Can I Use Profanity in a Speech or Podcast? (Part 1)
Swearing in a podcast or during a speech -- does it help get your point across or just alienate your audience? It's not so simple. The Public Speaker tackles this thorny issue in Part 1 of this series on profanity.
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I was recently asked by a reader if it’s ok to use profanity during a podcast. My first reaction was to say no. But when I thought about it some more, I remembered hearing profanity used persuasively in a podcast. So really, my answer is “it depends.”
Profanity is a linguistic taboo. Every language has what we call “swear words.” They’re words that are impolite or offensive. Swear words carry an extra weight or stigma when used. They have power. Like all power, profanity can be used for good or evil.
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Before I had kids, I remember spending an evening watching a movie at home with a friend. Her 2-year-old son was in the room with us. Because he was so young we didn’t think too much about the language in the movie. But as the night went on, I noticed something. Every time someone used profanity in the movie, her son looked up at the TV. It happened several times. This child wasn’t being raised around profanity. I doubt he had ever heard the “F” word in his life. I believe the words caught his attention because of the emotion and weight given to them by the speakers.
But back to our question. Is it ever ok to use profanity in a podcast or speech? Let’s look at some factors that will help you decide.
Question #1: Is profanity part of who you are?
I almost never use profanity in everyday life. Sure, I can think of a few times when using stronger, saltier language would have made my point crystal clear. I saw a quote on Pinterest the other day that said:
“Swearing: because sometimes 'gosh darn it' and 'meanie-head' just don't cover it.”
Profanity really doesn’t offend me. But it’s not my method of communication. It would be strange to my audience if I suddenly started peppering my talks with swear words.
I typically advise people to be authentic and true to who they really are. If profanity is the way you express yourself (or is part of your brand) then leaving it out or replacing it with slang might not be authentic. If you do choose to use profanity, do it in a purposeful way. Carefully choose swear words in an effort to be emotional and evocative. There are a few bloggers, podcasters, and speakers who do this well. We’ll talk more about them in part two of this series.
Question #2: Will your audience be offended?
When speaking to business colleagues or in a community setting, I nearly always advise not to use profanity. You can almost always communicate more clearly and effectively if you choose words that have more specific meanings. So if you are just being lazy with your word choice and are choosing swear words for emphasis because it's easier than actually coming up with precise language, then it's best to leave them out. Often swear words will alienate some portion of your audience and if they're not necessary, why risk it?
Research does show that there are regional differences when it comes to profanity. For example, people from Boston and New York tend to swear more casually and frequently then people from say Idaho. A surprising recent study on regional differences in the frequency of swearing concluded that the state of Ohio wins for the most profanity. Research showed Ohioans using profanity once in every 150 conversations. The state of Washington was the lowest with one profane word in every 300 conversations. The bottom line is this: If you’re speaking in a region you’re not intimately familiar with, the safest rule is to avoid swearing.
Obviously, if you’re speaking in front of an audience that includes children, you wouldn’t swear. Church audiences and PTA meetings should be profanity-free too.