in your head and then once it is said out loud you wish you could crawl into a hole. Or you hope to tell your audience something that will be endearing, but it has the opposite effect? I would imagine we all have the same goal in mind as we step foot in front of an audience, whether it is a group of students or a group of colleagues, we want to win the audience, persuade them to think and know what we know. Simple word choices can aide us in our victory or they can hinder our progress. Here are 3 things you SHOULDN’T say in front of your classroom:

1. We have a lot to cover in a short amount of time.

What your audience hears: “I am going to talk super-fast and plow through some really hard concepts so buckle up, buttercup. There is no time for questions, we won’t collect $200 after we pass go, and you won’t retain a single ounce of what I’m about to say so you might as well go ahead and make your Christmas list on Amazon.”

Ok, ok, ok…so that is a bit of a dramatic rewording of the above phrase. But, I bet many of you have had similar thoughts when you have heard a speaker say those words. Words matter. Your choice of words expresses meaning and emotion, whether you are trying to or not. By saying you won’t have enough time to thoroughly cover your material at the front end of your presentation you are actually implanting fear and stress into the minds of your audience. Their thoughts float to, “What will happen if we don’t finish this material? What if we run out of time?” “She obviously doesn’t care if we learn this material since we are just going to plow right through it.” I know I have said before creating emotion around your topic helps with learning and retention but creating stress as your upfront emotion will actually hinder any learning. Stress induces a flight or fight response…cortisol. When cortisol is present, dopamine is not. And remember, dopamine is that magic hormone that makes memories. Your audience needs to be engaged, relaxed to let dopamine flow. You may very well have a lot of information to cover in a short amount of time, but your audience doesn’t need to know that. What they need to know is your passion for the topic, how you care about delivering the information and that you care about them learning it. When you find yourself in this predicament, pace yourself and work hard to engage your audience.

2. You’re wrong.

What your audience hears: “You’re wrong. And I hate you and how can you be so stupid.”

Maybe I’m the only person who hears those extra words at the end of “You’re wrong,” but I’m banking on at least one other person feels the pain of those words too. Please make sure you hear me say that I’m not supporting telling everyone they are correct all the time. There are times when people need to know they are wrong. What I am saying is you don’t tell an audience member who just willingly answered a question in front of all of their peers that they are blatantly wrong (unless they deserve it…). The relationship between speaker and audience is a very delicate balance. The speaker is trying to build trust with the audience and working hard to connect. Asking questions is a great way to build those bridges of trust and engagement, but your quickest way to disengaged audience is by saying “You’re wrong.” You have been an audience member before, right? You know how hard it is to respond to an open question in front of all of your peers. You may not be sure if the answer is correct or you may not be confident in your answer, but you decide to take the risk after all. If it is met with a straightforward negative, you (audience member you) may not want to take that risk ever again. As a speaker, why would you even want to plant that seed of regret and fear in your audience member? Instead of responding with a “You’re wrong,” how about responding with another question like, “What makes you say that?” or “That is an interesting way to look at it, How would someone else describe that?” By responding with more questions, you can get the audience to right the wrong of the audience members response without degrading your relationship with them or others. You can maintain the trust you have built, and you will probably earn some brownie points from other members of the audience who will see your response as an act of grace and support.

3. I didn’t have much time to prepare, so this should be interesting.

What your audience hears: “Speaking in front of you wasn’t a priority for me, in fact I really didn’t care enough to practice before today. I don’t really respect you as an audience nor do I really care about the topic I am about to talk about.”

Regardless if you received a speaking invitation the night before, your audience NEVER needs to know how prepared or unprepared you are for the presentation. If you say that before a lecture, you may even earn an interesting meme about your lack of preparation on a class Instagram page. Saying something like that before you give a presentation or lecture is just a crutch of insecurity. You may not have had a lot of time to prepare or maybe you had a ton of time, but you aren’t fully confident on what you are presenting. Maybe by saying that you think you are lowering your audience’s expectations, so you won’t have to work as hard to earn their respect. WRONG! By admitting your lack of confidence on the front end you actually lose your audience’s respect, they don’t feel sorry for you. You are right about one thing though…your audience’s expectations will be much lower. In fact, most audience member’s expectation of you will be so low, they will stop engaging and paying attention to anything you have to say. Vulnerability with an audience is a key component to connecting and engaging, however, insecurity type of vulnerability where you air out your dirty laundry actually hinders your connection. Many of your audience members and/or students all have lives outside of that room too and are sacrificing it to be in the chairs with you. If you communicate you didn’t respect their time by not fully preparing (regardless if that was out of your control) you will lose them.

I have said every single one of these things in front of a classroom before and have witnessed the energy being zapped from the room. I have sat in the chairs and listened to a speaker say these things and felt myself lose interest or connection. It is amazing to me how our words matter. As a kid we are taught that sticks and stones may break our bones, but words cannot hurt. Well, that is entirely untrue. Words matter. Words can hurt. Words can foster connection or can create a barrier.

What was that one-word exchange that would have made a world of difference with my mentor, you ask? If I would have said, “I am preparing for a presentation I GET to give…” all would have been different. As we are speaking in front of our students, colleagues, or new audience members let us remember to be intentional about our words to foster the audience connection we all are hoping for.

What phrases have you said in front of an audience you realized weren’t the best choice?

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