Code Switching in Public Speaking

by | Oct 31, 2021

By: Roquita Johnson

Certified World Class Speaking and Presentation Skills Coach

I was speaking to a friend recently, and she said something that made my ears perk up.

We were discussing one of her challenges when it comes to public speaking. She said, “I feel like I have to say things differently for a white audience…code-switching. But I want to speak how I really want to speak, respectfully of course. I want to be myself…authentic.” She is black.

I suspect she is not the only black person who has felt this way at some point when they are preparing to speak to a non-black audience. Before I go any further, let’s talk about the term “code-switching.”

It was first coined in 1954 by Einar Haugen but is a practice that has been known since the early 20th century. It describes the practice of alternating between two or more languages, or language varieties, in conversation. The present-day definition can include factors such as race, identity, clothes, or hairstyles that someone changes from one environment to the next. People code-switch consciously or unconsciously.

Why would someone feel the need to code-switch in the first place? It could be because they want to fit in or show their support for a particular group. Groups can fall into racial or ethnic categories, or something else altogether. Or maybe they code-switch to acquire something, whether that’s a new work position, money, valuable opportunity, etc.

When it comes to public speaking, you DO want to connect with your audience in a genuine way. You do want your audience to relate to your content. So, you do have to consider who your audience is as you’re preparing your presentation. Your presentation is TO and FOR them. It is all about THEM. You want to be mindful about tailoring your speech to an audience based on what you know about them, and not on their perceived assumptions about you. (Speaking with the event organizer will help you). If you’re not careful, the latter can start to dip into the murky waters of unconscious bias.

I’m not saying that race, ethnicity, or culture should be dismissed when getting a clearer picture of who you’ll be presenting to. What I’m saying is be careful of basing your delivery on one aspect of your audience. What I’m saying is constantly monitoring yourself as you’re speaking is stressful and will affect your delivery. The audience will sense your discomfort as you speak to them. What I’m saying is be careful about stereotyping.

Get a multidimensional idea of who your audience is:

  • What is their level of knowledge about your topic?
  • Will it be mostly men or women in the audience? Or an even split?
  • What’s the age range?
  • What is their field or occupation?
  • What are they most looking forward to learning from you?
  • What is their educational background?
  • Do they have any objections about this topic?

Asking these types of questions will help you better communicate with your audience in a real way.

Still feeling like being your authentic self is a struggle with an audience that is very different from you? Here are some additional questions to ask yourself…

  1. Whydo I feel I need to code-switch? Was there a negative speaking engagement experience in my past where I felt I could not be myself?
  2. When do I feel like I need to code-switch? Is it with a particular audience?
  3. Do I have my own assumptions about this group of people? (Be honest with yourself)
  4. What do people love about me as a speaker? What positive feedback do I consistently hear on event evaluation forms?
  5. What common ground do I have with this audience?

Remember, the organizer wants YOU to speak to their company, association, or group. Someone went to bat for you, so they are aware of the unique package that is you. It also helps to remember that we are all in this human experience together. I’m willing to bet we have more things in common than ones we don’t. What kind of experiences can you draw from that they can relate to?

Have you ever felt like you needed to code-switch? Comment below!

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