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how to win over your audience, bill mcfarlan, pink elephant communications

Seven small words that cause offence

Most sporting matches are won and lost around the small things.

That then become big things.

The same goes for great speeches and media interviews.

Sometimes the smallest words cause the greatest upset.

So here’s a list of seven culprits.

Harvested from our 30 years of running media training and presentation skills courses.

In Glasgow, Edinburgh and around the world.

Take them out or replace them.

And the chances of winning over the audience increase dramatically.

Read on.

1) Up

How to Answer Questions, public speaking, Boris Johnson, how to win over your audience

Let’s start with the shortest word causing offence.

When a Westminster politician says:

“I’ve been speaking to people up in Scotland.”

Expect a backlash.

And if an Edinburgh business owner referred to a contract “up” in Inverness.

There would be the same reaction.

It suggests that the speaker is disconnected.

And that the location they’re referring to is remote.

Rather than at the heart of their thinking.

Drop the word preposition when making geographical references and simply use the location.

2) Regret

how to win over your audience, easyjet, regret

The idea is right but the word is wrong.

It’s right to express your regret when something goes wrong.

But we have to use the word sorry for people to accept fully what we’re saying.

I’ll often hear this announcement at Glasgow airport:

“Easyjet regrets the delay of the 1320 flight to Luton.”

It sounds cold and uncaring.

Even though the intention was exactly the opposite.

What they should say is:

“We’re very sorry the 1320 to Luton is delayed.”

That sounds far more heart-felt.

And if you doubt this, tell you’re partner you “regret” your mean remark at the dinner table last night.

And see how poor a substitute that is for:

“I’m sorry”.

3) Just

how to win over your audience, just, woman at conference

We see this word crop up constantly:

“I’m just going to make a short presentation…”

“I’ll just take a few minutes of your time…”

“It was just a throw-away remark…”

It all sounds like an apology for wasting the audience’s time.

Or an attempt to downplay the significance of a major event.

Instead of “just” telling them anything at the start, launch straight into your main points.

And stop apologising.

And when you have done something wrong, apologise using the word ‘sorry’.

That way, the audience will trust you.

4) Prayers

how to win over your audience, prayers, bible hands

Many people in public life need to speak after human tragedies.

Lives lost through road accidents, murders, natural disasters.

And terrorist incidents.

Many a well-meaning official will say:

“Our thoughts and prayers are with the relatives.”

Which is fine if the relatives have religious beliefs.

But what if they are atheist or agnostic?

Does the offer of prayers feel like an empty sentiment?

Much better to keep God out of it.

As PR guru Alastair Campbell used to tell former PM Tony Blair.

5) Condolences

how to win over your audience, condolences, downing street

Successive Prime Ministers have said at the start of a statement:

“I wish to send my condolences to the family…”

On the loss of life of an active serviceman or woman.

But what does it mean?

It’s become a cliché.

Something that is expected.

So therefore again in danger of sounding insincere.

This would be more authentic:

“I’m deeply saddened…”

And again, heart-felt.

6) Honestly

how to win over your audience, honestly, crowd at conference

How often have you heard this said:

“I can honestly say I’ve really enjoyed your company…”


Well, why did you have to say say “honestly”?

Because now I doubt the sentiment.

On our media training courses.

And presentation skills courses.

At our Glasgow studios or anywhere around the world.

We ask clients to drop “honestly” from any sentence.

Because if this one small statement is honest.

Does that mean the rest were dishonest?

Most clients realise as soon as they’ve said it.

They may have been buying time.

Or thinking aloud.

But “honestly” has tripped them up.

7) Educate

blueberries, how to win over your audience, educate

Here’s another common word to reconsider:

“We want to educate people about the benefits of eating healthily…”

Which sounds as if we’re talking to the uneducated.

Or worse still, the ignorant.

I prefer to restrict the use of “educate” to schoolchildren.

Once people are at colleague and university, they’re adults.

We’re in danger of talking down to people if “educate” is used loosely.

So choose to “inform” or “let people know”.

Rather than “educate”.

How to win over your audience

Answering questions from journalists, media training, what can i guarantee, pitching your business, how to win over your audience

We live in an era when people are quicker to take offence.

Quicker than ever before.

Partly because we’re so well-connected.

And offence can spread at speed.

So one little word out of place in a presentation or media interview, can travel round the world.

Before we even know what we’ve done wrong.

Keep these seven annoying little words out of speeches and interviews.

We need to make sure we remove the opportunity to annoy.

To allow our main message to be clear and positive.

I just honestly believe it’s the best way forward.

Especially for people up in Scotland.


Bill McFarlan is co-Founder and Executive Chairman at Pink Elephant Communications in Glasgow.

You can read his full profile here.


Photos by BackBoris2012 / CC BY-ND / Media Evolution / CC BY-SA / U.S. Secretary of Defense / CC BY on

3rd October 2019 Featured in: Communication skills training blogs By:

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