How To Speak About Controversial Topics

Talking about sex, religion, or politics can get your audience riled up
Talking about sex, religion, or politics can get your audience riled up
Image Credit: Jeanne Menjoulet

Would you like to have a big audience show up for your next speech? I mean, would you like to have the room filled to overflowing? It turns out that this is actually fairly easy to do: just agree to give a speech about a controversial topic, you know what I’m talking about: sex, religion, or politics. The reason that so many people are going to show up is because a lot of them are going to disagree with what you have to say. Just exactly how is a speaker supposed to go about giving a speech like this?

What Not To Talk About

So let’s all agree what topics a speaker should stay away from: politics. religion. sex. In some places these types of topics are strictly taboo. In others they are what leads to a spirited discussion. In any setting even the most polished speaker must approach these types of subjects with caution. The price for carelessness can damage your reputation and your relationships with colleagues, friends, or your audience. The good news is that you can learn to use the importance of public speaking to address these controversial topics with ease.

Before you start to give a speech, you need to make sure that you know your objective and your audience. It is important to be crystal clear about your speech objective. Is it a subject you are passionate about? Do you want to change someone’s viewpoint on a current local or world issue? As a speaker you must know your audience and predict how they will perceive your talk. You need to remember that you’re not speaking for yourself, but for your audience. It may seem like obvious advice, but it can’t be over-emphasized: Be aware of your audience members’ sensitivities and don’t exceed their limits on the topic that your speech is about. If you are an invited speaker, closely research the audience, sponsoring organization and event program. If, for example, you make general political commentary, you might want to tailor your speech a little differently when addressing a particular political party. You don’t have to change your focus, but you do need to be aware of any sensitive issues your speech may raise.

Speakers need to understand that knowing how to speak on controversial topics is a matter of perception, upbringing and background. What is acceptable in one location may not be acceptable in another. A speaker shouldn’t be afraid to discuss sensitive topics, but must prepare well. If this is what you’ll be talking about, then you need to give it a lot of thought and spend a little extra time on that presentation. If the purpose of your speech is to challenge the beliefs of your audience, then you need to figure out how to do that with respect.

Talking About Forbidden Topics

To talk about any subject, a speaker must do so in a respectful manner and look for common ground. You need to remember to not be vulgar. We need to keep it clean – this is an imperative for successful speeches on controversial topics. Nobody in your audience likes vulgarity, and you risk serious damage to your public speaking career by using sexual innuendo or profanity. Keep your comments tasteful and don’t make use of offensive language unless it is an essential part of your speech content. Always do your research on cultural communication; remember that a hand gesture in one country may mean something quite different in another. Don’t ruin your good talk by inadvertently being inappropriate or offensive. Remember that it’s the subject matter that is controversial, not the nature of the delivery.

Problems occur when speakers are trying to be humorous and use innuendo or try to poke fun at the other gender. We need to keep in mind that this is not stand-up comedy. Before you give your speech, make sure that you know your subject well. When you speak about a controversial subject, you really need to study it, especially if you’re going to be ending up debating. Be very comfortable with the subject and approach it with your emotions. With religious or political topics in particular, be careful not to make some sort of general statements that you cannot support. If you are sharing an opinion, be ready to have your thoughts questioned by others. If you are discussing a faith practice – especially someone else’s – make sure that you do your research before you give your speech. The level of knowledge you display will influence your integrity or reputation to your audience.

I don’t think that I have to remind you that political debate is an instigator of conflict all over the world, from the international stage to small-town government. Don’t let sensitive topics scare you off. You may need to learn how to deal with a heckler. A homogenous audience may tend to stick to its own areas of interest, while diversity lends itself to reaching across cultural, political and religious boundaries. Make sure that you understand your audience before you present them with a controversial speech!

What All Of This Means For You

As speakers we get asked to give speeches on a wide variety of topics. There are three types of topics that we generally try to stay away from: sex, religion, and politics because they can cause such a strong reaction from our audience. However, there will be times that these are things that need to be discussed so that we can share the benefits of public speaking with our audience. When we are going to be giving a talk on a controversial topic, we need to understand the right way to go about doing this.

We need to approach controversial topics with care. If we are not careful, then we risk damaging our relationship with our audience. When you are giving a speech like this, you need to understand why you are giving it and you need to have taken the time to fully understand your audience. Where we are giving our speech may have an impact on how we go about giving the speech. These types of speeches require us to do so in a respectful manner and to stay away from any vulgar speech. Don’t try to be funny when giving this type of speech and make sure that you are comfortable with what you are talking about. Political topics are especially sensitive and need to be approached with caution.

The good news is that it is possible to give a speech on a controversial topic. However, we can’t go about doing this lightly. Instead, we need to take the time to make sure that we fully understand our topic and we know who we will be addressing. If we take the time to properly prepare and then carefully deliver our speech, we can show how a difficult topic can be discussed in a civilized manner.

– Dr. Jim Anderson Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World Public Speaking Skills™

Question For You: What should you do if your audience starts to get unruly during a controversial speech?

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Note: What we talked about are advanced speaking skills. If you are just starting out I highly recommend joining Toastmasters in order to get the benefits of public speaking. Look for a Toastmasters club to join in your home town by visiting the web site Toastmasters is dedicated to helping their members to understand the importance of public speaking by developing listening skills and getting presentation tips. Toastmasters is how I got started speaking and it can help you also!

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