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What not to do: Don’t say “sorry.”

There are a whole lot of little things that we shouldn’t say when we’re communicating functionally with our colleagues at work. I’m Michelle Bowden. I’m an authority on presenting in business and welcome to What Not to Do, a segment designed to eliminate all of those annoying little habits that we’ve picked up along the way and that we really shouldn’t do.


One of the things that you shouldn’t say when you’re presenting in a meeting is, “sorry”.


“Sorry” is an important thing to say if you have made a serious mistake, offended someone, or hurt someone’s feelings. Yes, of course, if you do something really serious and it’s offensive to someone, then yes you really should say, “sorry”.


When I’m coaching people on the best way to deliver their business presention, it’s not uncommon for people to say the word, “sorry” (without even realising it) as many as 5 or 6 times in a five minute speech. And most of the time they are apologising for something the audience didn’t even notice or care about.


The problem is that we tend to say, “sorry” when we really shouldn’t, when our error is very small and the audience really  didn’t care. For example, we put up the wrong slide and we say, “sorry.” We say the wrong word in our sentence, or trip over our articulation and we say, “sorry.” Or we stumble on the stage or overbalance a little bit over our own feet, and we say, “sorry.” In these situations, the audience generally doesn’t care. They probably didn’t even notice. By saying, “sorry”, now you’ve drawn their attention to the tiny error which is something you didn’t need to do. In situations like that, it’s not necessary to say, “sorry”.


Here’s the theory that explains why. There’s this really cool part in your brain. It’s called the reticular activating system. Thankfully, we shorten this to the RAS. Now the RAS tracks for what it knows and cares about. Have you ever bought a car and then you see that car everywhere on the road? The same color, same model. It’s everywhere. That’s your RAS noticing that. Have you ever bought a property and then found yourself noticing property sales for months after, even though you’re done with that?


When something is important to you the RAS helps you by highlighting experiences or things that can help you with that. Let’s say you’re having a baby or getting married. Now your RAS helps you by highlighting all the things in your environment that might help you with these significant life moments. You start noticing baby furniture shops that you’ve never seen before (even though you’ve walked past them hundreds of times in your life before you fell pregnant), or you start hearing people talk about their obstetricians, or the hospital that they loved or hated! In the wedding example you suddenly start noticing florists all around you, or wedding venues. You see what I mean? Your RAS highlights these things because your brain knows that this is what is of interest to you at this time.


When you say, “sorry” in a business presentation, guess what your audience’s brain starts looking for now? Yes, the word “sorry” highlights for them that there’s been an error (something that’s serious enough to apologise about) and now their brains start tracking  for all the other mistakes that you’re about to make as the presenter. In other words by saying, “sorry” you’ve effectively asked your audience to look out for future errors or blunders you make.


The point is, if you do something offensive, please do say, “sorry”. Otherwise, don’t worry about saying, “sorry”. Just keep going. They probably didn’t even notice it was a little mistake anyway.

So there you go. Don’t say, “sorry” in a business presentation unless you’ve done something seriously wrong.


Happy presenting!

© Michelle Bowden 2021.  Michelle Bowden is an authority on presentation & persuasion in business. Michelle is a CSP (the highest designation for speakers in the world), Creator of the Persuasion Smart Profile (a world-first psychometric indicator that tests your persuasiveness at work), best-selling internationally published author (Wiley), and a regular commentator in print, radio and online media.


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