Public Speaking: Offensive = Memorable

November 22nd, 2010 by Frank Damelio

Are you offensive enough?

My close friend runs professional development seminars on a wide range of skills people need to grow their businesses. She shared an enlightening account with me: The presenter she had booked was borderline offensive. Her language was edgy and she really put audience members on the spot. A day after the seminar, my friend received two emails from attendees. One lamenting that the presenter had been offensive and the other thanking my friend because he thought the presenter was great and hired her to consult.

This immediately reminded me of a book I had read on presenting magic. The author argued that if you don’t offend a small percentage of your audiences you are losing an opportunity to be memorable and create an “after-buzz” about your presentation. He warned against offending a large part of your audience. I remember thinking that was ridiculous, but experience shows that some people who know how to walk that line can gain an edge.

Is “offensive” really the right word? We are not talking about assailing religious convictions or being a racist. But what about a marketing presenter telling someone that his elevator pitch is weak and asking the rest of the class, “who would want to buy that product?” I remember while getting my MBA, in strategic marketing one of my classmates confided in me that she was offended that after offering a lengthy comment on our case study, the professor tersely replied, “so what?” It seems that what one person construes as offensive is just another person’s idea of being direct and not sugar coating.

Think about your networking circle. I bet you can name a few people who successfully perform that delicate dance on the edge. Some people call them offensive and others think they have a confident edge. These people tend to have a loyal group of followers, but have also alienated a small group. We would probably all agree that they are memorable.

Also, walking that line may make sense for a marketing consultant or prosecuting attorney, but not so much for an undertaker or family counselor.

What do you think? Is there any advantage to being “offensive”? I ‘d love to hear from people who have that reputation as well as from those who have observed that behavior in others. Click here to chime in.

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6 Responses to “Public Speaking: Offensive = Memorable”

  1. dezrah Says:

    I couldn’t agree more. Everything is offensive to someone. Trying to not to offend anyone only leads to empty, vapid content. Anything worth presenting is going to challenge some portion of your audience. Let it. Stay true to the message you want to convey. If some part of your audience is so offended by your content that they feel the need to leave, let them, you don’t want them in your audience anyways.

    The only truly inoffensive thing is mediocrity. Why waste your audience’s time with that?

  2. Jason Kallio Says:

    I’ve been accused of being direct. Some have said they find my directness refreshing. Others find it intimidating (their words not mine). The key to delivery is intent. You can be shocking without offending. Expectations are important too. If we’ve never been introduced, but Frank tells you about me beforehand, then you’ll likely not be offended.

  3. Bill Bowman Says:

    Great article, Frank. I agree with everything you say, and to elaborate more on whether or not “offensive” is really the right word … I think it is. I feel that being offensive in a way that is challenging to one’s audience is fine, but we must be careful about being offensive in a way that is deemed inappropriate to our audience.

  4. Shane Woodward Says:

    If a presenter or speaker is challenging their audience it is unavoidable that a percentage of the attendees will feel a little offended. Making people think and feel emotion can be a good thing as long as the speaker does not get too personal with any one member of the audience. Most of the legendary comics, Richard Pryor, George Carlin were known for saying things that offended some, but challenged and provoked the thinking of the rest.

  5. Stephen Harwick Says:

    “Never was anything great achieved without danger.”
    — Niccolò Machiavelli

    I had this quote in the back of my mind when I was reading this blog but I didn’t remember that it was a Machiavelli quote. I believe this quote to be true.

    I have a rather mathematical approach to why I believe this to be true. In Aristotelian philosophy morals are seen as the balanced point between two opposite vices. So an example of this would be the moral “Bravery;” the deficiency of this moral would be “Cowardice” and the excess of this moral would be “Brazenness.”

    Moving on to statistics, the most basic statistics graph is the bell curve. If we were able to craft a survey that polled an audience (of a large enough sample size) for their breaking point on offensive content and could quantify that data we would be able plot the data in a bell curve. The presenter could then tailor their level of offensiveness to the audience to maximize its impact.

    Back to the quote: The danger is apart in my model. Even if you are over-offending only the people that fall at least two standard deviations below the mean you are still offending some and, at the same time, you are under-offending others on the other side of the spectrum and there is danger in that.

    However, the real danger comes from attempting to achieve greatness. In order to achieve greatness I believe one must change the order of things radically. This radical shift is sure to breed many dissenters and thus nothing great can be accomplished without danger.

    I feel that this comment spiraled out into a tangent so I’m going to continue spiraling and end with this quote – my favorite Machiavelli quote:

    “It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries, who have the laws in their favour; and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had the actual experience of it.”

    Niccolò Machiavelli
    The Prince and The Discourses

  6. Stephen Harwick Says:

    The danger is apparent** in my model

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