The Speech Wiz asks, "What are you really saying when you offer an apology for your work?"

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“No good apology ever included the words, “if” or “but”.
Anna Silk as Bo Dennis in Lost Girl

Years ago, there was a friend of mine that was so used to apologizing even the license plate on her car read “I’M SORRY”.

I always felt a little sad for her because she was and still is a really great person, with a shining personality, genuine self-esteem, and as faithful to her word as a saint. She truly had little to apologize for even after life dealt her some incredibly hard blows. In the face of these tragic occurrences, she never made excuses. Instead, she just dug down deep inside her well of persistent determination and gave it everything she had.

My friend saw the world as such a sunny place, that I am sure it was the reason she was always so “Sorry” for everything that happened, whether she had a hand in it or not. Perhaps we should be grateful there are good people in this world who really want the world to be a better place, even to the extent of taking the blame for its shortfalls.

I believe most people offer an apology from a sincere heart. In fact, I have operated on this principle most of my life. But lately, I have been subjected to a string of heartless apologies from insincere companies and professionals that makes me question the value and sincerity of a 21st century apology.

WHY DO WE APOLOGIZE?

In today’s world of business, the act of offering an apology has been strategically hi-jacked. Companies readily offer apologies for everything from a missed appointment to outright failure to perform. Most of these apologies are offered as a way of sounding sincere with the expectation of taking the bite out of the bark of a disappointed customer. The apology given as a corporate strategy with little or no intent to cure an error is about as empty an apology as you can find.

I’m not saying it is the wrong to apologize, I just believe it is pointless to apologize without a promise of action.

I can only think of two reasons why anyone should ever offer an apology.

  • Reason #1: As the result of an action in order to establish terms for a redress of the aggrieved party.
  • Reason #2: As a means of accepting responsibility while asking for foregiveness for a promise you could not keep.

WHAT ARE YOU REALLY SAYING WHEN YOU APOLOGIZE?

When you enter into a relationship with someone, whether personal or business, there exists an expectation of performance based on something called an “implied contract”. Whether you know it or not, you move in and out of these implied contracts all day long. Implied contracts are based on an expectation of intention. When you pump gas into your car, you are allowed to do so under the intention that you will pay for it. You are willing to pay for the gas because you have an expectation of performance based on the brand’s reputation or octane rating. That is the implied contract. It is an informal type of promise. Promises are the bedrock of Trust; hard to earn, easy to lose.

When you apologize for not keeping a promise, what are you really saying about yourself or your business:

  •  “I overstated my ability to deliver on the promise I made to you.”
  • “I made this promise to you out of desperation without considering how you might react if I could not fulfill my promise.”
  • “I made this promise to you, but I figured if I could not keep my promise to you I could just apologize, and you would forgive me.”
  • “It’s easier for me to apologize and inconvenience you, than it is for me to get it right the first time.”
  •  “I make promises all the time with no intention of keeping them because that’s just how things are.”
  •  “I specialize in empty promises.”

None of the above are acceptable responses under any conditions. If you are a leader or run a business, accept that you will, at some point, need to apologize for some shortfall of your team or business. When you do, be sincere and have a plan for erasing the bad taste of a promise broken.

HOW TO AVOID EMPTY APOLOGIES

  • Do not offer an apology without a plan to make things not only right, but better.
  • Do not apologize without having the intent to double down on future efforts to win back lost trust.
  • If you make an apology, insist that you understand its acceptance will be performance based.
  • Never include the words “if” or “but” in your apology.

In an apology, the injured party holds all of the chips. After failing to perform, an apology should not include any conditional language. A sincere apology cannot be made according to the giver’s terms. The giver of an apology has no right to dictate or negotiate its terms.

WHEN SPEAKERS SHOULD AND SHOULD NOT APOLOGIZE

Speakers tend to apologize for a lot of things including skipping a section, forgetting their place, having a cold, and so on. I once heard a speaker apologize for being boring. But, the number one thing I hear speakers make an apology for is not being “perfect.”

Remember, your speaker’s credibility is the foundation of the trust an audience confers on you. The relationship between a speaker and an audience is a fragile implied contract in which one party offers their focused attention in exchange for valuable information, motivation, and enjoyment.

That said, every speaker has the right not to be perfect. No audience has the right to expect perfection from a speaker.

Whatever you think you need to apologize for as a speaker, think about what you might be saying to your audience when you do. Are you saying:

  • “I lost my place because I did not put enough preparation in to this effort.”
  • “I left out that section because it was probably not that important.”
  • “I’m not that excited to be here talking about this stuff.”
  • “I was up all last night getting plastered at the hotel bar.”

When you speak, only apologize for those things beyond your control. Everything else, the stuff within your control, requires your full intention in order to deliver on the promise of your speech. How you fulfill this promise is up to you.

I will make no apologies for this blog’s content. I trust you enjoyed it and it will help you to avoid making future empty apologies in your personal and professional life. I appreciate your support as a reader of my blog and I welcome any comment on this post or suggestions you might have in the comments section below. As always, please feel free to share this post with a friend or colleague.

To Your Speaking Success.
The Speech Wiz