Authenticity and Your *&%# Language!

I was on TV this week as part of one of those panel discussions where a moderator and three random panelists discuss the news of the day.  One of the items we talked about was the news was that a Canadian senator was overheard advising a group of aid experts to “shut the f*** up” about Canada’s foreign policy stand on abortion.  The senator by the way is not only female but also in her late 60’s.

We had a lively conversation about the issue (and there’s no way I’m getting into it on this blog thank you very much), and I couldn’t help but make the comment that I didn’t really understand what all the fuss was over someone dropping the f-bomb in public.  My quote was something like this:

“I work with tech. startups and we use the f word like a comma in a sentence.  I was a bit surprised that a senator using the word, especially when she didn’t know she was being recorded, was front page news.”

The reaction from the moderator was:

“Trust me, for the rest of us, it was very shocking!”

That difference in perspective between “us” and “the rest of us” is something as marketers we can easily forget.

I’ve spent my whole career in marketing so I have a lot of respect for the power of language.  I’m also very happy to be a marketer in a time where increasingly, companies are thinking about how to communicate in ways that are more human and real.  The trick for those of us marketing to broad audiences is to strike a balance where our words sound real to both the folks in the crowd that don’t think twice about telling their friends to STFU in public and others that think that any form of slang has no place in public communication.

I’m not against using slang or cursing, depending on who the audience is.  I’m sure the folks on my TV panel this week would would have had a heart attack if I showed them Dave McClure’s blog but the reality is that for many of us working in startups, his language isn’t shocking at all.  In a way, it serves to drive home his point that he’s “one of us.”  We can trust what he says in part because he talks like we talk.  Corporate communications people these days call this “authenticity.”

The problem of course comes when your audience is broader and more diverse.  What one group considers to be authentic and cool, another thinks is uneducated or offensive.  Like everything else in marketing, your segmentation really matters and it pays to know your audience.  The other issue is that, much like how the coverage of the senator’s remarks became more about the cursing than the issue, extreme language can become a story that overshadows the actual message you are trying to communicate.  Last week I heard someone refer to McClure as “that funny guy that swears all the time” and I wondered if the person had really managed to digest any of what Dave really has to say.

As for myself, I’ve had friends tell me “You blog just like you talk.”  No, I don’t.  When I speak there is a whole lot more cursing going on.

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24 thoughts on “Authenticity and Your *&%# Language!”

  1. April,

    Love it, and particularly your last line. I have been known to curse a blue streak, and like you, have been in marketing long enough to know when to self filter for the audience I am among.

    However, there are times that some all out potty mouth is the only thing that conveys the emotion, intent and “heat” needed.

    One time in a conversation with a sales person. Whew, I think the paint peeled off the wall (he had lost a million dollar sale through sheer laziness)…

    1. HI Geoffrey,
      Thanks for the comment. Yes, one thing about filtering it most of the time, when the filter comes off, it does command some attention!
      April

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  3. “The problem of course comes when your audience is broader and more diverse. What one group considers to be authentic and cool, another thinks is uneducated or offensive.”

    And when isn’t your audience diverse? At least, the potential audience of people you haven’t driven away. For example, I don’t spend much time at Slashdot, even though there are some smart people there. The occasional profanity seems unnecessary, but I’m not easily offended. What really turns me off is the snarky nature of many conversations. While that might give psychic gratification to some people, and it might be very “authentic,” it’s also sterile excitation.

    That’s the real problem with profanity in blogs, presentations, or any other public communications. Unless you have Tourette Syndrome, what’s the compulsion? If the answer is, “To get people to read you,” there are a lot better ways that can attract a much bigger audience. If the answer is, “To underscore a point with carefully-selected vulgarities,” then again, it’s important to consider your other options. If I were to post a YouTube video in which I mooned a picture of Steve Ballmer as part of my otherwise erudite analysis of Microsoft’s Azure strategy, I might attract a certain audience, and I certainly have underscored my point. Unfortunately for me, no one wants to see my ass, or strictly needs to.

    1. Hey Tom,
      Thanks for the comment – and the mental image!
      I think most people would agree with you that audiences are always diverse and you don’t stand to gain as much as you stand to lose in using salty language.
      That said, it’s amazing how much of it I’m seeing lately. When Yahoo’s CEO told Mike Arrington to eff off at TechCrunch disrupt last week for example, I saw a lot of comments congratulating her for daring to be herself on stage.
      Like I said on the post, I have some bad habits I’ve picked up at tech startups but I try to keep it clean on the internet as much as I can 🙂
      April

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