Should a speaker swear on stage? Is it ever appropriate, and if so when?
These questions used to have an easy answer: no, no, and never. Profanity on stage used to be a deal killer, a contract ender and a career finisher. Twenty years ago, I watched one promising speaker say “sh*t” on stage once, during a technology meltdown, and never get invited back to that venue again.
Indeed, it was a career killer for that speaker, because the word spread, the invitations dried up, and my friend went back into consulting.
It was a powerful lesson for me, watching from the sidelines. Never lose your cool and never loosen your tongue.
And so a kind of mild hypocrisy prevailed. Speakers (and executives) could swear – and did swear – in private, of course, but they had to clean up their acts in public.
As a stylistic matter, you could say something like “What the bleep?” or “The frigging thing,” but that made you sound like a wimp, so I never recommended it.
And so the prevailing gestalt prevailed for a long time. Until Gary V came along.
If you don’t know Gary Vaynerchuk, you should. He’s hard to miss these days on the speaking circuit. He’s incredibly successful, popular, and omnipresent.
And he swears a blue streak. Every other word out of his mouth is four letters, or seven, if he’s practicing his participles.
He has always cursed in public as near as I can tell. He doesn’t apologize for it. He owns it.
And he’s a great speaker, and has achieved that enviable status most speakers only dream about – he can name his terms, and you’re glad to pay them, if you can get him. (Personally, I think that his stream of consciousness style is a bit disorganized and undercuts his effectiveness in the end, and that he could do with a bit of discipline, but that’s a separate matter and anyway he has no reason to listen to me.)
So what should the rest of us do? Should we all start swearing in order to achieve mega-stardom like Gary? What would happen if we tried?
I’m not recommending it. Most of us would suffer the fate of my friend two decades ago if we tried. Because it’s still the case that swearing, more than one or two words per hour anyway, is a deal-killer.
Adele can get away with it. And so can Gary V, but then Adele is one of those rarified singers that goes by one name, and Gary goes by one name and an initial, and you and I are not.
But there’s a deeper reason to avoid swearing like Adele or Gary V. The key word in that previous sentence is “like.” You shouldn’t be aping anyone else in finding your own voice and style to become the unique speaking personality you deserve to be – and should be. Don’t be like anyone. Be yourself.
And yet – the norms they are a-changing. You can now get away with one or two “f bombs” in the course of a speech, and the random “sh*t.” Our society has relaxed a bit, gotten a bit angrier, and gotten a bit more interconnected. YouTube has caught way too many people in unscripted moments using swear words as punch lines to put this particular verbal cat back in the bag.
And one other reason to swear. A recent study found that we perceive people as more honest if they swear. Indeed, the study indicates that they may actually be more honest as well, because swearing means, basically, that they’re saying the first thing that comes into their heads, unfiltered, and thus it’s more likely to be true.
So we can all relax a little. But the idea is not to imitate Gary V, but rather to find your own style, real for you, and authentic to your voice. If that includes swearing, then go for it and deal with the consequences. If not, then go for it and deal with those consequences.
Either way, own it because it’s yours, not because you’re a Gary V Wannabe.
Damn, that feels good.