Strong Words | Words Are Not As Important As Emotions

I got this email from Colm, a statistician:


I just had a speech from a senior manager who at one point looked down at his sheet of paper to read out the words “I really care about….” 


Inspiring stuff! It makes me wonder, again, has a presenter ever read anything that excited anybody? Politicians learn speeches, of course, but they deliver them as if they haven’t learnt them, as if they are being spontaneous and passionate. And, as discussed in an earlier post, most political speeches are not very believable or interesting.

This got me thinking about some of the great quotes I have heard in presentations. These can be hard to record – particularly if you have been snoozing at the time – but undoubtedly my favourite is the following:

‘I didn’t know I had to give this presentation until ten minutes ago. Or rather, I forgot that I had agreed to give this presentation until ten minutes ago.’

This remarkable piece of underselling was uttered by the keynote speaker, of all people, at an education conference. And a complete lack of preparation or forethought didn’t stop the presenter from talking aimlessly for thirty minutes.

You often get apologetic quotes like this at the start of a presentation. Another example I encountered ran as follows:

‘I’m not going to tell you anything today that you haven’t heard before.’

In that case, why are you telling us? This is no different from the owner of a restaurant saying to a customer, ‘I wouldn’t eat that if I were you.’

People say things like this because they are nervous. It’s actually a way of levelling with the audience – ‘I don’t want to say these things any more than you want to hear them; I’m just like you.’ – but it downplays the presentation just when you are trying to persuade people that they should engage with it. The audience actually wants you to be interesting, not dull – it’s in their interests for you to be – so don’t apologise for dull material, just don’t present it in the first place.

Muddled Meanings

Another interesting type of quote you get from nervous presenters is a – often creative – muddling of words. This is not very damaging and often goes unnoticed but it can produce some amusing results.

One speaker mixed up ‘gladly’ and ‘thankfully’ and came out with ‘gladfully’, which is actually quite a nice new word. In the same vain, I have also encountered ‘morely’ and ‘widespreadly’, as well as a speaker who said that a particular chemical ‘slowens’ the response of a reaction and later concluded that this product was ‘heads and tails’ above the rest.

However, the examples of pre-written speeches and that of amusing nervous gaffes, are not unrelated. They actually point to the same surprising conclusion: words are not so important. Words are the small print of ideas and opinions, and these elements are much more important.

When people pre-write speeches – to avoid errors like ‘gladfully’ and ‘slowens’ – they are controlling less important details at the expense of the much more important ones. Allow your expert opinions – no matter how inexpertly worded – to shine through. These are what the audience really wants to hear.

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