In 2008, the world's financial system nearly collapsed, and our attention spans – already in sharp decline – went into free fall. And they're still falling.
A combination of economic stress, and the advancement of mesmerizing hand-held technology has rendered audiences more distracted, impatient and demanding than ever. If that's not enough, they're more sensitive, too.
Listeners today resent it when they're told what they're thinking, and sometimes, even what to do. This applies across the board, from conference addresses to pitch meetings. It all puts a lot of pressure on contemporary speakers, who need to be more interesting and respectful – more quickly – than any generation before.
However, concerned communicators can avoid a great deal of trauma by avoiding certain phrases that are bound to irritate modern audiences, and, at worst, infuriate them.
Here are 10 phrases – in ascending order of annoyance – that you should never say in a presentation.
1. "Let me tell you a little bit about myself."
You don't have to tell your listeners that you're going to provide a brief biography – just do it. And never use the phrase, "a little bit." It weakens your narrative and undercuts your authoritativeness.
2. "Some of you may already have heard this story."
Just tell the story, already, and don't tie yourself into knots worrying about who's heard it and who hasn't. Most people don't mind hearing the same information more than once – in a way, it's reassuring. However, make sure you deliver the material in question with passion and insight. If you do that, even the oldest story becomes new again.
3. "Did that answer your question?"
What if, in your question-and-answer session, the audience member who asked the question said "no?" There would be no place for you to go – other than to attempt another response, under extreme pressure.
Always conclude your answer with a positive, finding the common ground. If the questioner has a follow-up, dispatch it quickly, or offer to respond in greater detail after the presentation.
4. "I know some of these slides are difficult to read."
If your slides are dense and unintelligible, you haven't done the necessary work to make them clear, concise and understandable. In other words, you've thought little of your presentation – and your audience.
5. "I know what you're thinking."
No one really knows what goes on in the mind of another. To say that you do is presumptuous and, depending on the situation, rude. Speak like you drive. Be risk averse.
6. "For those of you who don't understand."
Yikes. With that statement, you've effectively told your listeners that they don't possess the intellectual capacity to comprehend the brilliance that is you. It's not a great way to strengthen the audience connection.
7. "In conclusion."
This is a phrase straight out of high school. You don't have to say "in conclusion" to let listeners know that you're coming to the end of your remarks. Instead, you can ask yourself questions, such as: "Where do we go from here?" or "What are the lessons learned?" or "What's the first thing we need to do?" and then answer them.
And please, no "thank you" slides. Your opening and closing remarks should be delivered against the background of a title slide. Its re-appearance toward the end of your presentation will also indicate to the audience that you're rolling into your conclusion.
8. "Everyone stand up!"
I suppose, at a high-energy company retreat, getting everyone on their feet might be a decent way to engage the crowd. But most listeners today don't like to be told how to act (just try getting them to turn off their mobile devices), so be wary of telling them.
Getting listeners to do stuff they're not keen to do rarely accomplishes the goal of helping you tell your story. So, unless you're Tony Robbins, be exceedingly careful about playing the "activity" card.
9. "I know I'm over my time."
You simply can't exceed your allotted speaking time. Doing so will undermine your credibility, and most of the goodwill you've built up during your presentation. Always aim to finish at least five to 10 minutes under your limit.
10. "Did you hear the one about the priest, the minister, and the rabbi?"
Oh boy. There's an old saying in the presentation skills business – three things can happen when you tell a joke, and two of them are bad. The "humour" can simply bomb, or really offend. Don't risk it.
We live in a highly diverse world, and what you think is hilarious may be offensive to a sizable section of your listeners. If you must employ humour, make it self-deprecating. But even then, keep in mind that it has to be authentic, and natural – real. Today's audiences expect nothing less.
Jim Gray is a senior associate of communications with Sussex Strategy Group in Toronto. He serves organizations at the senior executive level, developing strategy, managing issues, and providing crisis, media and presentation skills coaching. He is the author of How Leaders Speak. His second book, The Young Leader , will be published in 2013. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org