Lately I’ve been seeing more speakers hop up on stage at a conference and say “I didn’t prepare anything so I’m just gonna wing it.” Or they’ll let you know that they’re “Sorry about the quality of the slides – I put them together quickly on the flight over here this morning.”
I’m all for winging it, but when you say “I’m not really prepared” in front of an audience you’re showing them the ultimate disrespect.
People take days off of work, spend hundreds on a conference ticket, travel for thousands of miles, and pay hefty rates for flights and hotels to come hear you speak, and you tell them you didn’t have time to prepare a talk? What’s cool about that? The audience is busy too, but they found time to come to the conference. You can’t find time to properly prepare a presentation for them?
Now… Some of these unprepared talks have been wonderful. The spontaneity is great, and if a speaker knows their topic they don’t really have to prepare in the traditional sense. So it’s not the quality of the talks, it’s the qualifier. If you aren’t prepared, or if you hastily put together your presentation, just don’t tell the audience. Just perform at your best and keep the pity and embarrassment to yourself.
Matton 29 Oct 09
I had a girlfriend who loved to cook food for people but she would immediately start apologizing about some aspect of it just as it was served. “I hope the bread’s not too dry”, “That might need a little more salt”, “I’ve never made these before I hope it’s ok”, etc.
It’s setting expectations too low before anyone’s even had a chance to try anything. 9 times out of 10 everything was completely delicious. I think in the same spirit as the speakers, it’s partially a confidence thing, but it’s also that coming up short and not having pride in the quality/professionalism/etc of your work (cooking or conf’ing) has become expected and popular.
I’m on board for a return to confidence and quality.
Also on board for a return to delicious salads.
Jeff Slobotskion 29 Oct 09
I completely agree…I just saw this happen last weekend at an event in which after hearing the speaker “joke” about this, my expectation level of what he was about to share next dropped about 5 levels…
I always try to remind myself that the audience genuinely wants to see you succeed, and when announcing your unprepared, it seems to me that you’re already throwing yourself in to an unnecessary hole.
Vivekon 29 Oct 09
People think they are lowering the bar of expectations. What they are actually doing is telegraphing their lack of confidence.
What might have been an okay or even great presentation will now suffer. A great deal of presenting is simply about the confidence you project.
Tim Chilcotton 29 Oct 09
I have also noticed that most of the time people wouldnt even be able to tell if you weren’t prepared had you not said anything.
Bjornon 29 Oct 09
This is a good rule of thumb for musicians and actors auditioning for parts. The amateur singers I’ve observed often open an audition by explaining their shaky nerves or lack of preparation. Rarely works.
Tyler Willison 29 Oct 09
In film school, I had a teacher berate me for this once. His saying was, “Never apologize for your chicken” (there may have been a few swear words thrown in for good measure).
People associate the emotions you make them feel with you, and if you make them feel like they are about to waste 45 minutes of their time listening to you, it could very well become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
It’s one of the most vivid lessons of school for me, I actually wrote about it at the time: http://tylerwillis.net/blog/never-apologize-for-your-chicken/
BTW, this isn’t just about not preparing, it’s anytime you feel you may be less than 100% ready—I am preparing a talk on healthcare right now, the first one I’ve given on that topic, and I’ve had to fight with myself to not lead with “OK, so, I’m still learning this stuff but…”
David Shoemakeron 29 Oct 09
I could not agree more. Spontaneous talks are often great, but there’s a certain percentage of the audience who will hear these qualifiers and translate it in their heads to “please zone out, read a newspaper, check your email, or play an iPhone game during this talk.” It’s common advice to start a talk with some sort of attention grabber. Starting with a qualifier about your lack of preparation is pretty much the opposite.
Paulon 29 Oct 09
Couldn’t agree more.
This was one of the lessons that was drummed into us at university when giving presentations, never start off on a low like that, it sets expectations for the audience and flags up the things they should be looking out for.
If you start of with “I’m not very good at public speaking…” you will have made up the audiences mind for them.
I also learnt that things are often nowhere near as bad as you think. Most people hate public speaking, they think they are stammering, that people can see them sweat, shake, or blush, but nine times out of ten they don’t, they think you gave a great talk.
Some of the best presentations I have given over the years have been ones where I’ve known what I wanted to say, and then pretty much winged it. I find over preparation makes me more nervous.
All talking yourself down does is lower everyones expectations, and puts you in the wrong frame of mind. Don’t do it.
Michaelon 29 Oct 09
Is the strategy behind this a bastardization of “under-promise, over-deliver?”
Derek K. Milleron 29 Oct 09
Unlike most people, I love public speaking, and as time goes on I spend less and less time creating slides or preparing a detailed outline. I make sure I know what I’m talking about, of course, but a speech often works best when it’s a conversation of some sort.
I encourage questions at any time, and indeed I often keep open some sort of text editor or word processor in the background on the projecting computer, so if someone comes up with a neat statement (or if I ask for input) I can type it out for everyone to see. Occasionally a good audience will lead a talk in a direction I didn’t expect, and as long as I still cover the important stuff I need to, I’m happy to follow.
So it’s fine to be unscripted, but that doesn’t mean unprepared. And there’s no point in apologizing, because presumably there’s a reason you’re the one onstage instead of someone else. May as well act like it.
Wuffieon 29 Oct 09
If you’re talking about a certain speaker at Startup School, I’m glad I wasn’t the only one that thought something was amiss. I was pretty pissed myself at his non-talk. My attention really trailed off after that and I don’t think it recovered from there. I struggled to pull any tidbit of wisdom from the guy. People definitely don’t fly across the country for that kind of thing. :(
Danielon 30 Oct 09
I have always felt that when I speak I been given an hour (assuming it is an hour talk) times the number of people in the room. If I have 30-40 people that is an entire work week. If I am not prepared I am waste a whole week of work. It is very disrespectful. It is even worse if those people have flow and have also paid to hear you speak.
Daniel Roseon 30 Oct 09
As an acting teacher told me, “improvisation is not the same thing as being unprepared.” When I give a presentation I have a framework for my topic and I have deep knowledge and passion for my topics. My improvisation is that I work with the audience throughout the presentation to take it where it needs to go so it’s as relevant as it can be and the audience is participating in that.
Derek K. Milleron 30 Oct 09
My Facebook friend James Harbeck said this:
‘Declaring the fault in advance does no better at muting the offence; rather, it aggravates it. “I’m about to throw up on you.” “I’ll knock over your wine glass in a moment.” “Please lend me some money; I’ll forget to pay it back.”’
Vanessa Foxon 30 Oct 09
The other thing that speakers do that is probably best avoided is explain to the audience how they spent tons of time preparing but something went wrong. They spent hours on slides but their laptop died. They set up a bunch of demos but everything crashed at the last minute.
Telling the audience how much work you’ve done doesn’t actually give them anything actionable. Just do the best you can to give them the information they came for and they’ll never know anything went wrong behind the scenes.
dj adelaideon 30 Oct 09
nice tip, i find myself making this mistake often, it’s a hard habit to get over!
Massimo Gaetanion 30 Oct 09
Great post and excellent quality of comments so far: people investing money and time to see you would probably expect, as you are part of the organisation, that you are better prepared than they are: they might be the ones that have decided to come along at the last minute while you had some time to prepare for it.
Justifying yourself in any way to set expectations, including finding excuses for poor results of your bad organisation or time management, is definitely a bad start. Better give it a go: if you are any good you might get away with it and people will appreciate it anyway.
Michaelon 30 Oct 09
Sometimes, their intentions are right. It’s totally appropriate to express how inadequate one feels to be addressing the audience. “I’m so honored you’ve invited me to speak to you today. I’m so honored to share this platform with a legend like [celebrity.]”
Or to open with a little joke. “I asked [organizer] NOT to schedule me right after the brilliant talk by [previous speaker!”
Or to reference a legitimate reason why one might be unprepared, such as an unexpected event. “I prepared this talk before [huge, relevant announcement the day before] and so I’ve had to revise some data at last minute.”
Those are all appropriate ways to show a little humility without lowering expectations or giving the impression one actually has not prepared a speech.
Brett Tilfordon 30 Oct 09
Often the whole bit about not preparing isn’t even true! I think it’s usually just the last second nerves people get that makes them feel as though they haven’t prepared, when the reality is they have.
Stephen Reeson 30 Oct 09
I always speak without notes or Powerpoint. As Derek says, then it is more like conversation. But that does not mean mean I am totally unprepared – I have been thinking about the subjects I speak in pubic on for some long time. That also means that when i am asked to speak about a specific subject – and some previous speaker has covered exactly the same ground – I can take things off elsewhere. The worst kind of public speaking, in my view, is when the speaker reads the text from the PowerPoint slides (especially if they have also distributed them in hard copy as well). But I do keep some pictures or charts handy as useful illustrations.
But I never apologise for “winging it” or not having slides
Williamon 30 Oct 09
I recall this was one of the most important rules in speech classes I took: Never apologize to your audience. That goes for your cold, nerves, lack of preparation or mistakes. It looks unprofessional.
Jon Christensenon 30 Oct 09
One of the least controversial blog posts I’ve ever seen. Everybody agrees and wants to chime in their agreement. I guess the folks that make this mistake must be too busy ‘not preparing’ to read this advice!
Bob Bobmoreon 30 Oct 09
I can’t emphasize too much how it makes the speaker look like an inconsiderate jerk.
Olivier Dagenaison 30 Oct 09
I was watching the Startup School stream live from home when that guy opened by reading his slide title of “They told me to wing it” and explaining that he was aware of how that could waste everybody’s time, etc.
My wife got home just about then, so I muted the audio while she told me a story about her outing and we exchanged the usual smalltalk. I glanced at the video a few times while we were talking, but all I kept seeing was the slide about this guy’s life timeline, so I had zero inclination to get back to unmuting the live feed. I don’t know if he ended up delivering an interesting talk, but he pretty much sold it to me as uninteresting right off the bat, so I totally agree with this blog post.
Martialon 30 Oct 09
People who come to see you, want to see you kick ass. They may not realize it in those terms, but when you do kick ass, they go away thinking, “Now that’s what I came to see!”
I prepare the hell out of myself even when I’m talking about stuff I know cold. I stalk for hours around my house or hotel room declaiming. I try out gestures with words to see if they fit. I sing my presentation in the shower. I might not use even 90% of what I practiced, but after all that I can get up there without notes and nail the presentation.
I re-read old articles or blog posts I’ve written or some I thought were great so I can refer to and quote from them. Some of my audience might have read them, but most didn’t even know those articles or blogs existed – and now they want to read them.
I often start by telling people I have new things to say, so even if they know my material they’ll still hear something they’ve never heard before or something old will be seen in a new light. Then I do say something new, tie it to the old, and send people away knowing that they were the first audience to ever hear that presentation.
If I don’t kick ass, I let those people who came to see me down.
Magnuson 30 Oct 09
Does the opposite apply though? Can you come out and say “This will be the best presentation you have ever seen!”...
Martialon 31 Oct 09
“You’re going to learn something useful and practical today. You’re going to know how to use it Monday morning. When you do use it, you’ll be more effective.”
Is that the same as saying “this will be the best”? I want people to sit up and pay attention because they are going to get what they want and need. I don’t want people paying attention so that they can say, “sure, that was good, but it wasn’t the best.”
Steve Ericksonon 31 Oct 09
Mikaelon 02 Nov 09
What if you don’t say anything and the presentation is terrible ? That’s disrespect, and people won’t like it either. At least if you say it, and you have an excuse for it, people might see it with a better eye. I mean who wants to jump on a stage unprepared ? Not me! That’s gotta count for something, too.
Martialon 03 Nov 09
If you’re not prepared, then you’ve already disrespected your audience and wasted their time. Never, ever be unprepared.
This is easy if you love what you do.
Lindsay Holmwoodon 03 Nov 09
When learning the Tuba I was taught never to apologise for any aspect of the performance, whether it be the quality of my playing, or the amount of preparation I did.
Making apologies is just prefacing the act with an expectation of failure – people will look out for mistakes and be more vocal in their criticisms.
Let your performance speak for itself.
David Son 04 Nov 09
Couldn’t be more right…if you’re not ready, you shouldn’t be there.
If it can’t be helped that you’re not ready…the audience will know soon enough, so you don’t need to make it worse by starting out with an “apology”.
The worst thing about doing this is, it distracts from the primary topic of the talk. Why start off by pointing your audience away from you to some other direction?
installeroon 04 Nov 09
Had the same idea while doing my reports at some conferences on physics.
Even when you’re badly prepared, don’t say anything about it. It may appear that it’s just YOUR point of view. Everybody else may appear to be quite satisfied :)
This discussion is closed.