Should You Use Profanity in Your Presentations and Media Interviews?

OFFENSIVE LANGUAGEIn addressing financial analysts, Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JPMorgan Chase, made headlines when he uttered a profanity in describing the firm’s legal issues.

He used a fairly mild swear word when he said the company needs to be “…careful to “stop stepping in dog****, which we do now and then.”

The Wrong Focus

The media pounced. His slight slip of the tongue turned his presentation into a story about his profanity and not the company’s efforts to overcome its legal battles with regulators.

This isn’t the first time Dimon was caught with his foot in his mouth. Nor is he the only Wall Street titan who uses profanity.

Back in 2010 Business Insider did a story about the executives on Wall Street “swearing their a**es off.” That list included Dimon, Warren Buffet, Sandy Weill (Dimon’s mentor) and former U.S. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson. So profanity was news then, too.

But just because VIPs use profanity, should you? Our advice is “No.”

Angry manDimon’s use of a distasteful word cast aspersions on his bank. He didn’t show leadership with his off-the-cuff remark. As the top executive at JP Morgan Chase, he had a responsibility to show dignity and restraint as the public face of the bank.

When you hear people swear it can also be an indication that they have a limited vocabulary. It’s lazy and easier to use profanity than to come up with carefully nuanced words.

Your audience – or a reporter if you’re being interviewed – will be embarrassed if you use a swear word. It makes people squirm in discomfort.

At fundraiser recently with friends, a well-known celebrity board member had the audience gasping because every other word out of his mouth was s**t or f**k. Everyone was squirming in their seats. He wasn’t funny and we couldn’t wait to get out of there.

What to Say Instead

If you find yourself at a loss for words, instead of uttering a swear word, take a breath, and say, “I really need to take a second to think of the right word, because this is important.”

Possibly a bad word slipped out unintentionally. It happens. In that case, you might say, “Let me correct myself and rephrase that.”

Some people use profanity for effect. Maybe your boss comes out with an occasional swear word himself. If that’s your boss’s style, you may more readily catch his attention with a mild profanity.

Use your judgment, especially if you’re a woman working for a male boss. A man can get away with an occasional curse word. A woman who curses often is considered coarse and, behind her back, her boss and co-workers may call her a “b***ch.”

So whether you’re man or a woman, take the high road. Don’t stoop to profanity to make your point. You can do much better than that with advance preparation and practice for your presentations and media interviews.

4 comments to Should You Use Profanity in Your Presentations and Media Interviews?

  • John Marcus

    Your blog made me think of how things have changed in the movie and TV business. The country was aghast when Clark Gable said in “Gone with the Wind,” “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” and when Lucy was pregnant, neither she nor Ricky was allowed to use the word “pregnant” in a show.

    Now look at what’s going on, and I think it’s disgusting. Sometimes I think a movie is having a “f**k” contest just to see how many times the word can be used. And of course it loses its impact because it’s said so often.

  • I think I’d caveat your advice of not swearing with it depends on what country you’re in. You should never swear if you wouldn’t do it naturally, however in some countries it will be make you appear far more honest and natural. I’d always advise clients not to swear in the USA, because it’s a very conservative society. However, in many countries in Western Europe it would be fine if done rarely and to make an important point.

  • Your points are well-made and should be heeded. Interestingly, the Swear/Don’t swear issue has many facets. There are several in-demand, highly paid speakers who pepper their presentations with profanity. While it offends some in the audience, these men have full calendars and get their full fees.
    Which brings me to point #2. There is definitely a gender issue. You’ll notice I wrote “these men” describing those who get away with swearing on stage. We women cannot swear during business presentations. Both men and women don’t approve.
    As you indicated, the use of an off-color term takes the audiences focus off of your message/content.
    That’s not a mistake we ought to make.

  • Thanks everyone for your comments. This post resonated with a lot of people.
    John – in movies such as the ones you mentioned, I end up counting the number of swear words and missing the dialogue.

    Stuart – you bring an international perspective to this topic. Anyone who is working outside of the USA needs to research the “Do’s and Taboos” for each country where they will speaking.

    Susan – I absolutely agree with you about the gender issue. I was working late on a new business pitch with ad execs at a top NY agency. It was about 9 pm and all the guys were telling off color jokes during the break from rehearsal. The CEO said, “come on Joyce, you must know at least one dirty joke”. This went on for several minutes so I gave in and told a joke. The guys were shocked and the mood in the room changed and they looked at me differently from then on. If I could go back in time, i would not have tried to be one of the guys! That was the first and only time I did that! Thanks, Susan.

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