D'Arcy from Winnipeg
Solution Architecture, Business & Entrepreneurship, Microsoft, and Adoption

Profanity in Presentations–View From A Conference Organizer

Friday, November 4, 2011 4:13 PM

There’s been a lot of discussion around Scott Hanselman’s recent blog post around profanity in presentations. He discusses whether the use of profanity is appropriate in conference presentations, and the feedback through comments and the Twitterverse are varied. Some say its ok, others say it isn’t. Everyone seems to be discussing about the presentation itself, the “artistic license” that presenters are granted when creating their presentation.

I wanted to give a different take on the subject – the one from someone who organizes conferences. The content within a presentation reflects more than just the presenter – it reflects on the event itself and its brand. At Prairie Dev Con, I’d be just as concerned about language used within sessions as I would if a speaker was unprepared or they were a poor presenter. Conferences get associated with the type of content they provide. If I attend SXSW I have a different expectation than if I attend TechEd. Presenters need to be aware of how the conference wants to be known and tailor their presentations accordingly.

Another aspect is from a legal point of view. Whenever language, comedy, and images are introduced into a presentation, there’s always a risk that someone attending may be offended to the point of feeling that they were discriminated against. One session I attended compared two versions of a software product using an image of a woman screaming at a man (the older version) and Jessica Alba in a seductive pic (the new version). The presenter then went on to explain he had to Google “Angry Bitch” to find the pic of the woman screaming. Luckily nobody complained, but this presentation was done at a large software vendor’s event. I’m sure they would not want to be associated with what someone might see as blatant sexism.

There’s also a personal effect that presenters may not be aware of. This idea that you can be the “cool kid” and drop f-bombs in your session and that its ok for people in the room to be offended shows an immaturity – the point of a presentation is to share a message and communicate it in the best way possible. Why on Earth would you want to alienate attendees?! Also it starts to paint the community’s image of you, including those that may be considering hiring you at some point. If a presenter is comfortable using expletives within a presentation setting, how professional will he/she be in a boardroom presenting to executives and potential clients?

Weeks and months after a presentation, very few people will remember the content in detail. What they will remember is you and what their impression of you was. If you think that’s worth risking expletives and unprofessionalism for, then by all means go for it. You won’t be risking it at my events though.


# re: Profanity in Presentations–View From A Conference Organizer

Great post! 11/4/2011 4:20 PM | Terry Bunio

# re: Profanity in Presentations–View From A Conference Organizer

I couldn't agree more. The fact that we have to have this discussion is just more proof that people in this industry don't have as much "social intelligience" as the average person on the street. 11/4/2011 4:25 PM | Bill Gregg

# re: Profanity in Presentations–View From A Conference Organizer

You have to know your audience. I've been known to drop the f-bomb in presentations. I never drop it in a board room. They are two different audiences.

Sometimes in a conference presentation you need to shock the audience to make a point stick. Those are the things we presenters want you, the attendee, to remember. If you over use profanity, nobody remembers any point you try to make.

Sometimes in a boardroom you need to have the same effect. You shock, but you do so in a way that is appropriate for that audience. Most likely I'd call on fear in that situation.

Neither of these are appropriate tactics for Scott though. They both get in the way of his personal marketing machine. It's hard to feed ego when you're asking people to focus on content. 11/4/2011 4:27 PM | Donald Belcham

# re: Profanity in Presentations–View From A Conference Organizer


I think you hit a key point: alienation. There's a couple of things I never touch during a technical presentation:

1) Religion
2) Politics
3) Sex
4) Words that George Carlin would say a lot

It's not that I don't do these things otherwise - in fact, anyone who knows me well enough knows that I'm more than happy to touch upon said topics :). But during a technical presentation, I want to educate, inform, and motivate as best as I can. Anything else is noise and a source for distraction. I lightly touched on one of these topics once and I got dinged for it. Even though I didn't agree with the criticism, that's one person that got distracted from the overall message. I won't do that again.

Note that I said "technical presentation". If I was talking about a religious-based topic then ... well, that's the topic :). 11/7/2011 7:35 AM | Jason Bock

# re: Profanity in Presentations–View From A Conference Organizer

I agree with shocking your audience, or at the very least giving them something impactful.

I don't really agree with swearing in presentations. I think if you lack the creativity to shock your audience with something other than a swear word you probably shouldn't be doing presentations. Just me though. 11/16/2011 3:38 PM | Justice~!

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