Years ago, I worked for a guy named Bret Starr. He’s a kindhearted CEO of a marketing agency, and he loved me dearly. He asked me to join his merry band of misfits when I was freaking out because my husband had lost his job during the great recession.
Bret’s offer was a tremendous act of generosity, and, of course, it didn’t work out. Lots of reasons why I left after 20 months, but I blew it, in large part, by not understanding how to blend my personal brand with the company’s goals.
So, I’ve spent the past five years trying to get that right. Good work is good work. When I consult or advise, I strive to amplify other people’s efforts and scrub my fingerprints from the final result. But sometimes I can’t help but be LFR®™. I tend to go first, which gives license for other people in our industry to follow my lead and test out new ideas and personae.
Last night was a good example of how going first can work against an industry. I took the stage at an event in Cincinnati, a very conservative town in America, and was advised not to swear or use obscene language while telling a five-minute story related to HR. Unfortunately, I’m a petulant child who can’t follow the rules. I unleashed the f-bomb five or six times in my presentation.
Let me begin by telling you that nobody died. And I was funny-ish. But, as the opening speaker, I should have known better. I watched others follow my lead and use vulgar language. And, while I don’t give a shit if people swear, I also know that not everybody can charmingly deliver a well-placed cuss word.
— Kassandra Barnes (@CinCityK) October 18, 2017
Sometimes the other speakers were great. Sometimes it was forced. But I turned around and saw audience members cringe, which tells me that disruptive and creative messages were being lost due to speakers who got caught up in being needlessly edgy.
Listen, it’s not my fault that people were swearing. But it is my fault that I failed to recognize my trendsetting role as a leader in this industry. If I swear and people hate me, they still listen because I’m LFR. If other people swear, it sometimes seems out of place and alienates an audience.
Overall, the night was fantastic. Speakers had cool and interesting things to say. But the evening was a classic example of how my influence cast a shadow on a night that should have been about ideas and not about the seven words you can’t say on TV.
And it’s a reminder to all speakers out there: Get known for your individual style and genius ideas. Then test the boundaries of language and figure out what an audience will tolerate from you. But test those limits slowly. Keep the audience on your side. And don’t drop the f-bomb unless you’re 65% sure it adds value to the story.