Your opinion about public speakers who swear

At what point does speaker behaviour become unacceptable?

Public speaking standards


This week I watched a video of a professional speaker and was intrigued by the apparently acceptable use of swearing, comments that denigrate other nations, ranting personal bias and gutter talk.  As a professional speaker myself, I was wondering just what is the acceptable standard of public speaking nowadays?

Let’s discuss this in the comments below.

Your thoughts…

In terms of public speaker behaviour, what’s acceptable to you as a speaker and/or member of the audience?


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  1. The Divine Miss White on March 5, 2010 at 4:19 pm

    Under the Summary Offences Act in NSW it’s illegal to swear in a public place, an offence equal to urinating or having sex in public. Courts takes a dim view on words or actions that hurt or offend a ‘reasonable person’

    While this Act might be seen to be irrelevant in a society where the F word is used without blushing, it is nonetheless enforced by police, particularly if the offender is intoxicated, or drug affected.

    My question is why any Public Speaker, (with families to feed and reputations to uphold), wants to run the risk of not being invited back. Apart from offending the organiser, audiences talk, blog and tweet when they are unhappy.

    I’m not a prude, don’t let my demure demeanour fool you. If I drop something heavy on my foot, there’s a good chance I’ll let fly with an expletive or two. But that’s behind closed doors…

    And there’s the difference, I’ve not broken trust with anyone other than myself.

    Public Speaking is a craft, a sacred trust, not a right granted on you because your a Times Best Seller.

    • Robin Dickinson on March 6, 2010 at 3:37 pm

      Thanks, Catherine. I really appreciate that we had the chance to talk about this topic before I posted it. The times I’ve heard such swearing and personal ranting have been from high profile male, 30 something keynote speakers. It is certainly not my intention to stereotype behaviour, but in your opinion, is there a gender and/or generational thing at play here?

      Best too you, Robin 🙂

  2. Brad Shorr on March 5, 2010 at 11:12 pm

    Robin, Swearing is tremendously off-putting as far as I’m concerned – it adds nothing whatsoever to the subject matter.

    • Robin Dickinson on March 6, 2010 at 3:41 pm

      Thanks, Brad. Yes, that’s a valuable distinction – that such behaviour can distract us from the topic focus and add no value. This is critical, especially for paid keynotes. Have you ever been given behavioural guidelines/code of conduct before presenting to a group?

      Best to you, Robin 🙂

  3. Sheridan Greenwood on March 5, 2010 at 11:23 pm

    Some years ago “bad language” was deemed shocking and attention grabbing. It gave out a message of “I`m hip, cool, young, authentic, in touch, like me, like me, like me…”

    Over time I have become de-sensitized to it. Music, comedy, etc – the exposure is overwhelming. I have a constant daily battle with my four children (ages ranging from 13 to 3)to check their language.

    Language, particularly speech, is such an essential form of communication, and if we give away its power we have nothing in reserve for when we really need to provide impact.

    In this new age where we appear to crave authenticity, transparency and integrity, swearing is a cop out.

    Instead of searching the corners of our minds for new and inspiring combinations of expressing ourselves we wheel out the same old expletives.

    Its getting boring now. It has the opposite effect on me to the one gained all those years ago.

    Nowadays, I sense a reaching out of people who want to be recognised as individuals and as their unique selves in world where it suits the powers that be to have us all conform and be the same.

    Maybe all that swearing, way back when, was a rebellion that is just not applicable now. Perhaps we`ve all moved on and matured and the way to find our very own special niche(s) is to find more effective ways expressing our individuality and to reclaim our power.

    • Robin Dickinson on March 7, 2010 at 7:04 am

      Thanks for your generous input, Sheridan. Your point about what happens at home is fundamental. In your opinion, do you think language standards in the home have changed over the past few years or simply reflect the language of the day?

      Best to you, Robin 🙂

      • Sheridan Greenwood on March 17, 2010 at 10:32 pm

        Yes Robin I do think language standards in the home have changed. My husband swears constantly (blames it on his Irishness!)- I am not offended by it, just fatigued.

  4. Scott Gould on March 6, 2010 at 4:05 am

    I don’t allow it and dont like it.

    The best ideas in this world don’t need swearing to communicate them.

    • Robin Dickinson on March 6, 2010 at 3:42 pm

      Thanks, Scott. I appreciate your candour. As an organiser of professional keynote speakers, how do you handle it when their is inappropriate language or denigration of groups by a speaker?

      Best to you, Robin 🙂

      • Scott Gould on March 6, 2010 at 9:06 pm

        Good question. You are so good at this!

        It requires influence and respect to have their consent in the first place. At Like Minds, people respected that there was to be no swearing because I had gained their respect.

        No one there wanted to swear because they respected what I had done too much.

        This requires leadership.

  5. Nick Campbell on March 6, 2010 at 6:34 am

    I think that people should be themselves on stage no matter what. If they swear a lot while talking normally, then they should swear on stage. AUTHENTIC speakers grab my attention, not their cuss words.

    • John on March 6, 2010 at 11:58 am

      I agree Nick. As long as the person isn’t using foul language to just “be cool”, not that easy for many to pull off. It also depends on the presenter and the topic; you’d expect Chris Rock to swear, and if you were uncomfortable with it, you probably shouldn’t go and watch him speak.

      • Robin Dickinson on March 6, 2010 at 3:46 pm

        Hey bro, love seeing you comment here.

        I take your point about choosing who you see. In the case of entertainers, there’s usually some kind of language warning – as in lyrics of songs for an album. What about the situation where speakers in the business or work situation suddenly start up the foul mouth and gutter talk. How should that be handled, if at all?

        Shine on, bro. Rob 🙂

    • The Divine Miss White on March 6, 2010 at 3:25 pm

      Nick I take your point about being yourself, no matter what … which I presume means letting it all out there.

      Which raises the question, since we feel the urge, and in the name of authenticity, we should break wind from the platform

      It’s not my intention to be crass, but where do we draw the line?

    • Robin Dickinson on March 6, 2010 at 3:54 pm

      Thanks, Nick. Great to have your visit and comment. In your experience Nick, do you think people are becoming more or less ‘tolerant’ of the way people express themselves in front of groups? Are there any exceptions or audiences where you think swearing is a no-go?

      Best to you and your great site, Nick.

      Robin 🙂

      • Nick Campbell on March 7, 2010 at 4:45 am

        In response to your question, Robin. I think people are more accepting to profanity. With everybody watching Cable networks and Gary Vaynerchuck, swearing has lost some of it’s taboo-nes. That said, a good EFF bomb can still really piss people off. that’s what makes it such a powerful word.

        @ Joel A’Bell: Asking people to “widen our vocabulary” is missing the point of profanity. The power of profanity is to use it INSTEAD of traditional words. A nice loud curse word in the hands of a professional can be just as life changing as any fancy ten dollar word.

    • Joel A'Bell on March 6, 2010 at 4:51 pm

      Hey Nick, I agree that authenticity is gravitating but I still think the BIG question that needs to be asked when we talk about swearing is… “WHY”.
      I mean, why do people need to swear at all??
      Maybe there is just no other word to describe the moment 🙂
      Or maybe we lack the maturity to widen our vocabulary?

      If we were to understand the true power of words, we might be more careful with what we let come out of our mouths?

      – This is a cool topic to discuss. Thanks Robin!

    • Nick Campbell on March 7, 2010 at 4:29 am

      People get too wrapped up worrying about swearing and using certain words. Being rude is unacceptable of course, no matter what words are being used, but using a nice juicy cuss word can drive a point home. Sometimes some profanity is EXACTLY the colorful word needed and no other word can replace it.

      In the end, a good speaker gets the point across, no matter what it takes.

      Side note: Do you allow cussing in your comments, Robin?

      • Robin Dickinson on March 7, 2010 at 7:27 am

        Thanks for your continued inputs, Nick. I really value your contribution. What have you noticed in your professional circles, Nick – more or less cussing? Is cussing used in motion graphics projects for TV? Are there language ‘rules’?

        To your question, I prefer comments to be cuss-free. Thanks for asking. 🙂

        Best to you, Robin 🙂

  6. OtherAndrew on March 6, 2010 at 11:29 am

    Always surprises but never impresses me.

    People should err on the side of caution and refrain in anything but personal communications. I’m not generally offended by it, but it lacks class and demeans the value of the rest of the content in my opinion.

    • Robin Dickinson on March 7, 2010 at 7:00 am

      Hey Andrew, always great to see your thoughts on this blog. Thank you. What’s the rule of thumb in your writing for professional magazines? Have you noticed the standards slipping over the past few years – audiences ‘demanding’ a more ‘relevant’ approach?

      Best to you, Robin 🙂

  7. Lozza on March 6, 2010 at 12:11 pm

    My wonderful nanna used to tell me that the English language is so full of wonderful words that if you resort to swearing you are either lazy or just plain ignorant. I have lived by those words and found that there are many ways to express yourself without becoming a potty mouth and quite frankly it feels good to be different in todays society, by being someone who doesn’t resort to obscenity to express yourself.

    As for a ‘professional’ public speaker resorting to this type of behaviour I think it is sad that someone who is supposed to make their living out of speaking doesn’t have an intelligent grasp of the English language and needs to resort to obscenities to express their views.

    To me someone who needs to resort to this level to get attention or a sad laugh should definitely try another form of work.

    By the way I am not a prude and can #@%&*! let go with the best of them but only with a close group of mates. 🙂

    • Robin Dickinson on March 6, 2010 at 3:51 pm

      Thanks, Lozza. I really appreciate your thoughtful response. If you’re at a business seminar or speech and the speaker starts picking on an ethnic group in a demeaning way and/or using expletives, how do you respond – especially if the audience is laughing along? Do you go or stay? What should the organisers do?

      Best to you, Robin 🙂

  8. Luke James on March 6, 2010 at 8:28 pm

    Hey Robin, an interesting subject and thought-provoking discussion.

    There are two, distinct subjects you raised. One is swearing; the other is denigration.

    Denigration of ANY group, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, gender etc. in any context is unacceptable. I wouldn’t tolerate it, nor would I be passive. Quite the opposite.

    Swearing is a different issue.

    I certainly don’t agree with censoring an individual’s natural form of communication. But we’re discussing the business context here and that’s a hugely diverse audience.

    Nick’s view is probably much closer to my own; and John follows up with a good example.

    I can’t get my head around this view that some words are more acceptable than others. Language is language and fluid. Not sure what all the fuss is about; as expression and authenticity are far more important to me than a sanitised, sterile version of the person I’m communicating with.

    It’s really revealing when people take a view that says ‘our way, our language, our preferred path of expression is the best and only way’. This smacks of exclusivity and distance. It usually comes back to haunt us too.

    Perhaps what’s equally revealing is the language used to express feelings on this subject; ‘this type of behaviour’, ‘bad language’, ‘potty mouth’. I find these expressions more disturbing than the F word.

    The excessive use of any ‘one’ word denotes a lack or articulation, it doesn’t matter what the word is. For example, ‘brilliant!’ is a pet hate of mine.

    What’s bad language anyway? Who decides?

    Stephen Fry was quoted as saying: “Swearing is a really important part of one’s life and it would be impossible to imagine going through life without swearing and without enjoying swearing; there used to be mad, silly, prissy people who would say swearing is a sign of a poor vocabulary as such; utter nonsense! The people I know who swear the most tend to have the widest vocabularies!”

    Best wishes,


    • Robin Dickinson on March 7, 2010 at 7:22 am

      Rich input, Luke. Thanks for widening the lens! The fact that language is an ever-evolving continuum that echoes the zeitgeist adds some degree of complication to this topic. Add to this the point that so-called swear words vary in intensity – many of which denigrate cultural groups, social groups and genders. Others are far less charged.

      I’ve heard paid speakers use the F word and seen people walk about. I’ve seen Senior Managers cuss about females and seen the whole audience laugh (including women). I’ve heard church speakers swear to mixed responses. And so it goes.

      And what about the professional speaker who gets up at the public domain – including parents who have young children – and uses swear words to add colour, intensity or humour to the address?

      Do we need to warn people beforehand? Should swear words be added to creative English classes at school?

      Thanks for getting the discussion to other interesting corners, Luke.

      Best to you and Alex, Robin 🙂

      • Luke James on March 7, 2010 at 9:43 pm

        You’re very welcome and thanks for the best wishes Robin.

        So many questions – maybe I’ll need to address some of them in another format. It’s generating a lot of heated debate in the isca camp!

        There’s a great quote by screenwriter Kevin Smith which is: ‘One man’s frankness is another man’s vulgarity’.

        If one person or group decides acceptable language or words then we’re moving into dangerous Orwellian territory. Creative expression is core to my values as an individual.

        This is complicated and the examples you’ve given make me angry (not with you, I hasten to add) because clearly, labelling and abusive words directed towards people are unacceptable. Delivery and context is always paramount.

        Just on the point you raise regarding creative English; I would argue that if a word is in the dictionary, then it’s up for grabs. How do we develop writers if we then decide the words they can use?

        We have so many double-standards in our society. Art, at least, tries to bridge the gaps.

        Being told what to say (or how to say it)is akin to being told how to think. It’s dogma.

        Thanks for generating a fab discussion.

        Hope you’re having a great weekend. Best wishes, Luke.

        • Robin Dickinson on March 8, 2010 at 8:30 am

          I now get calls from people telling me how much they enjoy your input into these discussions. How cool is that?! 🙂

          “We have so many double-standards in our society. Art, at least, tries to bridge the gaps.” Yes, and thank goodness for that.

          And back to our old friend ‘context’…and delivery. So true.

          The artist in me wants the freedom to creatively express myself from the broadest possible palette;

          The parent in me wants the innocence of children to be gently unfolded into this colourful world where freedom is creatively expressed, rather than shocked into it without restraint.

          Where the two meet is where I stand now.

          Your contribution is thoroughly appreciated, Luke.

          Best, Robin 🙂

  9. Thomas Hansen on March 6, 2010 at 8:42 pm

    As a speaker, I believe that my job is to serve the audience in bringing them from one “place” to another. Be that knowledge, perception, outlook, etc. If I am there to serve, I must choose my “tools” (words) accordingly.

    • Robin Dickinson on March 8, 2010 at 8:31 am

      Thanks, Thomas. I appreciate your input into this discussion. Great to see you.

      Best, Robin 🙂

  10. Sheridan Greenwood on March 6, 2010 at 11:04 pm

    When we are young, big people take care of us – they parent us. Part of growing and maturing, at whatever age, is learning to parent “our selves”. This includes respecting boundaries, knowing what`s appropriate, good manners etc. It also means having the confidence to switch off, walk away, not buy, change direction etc and the choice to do this quietly or otherwise.

    When, and this has happened, my children decide to say choice words or make remarks about other people in public, usually loudly, do I allow this to continue because they are being themselves?

    In a public speaking situation, if I am offended, I can choose to take responsibility for my side of things by voting with my feet, purse etc. I can’t make the other person stop; however, they could choose to take responsibility for their side by considering the impact of their actions. If audience members are being singled out or picked on, that may be seen as bullying. How did we deal with the school bully? Tell the adult in charge, ignore, find different friends, punch back twice as hard?

    It’s all the same behaviour dealt with in various ways according to our maturity and life experience. Of course people should have freedom of speech, but with freedom also comes responsibility. There`s nothing wrong with exercising a bit of self control and wisdom. Its a matter of context.

    Incidentally, I don’t believe that audience laughter is necessarily an indication of their approval, just a human reaction – an attempt to diffuse embarrassment.

    • Robin Dickinson on March 8, 2010 at 8:40 am

      Excellent to get your continued input, Sheridan.

      There’s a real richness of views and opinions forming here and I’m learning a lot.

      It’s curious that the language people use in these comments is free from so called swear words and denigration – for which I personally am relieved. (Note: I’ve not ‘censored’ any comments here.) There is strong opinion and creative expression without such things.

      Best to you, Robin 🙂

  11. Keenan on March 7, 2010 at 2:16 pm

    Personal interaction for most of our history has been guided by a formality. With limited access to information, the concept of “first impressions are everything” dictated much of our behavior. That coupled with a Puritan ethic which has been deeply embedded into our society has driven a formality in our culture. This formality is being chipped away little by little, starting with the anti-establishment of the 60’s, the sexual revolution of the 70’s, the parental revolution of the 80’s (where kids didn’t win or lose, they no longer called adults Mr and Mrs. etc.) and now the lack of suits and ties in the work place, virtual office workers, and social networking; formality is disappearing.

    Public speakers swearing is a continuation of this informality. The obligation to engage in a formal manner or put on airs is becoming less expected.

    Informality brings people together. It makes people feel more engaged and connected. Informality allows collaboration to take hold faster. It eradicates the warm up period, where people work through the front and get to the real person.

    As Nick said; people need to be who they are. The formality of the past prevented this, as we all had to conform to certain behavior.

    Swearing breaks down formality. It is a way to say “no games here”, it is what it is. Take it or leave it.

    I believe the need to bland down messages, presentations etc. so to not offend is giving way to honesty, reality, and authenticity.

    I don’t think there is any place for gratuitous swearing.

    Other than that, drop the bombs, bust out the “Oh Sh*ts” and let it fly.

    As formality dies, we become closer. Why? Because, there is less B.S.

    Great question!

    • Robin Dickinson on March 8, 2010 at 8:47 am

      Thanks, Keenan. I love the energy behind your comment. There’s an underlying intent in your message that honours humanity.

      What’s your view about teachers in the classroom? Should they build bridges of engagement and connection with adolescent learners by using less formal language? Or politicians, community leaders?

      In your opinion, would Barack Obama’s speeches have been more impactful if he had “drop the bombs, bust out the “Oh Sh*ts” and let it fly.”?

      Wonderful to have your participation, Keenan. Thank you.

      Best, Robin 🙂

      • Keenan on March 8, 2010 at 9:11 am

        It’s a great question Robin,

        I posted my thoughts about it today.

        Professors, OK, —- H.S., Middleschool, not so acceptable. Kids have yet to determine their boundaries AND school before college is not opt-in. Therefore, when something isn’t option, I believe the formality I am speaking of is very important. (one of the few places)

        Barack O’ or any other politician, no not a good idea. Not because it wouldn’t have made the speeches more impactful, but because the speeches are more about creating an emotion about the speaker themselves. The message AND the speaker are being “sold”. (Think about the hit his approval rating would take if he was privately heard swearing, we just don’t want our heroes swearing) As a public speaker, the message is usually far more important then the messenger. Because of this, public speakers can take greater risks. In many cases the audience can separate the person from the message. The message is far more important than messenger.

        Great stuff Robin, have really enjoyed the conversation.

  12. Alex on March 7, 2010 at 11:30 pm

    I think the way you present obviously belies the sort of person you are.
    I’m not the kind of person that feels the need to swear except on very very rare occasion.
    So when I present, swearing doesn’t cross my radar at all.
    I personally don’t see the need in a professional speaker’s co text for them to cuss and would probably excuse the odd one but be put off with too much more.
    In standup comedy however, swearing can be used very effectively for good laughs, it can be used to break a tension point which triggers laughter.

    As for denigrading others in any way, that’s a complete put off for me and would lose any of my respect.
    If you feel the need to denigrade others then you probably have self-esteem problems and want to make overs look smaller to improve your own stature. That needs therapy, not a platform for indulgement!

    Just my 2p!!

    • Robin Dickinson on March 8, 2010 at 8:52 am

      Thanks Alex. I really appreciate your participation.

      What’s your opinion about high profile authors/bloggers who video-blog and ‘s’ and ‘f’ in their postings? They seem to sit mid way between comedy and professional speaker.

      Best to you,

      Robin 🙂

      • Alex on March 8, 2010 at 10:54 pm

        I don’t watch any video blogs but in all fairness, the same would apply.
        Too much, even in comedy is a personal put off for me. If I want a message about something that someone is blogging about, and their language started bugging me, I’ll switch off mentally and probably find the info somewhere else.

  13. Karima-catherine on March 8, 2010 at 7:35 am

    Hello Robin,
    I think the extent of swearing is very much cultural; I am not saying it should acceptable at all but as an example, French people, frequently use mild swear words; political figures, celebs, even teachers do it. So a public speaker would.
    I think you can pass your ideas without swearing and as a speaker, know your manners. It also takes cultural sensitivity and respect for those who come and hear you. There again It happens that people will embrace the public speaker character because they are know/celeb and the ranting, swearing, will come with it.

    • Robin Dickinson on March 8, 2010 at 8:56 am

      Thanks for your comment and contribution, Karima-catherine. That’s a very useful perspective.

      If you were are speaker who preferred not to swear, and where invited to speak in front of an audience where swearing was culturally acceptable – the norm even, how would you approach it?

      Thanks for being here.

      Best to you, Robin 🙂

  14. Annabel Candy, Get In the Hot Spot on March 8, 2010 at 11:58 am

    I enjoy a good swear and a little swearing session can be a great way to let off steam. Sadly I don’t get to do it much now I have kids. I watched a webinar with a well known, successful professional blogger last week and was surprised that it was peppered with vile language. She targets a younger audience who may see it as cool. I agree, swearing is good now and then at home but definitely not in public and especially when you’re actually speaking at an event.

    • Robin Dickinson on March 8, 2010 at 7:47 pm

      Thanks, Annabel. Yes, a good old rant can be a very effective way to let off some steam.

      Thanks for sharing your example about the webinar. Do you ever feel like saying something in these situations? Will you continue to watch this person’s webinars knowing what you now know?

      Best to you, Robin 🙂

  15. @OtherAndrew on March 8, 2010 at 2:15 pm

    I was giving this topic some further consideration over the weekend and remembered this fantastic example of swearing (below) being used to great effect. So while I am not a fan of swearing by public speakers, when it is used carefully, I agree that it can create impact. Consider how awesome the following is:

    Tony Campolo, a famous US evangelical preacher, routinely used such an opening to address his audience of Christian laypeople:

    “I have three things I’d like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don’t give a shit. What’s worse is that you’re more upset with the fact that I said ‘shit’ than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.”

    Imagine how powerful that was to people who were immediately offended, but then stopped to realise the implications of what he had said. Best use of a swearing I can think of!


    In reference to your question regarding publications for whom I write, I’ve noticed that they don’t censor other writers who choose to swear. To me, it smacks of people trying to be ‘authentic’ or emotive when they are simply just struggling to communicate their message more strongly. It’s done for impact’s sake, but seems try-hard to me.

    With regard to politicians swearing, I wrote this blog post about K-Rudd’s deliberate dropping of the S-bomb a little while back – may be of interest to those of you following that line of discussion:

    Thanks again for providing a great platform for a contentious discussion, Robin. You’re creating a real ‘go to’ resource here for what the thought leaders’ views are on many important issues.

    • Robin Dickinson on March 8, 2010 at 7:55 pm

      Thanks, Andrew. Your support, encouragement and experience are gratefully received.

      Your further reflections provide excellent dimension to this discussion.

      That’s a great example. Shocking and great. For me it encapsulates many of the issues raised by the generous and bright minds above – context, meaning, shock value, creativity, freedom of expression and moving audiences to action.

      Thanks also for your reference and sharing of your thoughts about written publications.

      You’re a good man, Andrew. 🙂

      Best, Robin.

  16. […] As a professional facilitator, I’ve been keen to see how this offline skill could be used online.  Rather than writing up my ideas and opinions in a traditional blog post, the key here is to kick off a facilitated discussion by finding an interesting topic and posing a question supported by a short paragraph of text. Here’s an example. […]

  17. A E Lane on August 3, 2010 at 4:44 am

    I agree that public speakers should refrain from using expletives, unless purposely using in the right context, In normal presentations or explanations, using expletives in a common way can alienate your audience as it seems disrespectful.

    That being said, I need a publically acceptable word to do the same job as an expletive, but that doesn’t paint me as emotional/unstable or immature, and so that the message doesn’t lose its emphasis. Of course I could refrain from using such a word at all, but then message seems to lose some emphasis and does not convey the complete anger and frustration efficiently.

    For example, let’s say that after two hours on the phone trying to get a small problem resolved, a human voice finally answers but doesn’t have the knowledge or resources to help. You are angry and frustrated. In reporting the problem to management, you want to convey this anger and frustration, and you also want it to be taken seriously. If you go off and use a bunch of expletives, the message may be dismissed as crazy or the source stupid. What word could be used to convey and emphasize the message without “putting off” the recipient? Also, such a word could be useful in professional settings when talking to your company or organizations when you want to convey such emotions or put an emphasis on the message. What word could you use?

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