Swearing in Speeches

When I was writing my first toastmasters speech a key part of the story revolved around someone swearing at me. I was certain a verbatim quote would cause offense so I adjusted the phrase to “Turn your effing music off!”. This sounded stilted and my mentor thought it was still too strong. After, literally, hours of deliberation I adjusted the sentence to “Turn your music off!“, adding emphasis with my voice rather than a swear word.

Is it ever acceptable to swear in a speech?

There are different categories of swear words. Some are mild and so frequently used that most people are desensitised to them. Some are so hateful and emotive that uttering them could completely destroy your reputation. This happened to the comedian Michael Richards, who has essentially ruined his career after a racist rant on stage. Steven Pinker recently published an interesting article discussing reactions to swearing.

Famously “foul-mouthed” Frank Skinner has written about his experiments with reducing the swearing in his standup. His long-held belief was that his routines “needed the odd swearword the way that chips needed salt and vinegar”, but after experimenting with clean material, found that he was getting the same laughs. He noted that when a swear word did eventually did creep in it got a much bigger laugh, indicating that a choice swear word still has the power to shock or add emphasis if used carefully.

The decision to swear at all is a judgement call based on your assessment of the audience. If you’re performing in a comedy club you can probably expect the audience to be comfortable with most swear words. If you’re delivering a wedding speech to an audience including grandparents and children then it is a fairly safe bet that swearing will not go down well. You should have respect for your audience. It might not be worth swearing if you risk offending even one person.

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One Comment

  1. Maureen
    Posted May 21, 2009 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    As said by the wise Ricky Gervais, “It’s not big or clever. That’s why it’s funny!” But can be more appropriately used for stand-up comedians rather than public speaking.

    Perhaps you can start exploring or discussing different forms of public speaking? Could be a good platform for more readers to discuss.

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