November 9, 2011 holman

Swearing is a strong tool. It can be a particularly strong tool during presentations.


When it comes to your talk, I want you to avoid bullet points. I want you to avoid recitation. I want to learn and to experience what pains and problems you faced, and then discover interesting solutions that grew from them.

I want a story.

Humans are storytellers. The best stories convey a sense of emotion. Emotion helps us identify with the speaker. Without fail, if I can plainly identify with what the speaker is going through, I’m going to remember that talk. Did your servers burn down? Is your app twice as fast? How did you handle all of those new hires? Connect with me emotionally, and I’m going to better apply what you say to my own life.

As storytellers, our tools are words. Some of our most evocative tools are swear words. The emotions they raise can’t be reached as succinctly with other tools. They’re powerful. When chosen with deliberate consideration, they aren’t a cop-out; they’re the strongest way to connect with a particular audience.

I want a story. I want emotion. I want the entire toolbox at my disposal, not a subset.


I understand the argument that you shouldn’t swear at all; I really do. If that’s your considered perspective, I’m happy for you. That’s not me, though.

I maintain separate voices in long-form essays, over Twitter, and in talks. Together, it’s a crafted persona. That persona includes edge, informality, and passion for what I do. Sometimes I’ll swear to invoke that persona. Usually it’s no more than 1-3 times on my slide deck, and I seldom swear much outside of my slides. My deck takes 2-3 weeks to design and practice, so I can assure you my words are not thrown in haphazardly. It’s all designed to support my persona.

This persona has served me well, judging from how people react to my talks, tweets, and posts.


The common objection raised to swearing in talks is that it is bound to offend someone, so why risk it? Why automatically reduce your potential audience?

I don’t view it this way. I’m less concerned about my overall reach than I am with connecting with my audience. Put another way: I’m content with losing a handful of people if that means I connect much stronger with everyone else.

Your reputation is your brand. Just like a company, your brand can be deeply impacted by a small group of passionate followers. I’ve been seeing this for years- the same avatars retweet me, the same names show up in discussions about me, the same sites help promote my projects. I’m fortunate and humbled to have these people at my back.

I wouldn’t have nearly as many of them if I played it safe. I enjoy keeping an edge, and they respect that. Someone else could construct a beige persona and cultivate a following, but that would be less effective for me because I’m not nearly as good at fitting that personality.

For me

At the end of the day, the talks I give are intended for me. I don’t know any other way to do it. I want to give talks that would interest me as a member of the audience. The voice I choose, what words I project on a screen, and how I present myself are all part of the talk.

I’m just telling my story.