Back in June, I got in trouble with an audience member who e-mailed me to say that my language was inappropriate and to demand that I send an apology to the entire audience of 22 women. She felt that I was giving them the wrong message about how to present themselves as speakers.
The issue has since been resolved, through a conversation with the president of the organization, reviewing the evaluations, and coming to the conclusion that it was the opinion of one person and not the entire group.
But it has revived an old question for me: How far can you push the comfort level of your audience?
I did my research on the group beforehand. In fact, the president, the person who hired me, is one of my clients. I felt that I had a pretty good handle on how to approach this group.
I queried a group of speaker colleagues about the issue at the time, and got a lot of great responses, both on what I should do about the situation and on the concept of language.
In my past career, I spent my days talking to high school students about domestic violence, both in classrooms and in group settings. It was often necessary to use strong language to make a point, or to ask them to share the kinds of things an abusive person might say to his partner. In this context, it makes no sense to beat around the bush -- if you're not clear, they don't get it.
I never once had a student or teacher complain about the use of this language, because it was in context, it kept their attention, and it stimulated their thinking and awareness about an issue that most people are desensitized to.
In fact, in sixteen years of heavy duty public speaking, I've only had the single complaint about my language.
To which, Craig Strachan replied, "One complaint in how many presentations? If you never offend anybody, then how much are you really challenging them?"
Here are the specific words the audience member complained about:
1. The word "pee." Context: explaining that your audience needs breaks during the course of a long workshop or presentation, or they will get resentful when they have to get up and pee in the middle of it (It was a roomful of women. We pee a lot. Apparently, I also used the past tense, "peed.")
2. Oh yeah, I didn't say "resentful." I said "pissed off." Complaint #2.
3. "Busting my butt." Don't remember the specific context of this. Probably talking about the effort we put, or should put, into preparing our presentations.
4. "Hard-ass." This is where I talk about the how inconsiderate it is to "wing it" and then inform the audience "I'm a hard-ass about this." I'm still a believer in using strong language to make a critical point.
As I mentioned above, this was more about one person's comfort level than me offending a whole roomful of people. As Sabrina Gibson said, "You pressed the button...but she already had it installed."
My questions for you:
1. When does language add meaning and power to your presentation, and when does it push the audience too far?
2. What happens when you have both reactions in the same room?
3. When do you start to feel that your personality, style and authenticity are being challenged or constrained?
4. And who decides what is "inappropriate?"
I don't believe there's one answer to these questions. Each topic is different. Each audience is different. The reactions we are looking for differ from speaker to speaker.
We all want to serve our audiences, but we also have to challenge them.
Sometimes we're surprised when the reaction we get is not the reaction we expected!
Something to think about for your next presentation.
P.S. If you think my language was inappropriate, please keep it to yourself. I've processed this incident and I'm satisfied with the resolution and the evaluations I received.
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