July 26, 2008

The power of language (or, how I got in trouble for saying "pee")



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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9 comments. Please add yours! :

Jacki Hollywood Brown said...

In the words of Mark Twain, "The difference between a word and the right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug."

Using the right word should make your audience feel like they were hit with lightning (or enlightened).

I'm on your side on this one.

Lisa Braithwaite said...

Thanks for your comment, Jacki. You have to be completely aware of the effect that you're going for with your words. And even then sometimes there are surprises, but at least you are consciously choosing your words and not speaking without thinking.

jpetersen said...

Lisa - Please delete my comment if you wish. I understand that you wish no further continuance of what must be a painful resolution and I sense that you are embarrassed to receive negative comments when you were attempting to underscore important points.
1) Some of the words used were not pertinent to your presentation. Although replacement words may sound prissy to some, it's better to be safe. The words used were street language and not at all a reflection of the professional that you are. Your image is amazing!! The words used were not.
2) In an audience of mixed reactions, nothing unless there's someone who is truly offended and/or jealous of you and wants to cut you down a notch or two. I'm not sure how far the complaining listener carried the situation. It should have been dropped with a comment or possible referral: this speaker has a potty mouth.... kidding. And then you, after reading, should reevaluate your presentation: does it do you justice and is it respectful to your audience? I suspect that's what you'd advise us.
3)Using street language is not a challenge. It's offensive to some and ill-mannered to others. You've taken the classes; you know the drill; you teach the classes.
If that's your personality, your style and you feel constrained, they have the option to not attend further sessions with you and to withdraw references. It's market driven and fairly straight-forward.
4) Who decides? We could debate that until the cows come home. The PC police are everywhere and they come in all kinds of uniforms from business suits to hats 'n' gloves. The audience decides. Etiquette and protocol "rules" apply. The words you chose told your audience what you think of them - the words didn't give punch to your presentation (and I don't even know what it was); you are a master communicator! What words could you have chosen? It may not have had a negative impact had your words for "personal break", "refreshment break" not been used in the same day's presentation with forceful words chosen or needed for your same day speech.
You're very brave to explore this further and to trust whatever feedback comes your way. We adore you or we wouldn't take the time to reply.
I'm overweight. One year, I used the word "fat" in a class at WTE and it had the same results. My intent was self-deprecating humor; the woman in charge at the time took offense (and never forgave). We all do our best and then re-evaluate ourselves. That's what makes you good.

Lisa Braithwaite said...

jpetersen, I appreciate your thoughts and I'm not embarrassed to receive negative comments on this issue (it takes a lot more than that to embarrass me!).

The point of the post was not to ask readers' opinions on my choice of language -- that's a done deal. I made the decision at the time and, depending on the audience, I would do it again.

Kari said...

All I know is that I loathe sitting through a presentation in which I feel the presenter is being phony or talking down to me. I appreciate speakers that are themselves and can incorporate humor into their presentations and yes, "pee" is a funny word (and something that we all do!) and in my opinion not at all inappropriate.
I think language pushes the audience too far if you're calling them foul names... which I've really wanted to do before :)
You're never going to please everyone, are you? So personally I opt towards being myself and using my own style. I celebrate the fact that people have diverse presentation styles, so I would encourage people who are not comfortable saying "pee" in a presentation simply not to say it.
Now, excuse me, I have to go get a refreshment :)

Lisa Braithwaite said...

Oh KMan, you always crack me up. :-)

Barry Flanagan said...

This can be a touchy subject. You can definetely break rapport with a group if you offend someone without realizing it. Ultimately, the meaning of any communication is the response you get. Clearly this one persons response was not what you intended.

Language is a gateway into our internal represetnation of the world. it can be very powerful. Many people use this power very casual and never give ti a second thought. You clearly think about that power, and this post shows your desire to learn from the experience. That is the most you can ask.

Lisa Braithwaite said...

Thank you for your comment, Barry. If we don't learn from our mistakes, then that's an awful lot of wasted time in one life!

By the way, I'm trying to send you a message through your comment form and it's not accepting any of the verification codes. . .

Barry Flanagan said...

Lisa...I will check into the plugin..In the interim, just use the name Barry at publicspeakingforgeeks.

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