A phrase to avoid on stage

Actually, it’s several phrases, but they all amount to the same thing.

Over the years, I have worked with many students in MBA and Executive MBA programmes across Europe. In one of my classes a couple of years ago, a bright young fellow was giving his formal presentation about his business idea. The presentation (and the idea) were very good.

At one point, he made an analogy with the movie, Titanic. He raised the issue by saying, “Now, we’ve all seen Titanic …”. Besides me, there were 21 students in the audience.

During the feedback session, I asked the class, “How many of you have not seen Titanic?” Seven hands went up. One third of the audience. This was a classic example of a phrase to avoid when speaking in public. Yet I hear these expressions all the time.

I am referring to phrases in which the speaker assumes (or presumes) that everyone in the audience knows, or has done, something. Phrases like:

  • We’ve all seen / heard / done …
  • As you undoubtedly know …
  • As everyone knows …

A good movie. But don’t let this become your speech.

The reason you should avoid these kinds of phrases is because maybe I don’t know / haven’t heard / didn’t realize. Maybe I haven’t seen Titanic. And by presuming that I have, maybe you’ve just unintentionally insulted me.

Of course, people will not necessarily feel insulted, but some might. Why alienate them when there is a simple alternative?

Instead of presuming that everyone is on the exact same wavelength as you, say:

  • Perhaps you’ve seen …
  • As you may know …
  • There’s a story in the news you may have heard …

The difference is subtle but significant. You are now acknowledging that people might not know everything you know. (The reverse is also true, by the way!) In this day of massive information overload, we simply don’t have time to be up to speed on every single issue. So be sure to explain the subject in sufficient detail so that those hearing about it for the first time don’t get lost.

Can you ever presume that everyone in the audience knows the particular point you are making? Sure, in obvious situations:

  • As we all know, Bill is retiring this week after 25 years of loyal service …
  • As you know, sleep is a basic human need …
  • As we know, the sun rises in the east and sets in the west …

But if the situation is obvious, why not dispense with the superfluous “As you know”? Indeed, the phrase can be abandoned even when the audience might not know the subject.

  • Titanic is the story about the only voyage of a fated ship …
  • After 25 years of loyal service, Bill is retiring this week …
  • Have you ever wondered why we need to sleep every day? …
  • The sun may rise in the east and set in the west, but today I want to talk about the north and the south …
  • There’s a story in the news that caught my attention. It’s about …

It is always helpful to anchor your (new) ideas to something with which the audience is familiar. That is why metaphors and analogies are so powerful. Just be sure to introduce the subject in a way that takes into account those who may be unfamiliar with it.


About John Zimmer

International speaker, presentation skills expert, lawyer, improv performer
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10 Responses to A phrase to avoid on stage

  1. Excellent post. Often people have different experiences. Everybody calls deep-fried potato sticks French fries, or perhaps chips. Obviously they are best eaten with ketchup, or malt vinegar, or mayonnaise, or fry sauce – which is a mixture of mayonnaise and ketchup.


  2. Toni Purdy says:

    Thanks for bringing this to light John. Hadn’t really thought about it before. At least now I’ll be more mindful should a reference of this nature present itself in one of my speeches.


  3. These subtleties are so important. Great advice!


  4. You are right John, some small changes can make a big difference in the way a speech is received. Thanks for sharing these wise thoughts!


  5. Simon yeung says:

    Good ideas to share. Simple yet not obvious to many, Subtle but important.


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