To curse or not to curse? While the use of profanity by corporate speakers at meetings and events is not totally taboo, there is debate whether dropping an F-bomb during a presentation is appropriate.
Some speakers like Gary Vaynerchuk—a self-identified serial entrepreneur and the CEO and co-founder of VaynerMedia—are known for swearing during their presentations.
According to the website Presentation Panda, Vaynerchuk’s speaker bio lays it on the line with this disclaimer, “Please note, Gary frequently utilizes colorful language in his presentations. However, he is aware that this is not appropriate for all audiences and is more than capable of cleaning up his act upon request.”
The story on Presentation Panda quotes opponents as well as proponents of swearing.
One advocate for inserting the occasional swear word into a presentation was David Heinemeier Hansson, creator of Ruby on Rails and partner at 37signals.
According to the Presentation Panda website, Hansson said:
I’ve used profanity to great effect is at conferences where you feel you know the audience enough to loosen your tie and want to create a mental dog ear for an idea.
Of all the presentations I’ve given, I’ve generally had the most positive feedback from the ones that carried enough passion to warrant profanity and it’s been very effective in making people remember key ideas.
As with any tool, it can certainly be misused and applied to the wrong audience.
But you can cut yourself with a great steak knife too.
Use profanity with care and in the right context and it can be f***ing amazing.
In a posting on the Meetings Community (MeCo) forum, Greg Schwem, business humorist, corporate emcee, syndicated columnist and author, posed this question:
Is profanity still something that will rile Human Resources and get you banned from future speaking dates or is our attitude about hearing profanity on stage softening, particularly if the speaker delivers a dynamic presentation?
“Some people thought I posted to ask permission to use profanity, but I just wanted to get people’s reactions. Is it a big deal anymore?” Schwem said in an interview with Meetings Today. “Speakers tend to resort to profanity to grab attention, but I don’t think it’s a good idea. When I give presentations in the corporate market, I keep it clean, no profanity. People say they like that. There are other ways to grab people’s attention.”
In his original posting Schwem noted some observations:
I certainly don't plan to start inserting curse words into my presentations but I've recently heard CEOs drop F-bombs onstage (okay, they run the company so maybe that's a moot point) and have also heard other keynote speakers use the occasional curse word. Also, in light of recent events (an F-bomb on Saturday Night Live [with] little to no reaction, plus the alleged sh*thole comment by our POTUS, repeated ad [nauseam] by broadcast outlets) I'm wondering if attitudes are changing about hearing profanity in public forums such as keynote speeches?
Schwem, who started in comedy clubs and has been a professional speaker for almost 30 years, and a corporate speaker for about 18 said, “I was wondering if those rules are still in place.”
“Most meeting planners chimed in and said they don’t use profanity,” he added.
Most of the responses to his original MeCo post were indeed in favor of keeping it clean.
Steve Collins of Resort Meeting Source, LLC, posted on the forum:
Personally I am turned off by profanity—from ANYONE, whether I support them or not—as I feel that resorting to profanity indicates a lack of sufficient vocabulary to find alternatives.
That is the easy route.
When I lived over in Aspen, a group of locals tried to start up an improv comedy group.
I went to one performance—any time they got to a place where they were stuck in their improv, they would drop an f-bomb or something along those lines, the low-information folks in the audience would laugh hysterically, and they would get a huge round of applause.
I never bothered going back...
Sandy Biback, owner of Imagination + Meeting Planners Inc., posted on the forum:
My thought: Know your audience.
Profanity and/or sexist jokes and comments [are] still not the way to go. You may [think you] know your audience AND you [still] won’t know everyone in that audience.
Mike Taubleb, owner of Promenade Speakers posted:
Working clean is still a mandatory for every corporate entertainer, motivational, reality, political, sports or leadership speaker my bureau has ever been asked to source in 11+ years.
On occasion, a client will suggest a 'name' standup/TV comic or a sports star to my planner contacts. That talent can be hard to vet because their engagements tend not to be taped and posted publicly, for contractual reasons.
And when I’ve found footage with non-clean material, said talent has never been booked—regardless of name recognition. Someone internally puts a kibosh on it.
Their agents may assure me cursing won’t happen for my event.
However, once that offending video gets passed up the ladder or just found independently by a curious client, it’s a deal-breaker.
Fortune 500 event sponsors are particularly hypersensitive to this. All you need is one being offended or worrying about being publicly linked to that 'remark'.
There is so much quality talent to choose from in most categories. Planners justifiably don’t feel a need to take an extra risk on those who don’t work clean. And I don’t blame them.
Final Thoughts on Swearing Speakers
Schwem said he goes by the rule that if one person will be offended by a joke, don’t do it. It’s not worth it. However, he feels that the rules are different for different age groups.
“Millennials are inclined to be OK with [swearing] since they group grew up with the Internet, so it’s not a big deal,” he noted. “With an older age group there are folks who will still raise eyebrows [when they hear it].
“While attitude toward language has become more relaxed, some people are still offended,” he added. “If I let an F-bomb fly, it’s like OMG, I hope nobody comes up to me. If I give a clean presentation, it’s one less thing everyone has to worry about.”
Do you think it's ever appropriate for a speaker to swear? Share your thoughts below!