Watch Your Language

Recently I read an article about the use of profanity in a presentation. Both sides of the issue were pursued and explained. In addition to my own personal beliefs, I’ve seen negative audience reactions over the years to many speakers who used profanity. Thus I believe that profanity should never be used.

In a speech, you cannot control many variables, such as current events, context in which the audience hears you, and time of day. You can control, however, your use of language. Do not take a chance of offending an audience member by using profanity. One wise mentor once said to me, “Remember, Steve, in an audience of 100 people at least one person is just waiting to be offended.”  Don’t make it easy for them to be offended by using swear words.

The speaker reveals the  low quality of his or her vocabulary by using profanity. My observation of the language of people who use profanity is that they are either lazy in seeking to find the right words or have a limited vocabulary. Neither trait is complimentary.

The use of “the f word” is always distracting. When you hear the word in a professional context, it seems jarring and out of place. The listener may lose his or her train of thought and have a hard time getting back on track with the speaker’s point.

Watching our language also includes correct grammar. I find many speakers have trouble with when to use “me” and “I”. If you’d like guidance on that one, see my wife’s blog post, “Grammar Police,” starting at the ninth paragraph down.

Another language issue is using a plural verb with a singular noun or vice versa. This is most often when a prepositional phrase with a plural object is used after a singular subject. For example, “The group of children was eager to begin eating” is correct because group was is correct, even though the children were no doubt eager to eat.

Finally, correct pronunciation of words—especially proper nouns–is essential. Few mistakes are more embarrassing than mispronouncing the name of the CEO, or the  company, or even the city in which you are speaking. For example, in Indiana Lafayette is pronounced “lah-fay-ET,” while in Tennessee Lafayette is pronounced “lah-FAY-et.” Woe to the credibility of the speaker who confuses the two!

Still one of my favorite jokes of all time (and it still gets a laugh) is about the couple arguing whether Versailles, Indiana, should be “ver-sails” or “ver-sigh.” The couple stops at the drive through of a fast food restaurant to settle the correct pronunciation of the city. The husband asked the lady at the drive-through window, “Could you tell me very slowly where we are right now?”  The lady answers, “Dai—ry—-Queen.”

The quality of your speech depends not only on the ideas you present, but the language you use to present them.

Steve Boyd
Steve Boyd
Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Professor Emeritus of Speech Communication, College of Informatics, Northern Kentucky University, near Cincinnati. He presents keynotes and seminars to corporations and associations whose people want to speak and listen effectively. Contact Steve today for priority scheduling! (859) 866-5693 or email

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