Cursing Onstage: Has Your Speaker Gone Too Far?

By Kelsey Ogletree, July 13, 2017

Sex. Drugs. Politics. There are likely a number of topics you consider off-limits from keynotes, especially if your audience skews conservative. Delivery matters too. Cursing onstage might make a joke funny for some (Scott Dikkers, founder of The Onion, has done this well at past speaking engagements); but to others it might ruin their entire event experience. How do you know when colorful language goes too far, and how can you make sure you have the right balance for your audience?

“You have to know the talent and the client well,” says Kris Young, director of speakers and entertainment for Bishop-McCann, a global meeting and incentive production company. She doesn’t recommend any speaker she doesn’t clearly know, yet notes it’s important for planners not to expect a presenter to change their personal speaking style for a group.

“We’ve worked with a famous author who uses colorful language in his speech,” says Young. “It’s something we know he won’t change because it’s who he is.” As such, she doesn’t recommend him to notably conservative clients.

But even with the best planning, missteps can happen. For example, Young shares a well-known comedian had signed a contract saying he couldn’t do a particularly off-color joke for an event. He did the joke anyway and walked offstage, saying, “Oops.”

The bottom line, says Young, is to learn what the true line is for your audience; consider who you need to make happy (the people in the room or the people writing the check?); and then do your best to ensure your speaker doesn’t cross it.

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