Stupid Mistake #4: Introduce Your Speech Offensively

This entry is somewhat different from the others in the series. It describes a choice one speaker made for impact–rather than a mistake.  I submit this description respectfully and leave it for you to decide whether the choice is wise or not, and under what circumstances. 

Here’s the situation: At a large conference, Ed Tate, a Toastmasters champion speaker, shared his 8-minute award winning speech at a break-out session on how to tell a great story.  I bought the recording of the session.

Ed Tate opened his winning story with the “N” word.  Perhaps he has earned the right to do this because he has been on the receiving end of this word as taunt. This is not mine to judge. 

During the session, Tate explained that his opening attracts attention, and he doesn’t mind making people uncomfortable.  He has made a strategic choice to open his story in this way. 

Working as a design consultant for a communications course for a graduate program, I suggested Tate’s recording as a resource.  The entire resource was quickly dismissed because the client, an African American, finds the “N” word offensive, no matter who says it or what the context. 

Here’s the stupid mistake:  While it’s not for me to tell persons of color when and how they have the right to use certain words, I can’t help but notice that using a controversial word cost Ed Tate a lot of exposure and potential business. 

By choosing to open his speech in a potentially offensive way, Tate created a situation in which some people will not even listen to his message, let alone fairly judge its value.  The fact that Tate’s story won him the title of Toastmaster Champion is irrelevant to my client.  She will not listen to the story on principle.  The question is, how many people share her view?  What does this mean to Tate, his business, and/or his moral message? 

Here’s the solution:  I am not prepared to criticise Ed Tate or anyone else who makes a conscious choice about how to use words.  We have the right to use words to shock if that’s what we choose.

At the same time, I believe there are plenty of non-offensive ways to attract attention.  It’s safest to have a policy that says, “I will avoid potentially offensive words, racial comments, sexual comments, and ethnic comments at all times.”  The backlash of carelessness just doesn’t seem worth it to me.  I don’t want to be famous with a Don Imus kind of fame, and I don’t want my messages rejected without being heard.

Capture people’s attention with startling statistics, amazing facts, powerful images and verbal pictures.  Use your imagination–the possibilities are endless.

To learn ten techniques to introduce your speech, including examples, go to


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