Are you a speaker who avoids controversial subjects?

It’s a common belief that you should. I couldn’t disagree more with this sentiment. If you’re not willing to be a speaker who talks about difficult topics, how can you ever get past disagreements with others? How can you move past these issues?

I also believe that the discussion of such topics have their time and place.  There are two caveats to consider when you choose to speak about controversial issues:

One, it’s vital to be seen as a respectful speaker. Haranguing others or ‘speaking on a soapbox’ with those who might disagree with your point will most likely lead to argument.  At that point, you devolve from open dialogue to fighting for arguments sake (think ‘talk radio’).

To avoid this outcome, don’t use absolute phrases like “This is how it is” or “There is only one way” or “I’m right and you’re wrong’ (or one of the scores of variations of these statements). You may feel that way, but if you want to be heard, and your points considered, the way in which you deliver those points is critical.

Two, know your audience. Ask “Is this the right time and place, to the right audience?”

This was made crystal clear during a commercial during Super Bowl 49 (or XLIX for the traditional, Roman Numeral crowd).

Heartfelt speaking and storytellingA commercial aired by Nationwide Insurance discussed the issue of accidental death of children. The response to this ad was immediate and intense.

A strong argument for the ad was made by Jessica Saunders, coordinator if Safe Kids Greater Dayton: “What better place to send an impactful and action-worthy message?” She added,  “This was the most watched show in television history. I can’t think of a better place to tell parents how to keep their kids safe. What would you feel years, months or even just days of caring for your precious child, if you lost him or her to a simple accident?”

A strong argument against the ad was made by Citi Global Director Frank Eliason: “Nationwide has issued a statement stating that they were hoping to start a dialogue regarding safety in the home. That may be a noble goal, but this is not the way to start a dialogue of any kind. It is obvious to me that no one involved within the company or their advertising agency has ever suffered such a horrible loss. I certainly hope they never do.”

Mr. Eliason added, “My daughter (4-year old daughter) Gia passed away on July 26, 2004. I still think of her every day.  Now imagine escaping this troubled world for a few hours to enjoy the Super Bowl. It is an escape that only comes once a year. I enjoy watching the game with my girls, and try to forget the troubles the world brings. Then this commercial comes on.

Insurance is supposed to be about making you whole, but there is no insurance in the world that can ever make the loss of a child whole. In my view this commercial was much more than a downer. To me it was personal.”

I can see the point being made by Ms. Saunders and Mr. Eliason. These are two very personal views on the same issue.

I knew that writing this post could create discomfort. My goal is to point out that if you are faced with having to talk about a difficult situation, consider all of the circumstances.

Be sure that you do not pontificate. Consider your audience and the timing of your message. Is it more likely that you’ll create a backlash rather than awareness?

People deal with tragedy of some type at various time. It is up to you to decide when the time is right to discuss these tough subjects and who should hear your message.

What are your experiences with controversial speakers or speech topics? You are invited to leave your thoughts below:


The book Resonate, by Nancy Duarte. This is one of the best books I’ve read about the art of storytelling. Ms. Duarte explores the storytelling arc and explains, in straightforward and common sense language, why stories work and how you can craft memorable stories that resonate deeply with audiences. To get your copy, visit:

Are You a Heartless Speaker? ultima modifica: 2015-02-03T16:53:28-05:00 da Michael Davis