“I’m sorry.” Some of us say these words many times a day; others say them very rarely. But why we would need to talk about apologizing in a presentation design and skills blog? Well, research shows that there are a couple times when saying “I’m sorry” during your during your presentation might actually help.

Yes, you read that right. Apologizing might help your presentation.

These two small words hold a lot of weight. Let’s see how they can affect your presentation and your audience’s perception of you. Here are two times it’s okay, even beneficial, to apologize along with one type of apology you should avoid.

To Accept Responsibility

Generally, there are two reasons we usually offer an apology. The first is to indicate that we are aware that we did something wrong. We say, “I’m sorry” as a way to communicate that we accept responsibility.

We might think that apologizing makes us seem weak. But researchers like Brené Brown are actually proving that the opposite is true. Those who have the strength to admit when they are wrong show an important quality: vulnerability. During her research, Brown found that the more vulnerable you are, the more courageous people perceive you to be. It doesn’t show weakness, it shows strength.

So it’s not wrong to say “I’m sorry” during your presentation if there is something for which you need to take the blame. It will actually build a foundation of trust with the audience. You might plan to work this into your presentation content ahead of time. Or, you might find yourself needing to apologize spur of the moment if you say or do something you hadn’t planned that causes unintentional but noticeable offense or harm to your audience. Stop right there and say, “I wish I had phrased that differently, I’m sorry.” Or, “I hadn’t intended to say that and now I wish I wouldn’t have. I’m sorry.” Or, “that last comment was insensitive of me, I’m sorry.” Address it right away, and you can move on together. When you apologize, you accept responsibility, demonstrate vulnerability, and build trust.

To Demonstrate Empathy and Warmth

The second reason we offer an apology doesn’t have to do with blame or responsibility, it has to do with empathy. Psychologists call these superfluous apologies. “Superfluous apologies are a simple and powerful way to express that you have taken that person’s perspective, understand his or her experience, and wish that things had turned out better.”

Researchers at Harvard found that superfluous apologies not only demonstrate empathy, but they actually increase trust. The researchers found that people were 38% more likely to let a stranger borrow their cell phone if the request was preceded by an apology. Why did people respond more favorably to someone who first apologized? It was because that person displayed one of the primary characteristics of warmth, empathy.

Warmth has been proven in many studies to be one of the most important interpersonal qualities in determining success across the board. Professor Loran Nordgren calls it “the differentiating factor” and cites a study that found that how effective a leader will be can be predicted more by warmth than by competence.

One Word Of Caution

While theseare beneficial reasons to apologize during your presentation, we’d caution you against using apologizes as excuses. That’s not something the audience wants to hear. It probably won’t reap you the benefits of the two types of apologies we talked about above, either. If you haven’t put in the work to prepare and practice your presentation, the audience can tell. So an “I’m sorry” isn’t going to rebuild the credibility you’ve lost. Instead, put in the work ahead of time, so that you don’t feel the need to use an “I’m sorry” to excuse yourself.

So as long as you aren’t making excuses, go ahead, apologize. Those two small words can show the audience that you are vulnerable, trustworthy, empathetic, and warm.

At Ethos3, we study the best research in the field so we can give you scientifically backed ways to become a better presenter. Ready to learn more?


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