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.

Adele succeeds because she’s Adele, not Beyonce.  Gary V succeeds because he’s Gary V, not Gary Hamel (who never swore as far as I know).  You’ll succeed as yourself, not an imitation.

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.

11 Comments

  1. How about just working on ourselves, so that we can express ourselves without swearing? I think our messages are powerful enough without having to resort to swearing. I recently attended a 3-day seminar where the speaker encouraged the audience to throw a few swear words in for effect (only after they established their credibility with the audience). Just because we have a right to use these words, doesn’t mean using them is right. Why take the chance of offending some of the audience if you don’t need to?

    1. Eliezer, thanks for your comment. You make a similar point to the one I was trying to make — it’s not about the swearing, it’s about your voice, your message. I would never recommend that speakers “throw a few swear words in for effect.” That’s precisely the wrong way to think about it.

  2. I have always thought when a person is called and gifted to be a professional paid speaker they know it is never about them; it is always about the people who have chosen to come and hear their message! Without an audience a speaker does not have a reason and purpose to speak. So doesn’t it make sense you don’t want anyone either walking out of your presentations because the language you chose to use offends them, or sharing with at least 20 other people that, even though your message may be great, they can’t handle the way you present it? Event planners are getting into this issue as well and are even going so far as putting it into contracts that no offensive language is permitted. Words are important, and just because we can doesn’t mean we should, either in person or on social media.

  3. This is a fun discussion and one I actively engage in during my “How to Write Good” talk. I think it’s all about the audience and the rapport that you have created with them. I would never consider profanity at 8:30a in an all-day workshop; they are still forming an impression of me. But by 2:00p, when our sleeves are rolled up, when we’ve been at it for hours, shared a meal together…maybe. And for me, the line is drawn well short of F bombs and even short of S bombs. But the well-placed “bullsh*t!” can be an effective use of emphasis. (For some reason, I have found that adding “bull” to the word seems to make it more palatable to all ears.)

    So I am strategic with it and I have very clear boundaries. The most important boundary to me is the when: never first thing in the morning.

    1. Rick, great point. Over a bit of time, trust and familiarity develop, and after all we’re more comfortable cursing with people we know and trust. Know your audience and know yourself!

  4. An engaging post, to be sure, Dr. Nick, and one I had bookmarked for comment today…

    So, I’m reading, right?, and as I get to the first graph in your article I’m *already* thinking about Vaynerchuk’s “visceral” style, and then comes this gem of an aside:

    “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…”

    …how I could not agree with you more?!

    A couple of years back, I spent half an hour or so plowing through one of — what should have been — Gary’s online “rah-rah” bits and *swiftly* became disillusioned.

    In it, Gary — 5’6″-ish and pesky (estimating) leaps off the stage mid-speech in his comfy pret-a-porter clothes, five-o-clock shadow, and gleaming white kicks, to commence pointing at people in the audience with his defiant tone and ‘eff the cosmos attitude. Then he returns to the stage and dangles his legs over the edge as he carries on with the remainder of the pitch. Horrendous and a major turn-off!

    Gary’s profuse overuse of profanity is something I find abhorrent, and as you know me from several of my FB status updates, I’m hardly what I’d call” squeamish” when it comes to rolling out the big F- and S-bomb guns, provided it’s targeted — like all weapons must needs be.

    Disappointing as hell because what I’d loved — ADORED! — about Gary’s approach was his take-no-prisoner’s attitude to building his Wine Library as a reputable enduring brand, not to mention his superb customer service anecdotes and how he’d implore his following to leverage Google Ads — commando-style — and was a real online business resource. A maven, in the truest sense of the term…beyond uplifting.

    Then something pivoted…

    He started signing more speaking gigs and his mouth went all sewer-y and I unsubscribed. I would never hire him for an event, because he acts reprehensibly, IMO. It felt like hero betrayal. Like when Matisyahu shaved his beard. Treasonous on a Logan Act scale.

    If Gary only knew what a tragic loss of goodwill he was the cause of — I’m certain I’m not the only person who had this type of reaction.

    Gary’s following was/is legion…and the bizarre thing is I can’t fathom who in tarnation would be responsive to this sort of style?! Really? You want a little guy darting around stage like an electron ranting about how you need to “fucking crush it, dudes!” and “just work — fucking work — more, more, more you lazy shits!” Who responds to that kind of intimidation?!

    Same thing happened with two other individuals who really had me scratching my noggin:

    — Tony Robbins, and
    — Tai Lopez.

    With respect to Tony, I forgive his sometime lapses into F-bomb territory, because he has taken pains to explain his rationale — psychologically — as to why he’ll chuck in a zinger every now and again (TONY ROBBINS: I AM NOT YOUR GURU — https://www.netflix.com/title/80102204). But before I’d listened to his explanation, I was like: “Tony Robbins swears?! Since when?! Ewwwww!”

    Then take the case of Tai Lopez — this guy achieves a degree of renown with his YouTube videos and various courses (one of which I presently take, full disclosure), and — over at his personal channel — he’s now lapsed into a kind of Cali-overbaked drawl, replete with all kinds of Compton-esque cussing and — forgive me — these inane millennial-type expressions which — I get it, close the gap between him and his key demographic — but, I still find it to be a total 180-degree swivel from how I’d come to know him initially (and why I’d signed up for one of his courses).

    In Tai’s case, this happened all within the span of less than a year — which really shines a klieg light on the pernicious influence wealth sometimes has upon our character.

    At least it seemed that way to me, the outside observer…

    Ramit Sethi — in diametric contrast — seems to have *never* permitted his hard-won fame — NYT-beststelling author of I WILL TEACH YOU TO BE RICH (with a title like that you’d think he’d be bombastic as all get-out) — to infect his consistent clean message. I think the worst I’ll catch from Ramit in one of his regular e-outs is a stray “dude” or a “WTH.” And — full disclosure — I take one of his courses as well.

    Powerful post, Nick. Good call and the reminder was timely.

    1. Thanks, Adam — I thought I was the only person who was put off by Gary’s style, and frankly I was a little worried doing the post that I would be taken as stuffy for not endorsing swearing fully and wholeheartedly. As it turns out I guess there are more of us that find the swearing unnecessary than I realized.

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