6 fundamental phrases every speaker should use

Don’t know the answer to a question? Disagree with an audience member? Here’s what you should say.

Want to look confident? Want to hold your audience’s attention? Want to make your point stick?

You can do all the tricks and tropes out there, but these six phrases almost always grip the listener, make the speaker look strong, save the speaker from trouble, and invite real connection with the audience. Keep these statements in your back pocket for a stronger speech:

1. “I don’t know.

The power of this simple statement increases with your level of expertise, yet it works for all speakers. Refusing to go beyond what you know shows good sense, and helps you avoid a multitude of problems later. It also exudes confidence.

Other ways to say “I don’t know” gracefully are:

  • “I wish I knew that, but I don’t.”
  • With a big smile: “If I had the answer to that fine question, I’d be a millionaire.”
  • With a shrug and smile: “Who can really say? That’s always been a mystery to me.” Only say this if it’s true for you.

Not answering a question? Work a rhetorical question into your remarks, and answer your own question with an “I don’t know.” This is a strong way to underscore uncertainty on an issue, or powerfully establish your own place in the discussion.

2. “I disagree.”

Many speakers, aiming to please the audience, feel they must agree with what audience members say. But confusing agreement with acknowledgment, or with your credibility, means your speech can and will go wrong.

Disagree calmly with respect and even good humor, but if you disagree with a questioner’s point, do it. Try these statements:

  • “I see your point, but I disagree.”
  • “I disagree. In my experience…”
  • “Research definitively shows that…”

Sometimes disagreeing may be more subtle. If an audience member’s question presumes something about you (“It sounds like you’ve always wanted to be a politician…”), be sure to refute the assumption (“My real goal when I was growing up was to be a scientist.”).

3. “I agree.”

When you can genuinely agree with an audience member’s point, it’s a powerful way to establish or reinforce your connection with the group. Be sure, as the speaker, to share some perspective of your own on why you agree.

Play around with some graceful ways to say you agree: “Ain’t it the truth?”, “I’m just sayin’,” or “I’m with you there” are all fun ways to cement the agreement connection.

4. “I’m surprised.”

Again, use this only if you’re being genuine. If you really are surprised by the question, sharing that reaction automatically perks up the listeners’ ears. Be sure to explain yourself.

5. “I’m sorry.

Erring politicians forget this too often, but this simple phrase can take the tension out of an exchange faster than anything else. If you’ve erred, be quick with your sorry statement and then move forward with your remarks. Without it, you may never recover.

6. “I’d like to hear what you have to say.”

A large part of your power as a speaker derives from control of the microphone, the room and the stage. When you open it up to the audience and share that power, you demonstrate your confidence and show your willingness to hazard the unexpected, making you even more powerful.

It’s not a mistake that all these phrases start with “I.” The most powerful statement any individual can make, according to psychologists, starts with “I”—it is the most genuine. You can’t speak for anyone else, and no one else can speak for you. Start with “I” and see where that gets you.

Denise Graveline is the president of don’t get caught, a communications consultancy. She writes The Eloquent Woman blog, where this article originally ran.


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