Winston Churchill was not known for appeasing people who pointed out his shortcomings. A lady said to him, “Sir, you re drunk.”
Churchill’s response: “Madam, you are ugly. In the morning, I will be sober.”
On another occasion, Nancy Astor told him, “Sir, if you were my husband, I would give you poison.”
His response: “If I were your husband, I would take it.”
His is not a good example for speakers. You should do what you can not to offend when speaking, whether individually or to a crowd. In most audiences, there is someone just waiting to be offended. Don’t make their wait a short one.
Here are some suggestions to keep the audience on your side.
Know how to pronounce any proper noun connected with the organization. If you mention someone in the audience, make sure you know how to pronounce the name. The name of the company, the city where you are speaking, a well-known local landmark, and the product lines are examples of words whose pronunciation you should check out before you speak. When President Kennedy was speaking in Berlin, his efforts to connect with his audience began with, “Ich bin ein Berliner.” With these words he intended to assure the people that he was also a citizen of Berlin. Unfortunately, to the local folks, a “Berliner” was, primarily, a jelly donut. Getting language right can be challenging.
If you know you are going to be discussing an issue that will get resistance from the audience, early in the presentation you should stress areas where you do agree with the audience. For example, adequate profits are important both to the hourly worker and the CEO; the method of obtaining those profits may not seem the same for both. Talk first about profit management.
As we indicated in our new book, be sensitive to the themes that the person or audience may feel very strongly about and don’t make light of them. If you are speaking in Indiana, for example, you’d do best to avoid taking sides between the Indiana Hoosiers and the Purdue Boilermakers. Whereas each nickname is ripe for derision, wisdom dictates that you avoid jokes about either. If there’s an unusual statue in the middle of the town square, don’t belittle it. As in the case of the Boll Weevil Statue in Enterprise, Alabama, local citizens may be proud of their monument, even if it honors an agricultural pest. Learn the loyalties and allegiances that a group of people has and respond to them with grace, leaving out negative references.
Don’t use profanity or sexist or racist language, and do not ridicule an occupation or socio-economic background. When in doubt, don’t. Don’t apologize for your lack of preparation or depth of content. Audiences will find that out on their own soon enough. Don’t talk about yourself extensively; do so only to establish credibility or contest.
Learn as much as possible about the audience ahead of time so you will not inadvertently insult them because you are unaware of a problem the company is facing. Not long after the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire in Northern Kentucky in which 167 people were killed, I made reference to that tragedy in a speech. A young man immediately got up and left the room. Later I found out that his father had died in that fire. This was too soon after the horrific event to discuss it publicly where there might be people who were directly affected.
Everyone does not have a sense of humor, but if they don’t I wish everyone had the attitude Dolly Parton has. She said, “I’m not offended by all the dumb blonde jokes because I’m not dumb…and I also know that I’m not blonde.”
Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Professor of Speech Communication in the College of Informatics at Northern Kentucky University in the Cincinnati area. He presents keynotes and seminars to corporations and associations whose people want to speak and listen effectively. See additional articles and resources at www.sboyd.com. He can be reached at 800-727-6520 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.