When to Say No to a Public Speech Request

By Alyson Connolly

There may come a time when you have the opportunity to give a speech, but the right answer is no, thank you. This article talks about some situations in which signing up to give a presentation may not be the best idea.

  • It’s not me you’re looking for.

Some people appear to be confident but are in fact rife with low self-esteem. They don’t feel like they belong. They suspect they landed in their position by mistake and soon will be found as a fraud. This can happen even to high achievers. Such mental blocks can eat away at your confidence and cause you to think you aren’t the right speaker for the cause. Sometimes, though, maybe you really aren’t the best person to give a speech. Maybe a manager has tapped you to present on a project that a lower-level team is working on but that you aren’t directly involved in. Pride may well make you want to take on that challenge. But are you really the best person to do it? Maybe it’s best to defer to someone who’s actually working on it. You can say that, of course, you’d love to be there, supporting them and introducing them.

  • When you’re set up for failure.

Maybe you’ve got an ace speech prepared, but the event organizers change the environment of the speech. This scenario is more common than you might think. Say you’re asked to speak about your experience in a very particular or specialized industry group — so particular and specialized, in fact, that the organizers can’t sell enough tickets. To attract more people, they decide to widen the scope or topic of the event and tell you about it at the last minute. In fact, they widen it so much that your industry group is now a relatively tiny niche that may not be of much interest to the expanded audience.

Your answer should be a resounding no. Don’t let yourself be put in a position where you’re set up for failure. It’s not your fault the organizers pivoted. Hey, it happens, but the organizers should have to find a way around their problem.

  • Last-minute preparation.

Preparing a speech or presentation takes time — perhaps way more time than you think. Here’s a good rule of thumb: If you don’t know how long it’s going to take you to write and prepare for a speech, it’s probably going to take longer than you think. Plan for that. Often people are asked to present on a topic that they know well, but they’ve never had occasion to write down much about it — or perhaps even thought much about it in detail. All the material has to be created from scratch in that case, which will take extra time.

  • Timing is everything.

Sometimes the timing of your speech is fantastic. For example, your speech on climate change happens the day after big news about the ice caps is released to the public. But news events can also work against you. If you’re scheduled to present on a light-hearted topic in a city that experiences a horrible tragedy the night before, ask the organizers or other locals their thoughts about the appropriateness of going on with the speech.

  • You’ve lost that loving feeling.

Performance is all about passion. If you have passion for a topic, that can outweigh any shortcomings you may otherwise have, such as inexperience. Similarly, if you’re asked to speak about something you really don’t care about, your lack of passion may come through too. If you’re presenting for work on a topic that you feel is inconsequential, that’s a problem. Consider deferring to someone who has passion for that particular project or subject matter.