My Turn: A Question of Manners

It’s OK to thank or apologize to an audience.

By Margaret Page, CL

As a Toastmaster, have you been advised not to say “thank you” to your audiences? Or have you been told it’s inappropriate to apologize to them?

Well, I’m here to dispute both these commands from an etiquette point of view.

When I’ve heard the advice “never say thank you to your audience” during a Toastmasters evaluation, the reason typically is that “audiences should be thanking you!”

Well, audience members do thank their speakers – if they’ve received worthwhile content. They clap, they smile, they may even cry as a result of your talk. And sometimes they even contact you afterward to find out more about your subject. They don’t have to thank you. But when all goes well, they happily say thanks in these ways. Now that’s success.

Remember, you speak to persuade, inform, inspire or entertain others. If those in your audiences don’t clap, smile or respond in any way, you get the message loud and clear. It’s time to go back to the drawing board!

Look at it this way. Audience members give you something of value as well: They gave you their precious time. What could be more valuable than that? I presume they also listened and gave you their full attention. Those two things alone allow you to do what you came to the lectern to do – present material of importance to them.

I always thank people who make whatever I’m doing go smoothly. Don’t you? Then why should good manners change from behind the lectern? Saying “thank you” to your audience members is, quite frankly, just plain good manners.

                    "Good etiquette belongs wherever people gather."

When I heard Bill Clinton, the former American president, give a speech in Vancouver, Canada, I noticed he took time at the end to thank everybody right down to the lighting technicians. I found this impressive and heart-warming – it demonstrated consideration and impeccable manners.

I do, however, agree that you should avoid using “thank you” as a way to sum up or close your speech. Words of gratitude and acknowledgment come after you’ve given audience members a compelling close that leaves them with a message to remember.

What about apologizing? I often hear Toastmasters emphatically say “never, ever apologize!” I disagree. The need to apologize changes based on circumstances.

When is it bad form to apologize and when is it recommended? Don’t apologize if you forgot to bring a handout or didn’t get a piece of research done. Never tell audience members what you intended to do and then add on an apologetic explanation. If you did that, you’d be apologizing to benefit yourself and not them. Sure, you may feel better by saying something. But don’t expect them to feel better as a result.

In addition, I guarantee your presentation will come across more powerfully – and your listeners will be happier – if they don’t hear that something is missing. I compare it to receiving a puzzle from someone who then says, “Oops, sorry, but some pieces are still missing!”

Your listeners won’t notice an omission. But your credibility will suffer if you tell them about what you meant to do or bring. Remember, no one likes being told about missing puzzle pieces.

Having said that, is there a time when people benefit from your apologizing? Yes. When audience members have been inconvenienced physically in some way. (I mean physically, not mentally, such as giving too much data. Apologizing wouldn’t help your credibility; after all, you knew the amount of data ahead of time so you’re not referring to something you can’t control.)

However, I suggest you do apologize for problems that affect everyone in the room: If it’s too hot or too cold; if the lights go out; if there aren’t enough chairs for everyone; if you have to tolerate noise coming from another room.

As you know, a prepared speaker checks into these physical considerations before presentation time. But challenges like these happen in spite of your being well organized. So when they do, it’s good manners to express regret to people in your audience. Let them know you empathize with their discomfort. It will make everyone feel better – including you – and it’s simply the right thing to do.

Good etiquette belongs wherever people gather. It’s especially important to show your best manners when you’re the one in charge at the podium.

Margaret Page, CL, is a member of Sun Shine Toastmasters in Sechelt, Canada, and is a Vancouver-based etiquette and protocol consultant. Reach her at