Don’t Be So ‘Humble’

Stop me if you’ve heard this before… “Hi, I’m Sam Speaker. I’m not an expert. I’m not smart about what I’m going to say. Really, I’m just a dumb guy with some ideas, but someone asked me to speak, so here goes…”

After the uncomfortable laugh from a few polite audience members, what are you left thinking? I’ll tell you what I think: yeah right.

I bristle at these “humble” intros. In fact, I think most attempts at self-deprecation fall flat, or worse, insult your audience. Here’s why…

Let’s say I’m in the crowd at your event. I’ve spent my time (and possibly money) to be there. I might have even made that decision based on the fact that YOU were speaking... and you opened your presentation by telling me it was going to be worthless. If I take you at your word, then that makes me feel silly because you’re telling me I’ve made a bad decision.

Of course, there is another explanation: you don’t really believe you’re that dumb. You know you’re smart and you know why you were invited to be “the expert.” However, you feel a little uncomfortable about that, as if it puts you “above” your audience, so you feel the need to balance the playing field with some self-deprecation.

That’s admirable. And patronizing. An attempt to balance the scales of power implies that you believe they’re out of balance (in your favor), so if you’re not really “above” your audience, don’t act like it.

In reality, I think most people who do this are simply nervous. They want to lower expectations for their presentation because they think it will help them shine or they just want to make the audience laugh to make everyone feel more comfortable. However, they end up doing the opposite, making the audience uncomfortable and turning it into a no-win situation.

Besides, there are much better ways to make everyone comfortable, like telling an actual joke or saying things that are valuable and interesting for your audience. Those are a lot harder, of course, but you should have the courage to do them because, after all, you are the expert. Here are a few of my favorite strategies for kicking off a presentation that grabs the attention of your audience and keeps them engaged…

  • Be sincere – Are you flattered they asked you to speak? Passionate about the topic you’ll speak on? Excited to share insights that might be valuable to them? Then tell them! An opener like, “Thank you for inviting me to speak today. This topic means a lot to me and I hope the information I share is valuable for you” is honest, straightforward and to-the-point… all things audiences love.
  • Ask a question – Does your presentation debunk a myth or go against the grain? I hope so because that means your audience will be interested. To play that up, don’t just tell them what you have to say, ask a compelling question to make them think about it. When done well, that can engage an audience member and help hold their attention through the presentation.
  • Share a story – Audiences don’t relate to topics, they relate to people, so whatever you present, do it through a human story. Even if your topic is technical, it still has a human element somewhere, so find it and share it in a compelling and concise way.

Public speaking is tough and according to research, it’s feared more than death, so to those who choose to do it, I salute you. And when you do, skip the humble pie and deliver in a way that makes us glad we made a good decision to be in your audience.