Holy shit – swearing in conference presentations works!
If you know me, or have heard me speak at conferences, you’ll know that I’m partial to the odd curse word. This is never planned, it’s part of my everyday speech. I should add that I’m Scottish, which far from being an excuse, is simply a description of a culture more attuned to swearing than more mild-mannered England. Billy Connolly, a genius when it comes to oral delivery, could never have come from England. Ireland maybe, England never.
Let me start with some science. I’m not saying this study is definitive but there is at least one study, with a control, that shows the beneficial effect of swear words in presentations. A speech about 'lowering tuition fees' was delivered to there groups :
Group 1: Used ‘Damn’ at the start
Group 2: Used 'Damn' at the end
Group 3. No swearing at all
The swear word at the start or end had the most effect (defined as the ‘persuasiveness’ of the speech). It also enhanced the perceived intensity of the speaker. Interestingly, it neither enhanced or damaged their credibility.
Why I swear
I don;t swear because this study gives me an excuse to juice up presentation style. I occasionally swear because I’ve always felt in my gut that swear words add something special – they’re the magic dust of language.
First, when unexpected, they jolt people to attention. Who would deny that this is useful in the anodyne and often mind-numbingly ,boring world of lectures, conferences and presentations. Second, attention is a necessary condition for learning – it aids retention.
Third, they have meanings which other words do not have. Shakespeare is full of filth and swear words. When I described Gove as someone who fitted his job like a ‘prick in a codpiece’, I felt as that this was a pretty good analogy.
Fourth, they’re emotive terms and if, like me, you argue that lectures and talks are hopeless on the transmission of knowledge or skills, but strong when affective, attitudinal or emotive, then they can play a vital, emotive role.
Fifth, it’s time we started to puncture the pomposity and break the sheer boredom we witness at conferences and lectures. I’m not fond of those that cower behind lecterns, reading from pre-typed notes. Above all, I’m not fond of being bored. Which of us has never experienced the excruciating, almost painful levels of boredom at lectures and conferences?
Sixth, if you’re ‘offended’ by the occasional swear word, I’m offended by your lack of sensitivity toward freedom of speech and the cultural/linguistic norms of others. I find the censorship of ordinary language offensive.
Seventh, I don't give a fuck.
Having often sworn in presentations, I’ve only once received blow-back (you can see it on the Twitter feed here). Note that I was roundly tweckled for daring to suggest that lectures are an ineffective form of teaching (how radical). All I can say is that this talk led to me talking on this subject for a number of years ar universities all over the world. The YouTube versions reached over 25,000 people, and on the whole, it stimulated a pile of debate.
My friend, who was at the time a Board Member of Channel 4, told me of an instance of that game, where you have to get a pre-agreed word into your conference speech. At the annual Edinburgh TV Festival he told me of a speaker he knew who had to say ‘cunt’, which he did by asking the audience what words were banned by the BBC. See what I did there – swore at the start and the end – that’s science folks.