A famous anecdote featuring Winston Churchill and British politician Bessie Braddock may be apocryphal but makes for an entertaining story. Supposedly Braddock encountered an intoxicated Churchill and said, “Sir, you are drunk.” He replied: “And you, Bessie, are ugly. But I shall be sober in the morning, and you will still be ugly.”
As speakers we want to work hard not to offend an audience on purpose, though in some situations someone is just waiting to be offended. What can speakers do to avoid offending someone in the audience?
Always be concerned about time. Be present early for your speaking engagement. The person in charge of the program will be relieved to see the speaker present with time to spare. Audience members who see you before your scheduled time will view you positively. Recently I was in the audience to hear Pulitzer Prize-winning author Rick Bragg. I was impressed that he was at the meeting place several minutes before the program began, mingling with the crowd. He made a positive impression before uttering a word of his presentation by his early arrival. Also, don’t go overtime with your presentation. If you are to speak 30 minutes, never speak 35. In fact, stop at 28 minutes. Show respect for the time of the listeners.
Pronounce proper nouns correctly. Check ahead of time to make certain you know how to pronounce the name of the organization to which you are speaking, key names of people in the group, and any words or terms common to that business or association. If you are speaking in an unfamiliar city, check out the pronunciation based on how the people who live there pronounce the name of their city. For instance, Lafayette, Tennessee, is “La FAY et,” and Lafayette, Indiana, is “La fay ET.” Though Louisville, Kentucky, can be pronounced various ways, the locals say “LOU uh vul.”
Have new and relevant information. Audiences are more intelligent and more demanding than they have ever been. Before you speak, find out the group’s knowledge level on your topic. A speaker has a responsibility to stay current with findings connected to speech content and share that with audiences. Alternatively, if you find out the audience is not knowledgeable about some of the terms you need to use, be careful to define the words as you speak them.
Be pleasant but not pushy in the way you interact with the audience members before and after you speak. Don’t be demanding if the room is not set up the way you want it or the public address system is not quite as you prefer. Be willing to go with the flow and adapt as best you can. In talking to individuals before and after the presentation, be a good listener by asking open-ended questions that engage the listener. Don’t reinforce the speaker stereotype that all speakers monopolize conversations. Be sincere and pleasant as you relate to the audience members one-on-one.
Finally, be very careful about poking fun at people in the audience. Even if the program chair points out someone who could be the subject of a joke or one-liner because he or she is a jokester, think twice before doing it. Someone might be offended if you do, wondering, “Will I be next?” Be safe by only making fun of yourself.
Especially if you are speaking to a large audience, you cannot predict the context each member is bringing to the event; thus the possibility of alienating someone can’t be avoided. Keeping these principles in mind, however, will help to win over your audience.