Have you ever made a reference to popular culture in conversation only to have it land solidly on the floor with a dull thud? If you have kids, you know exactly what I’m talking about. (You: “Good night, John-Boy!” Your kid: “Who’s John-Boy?”) You might also have experienced this when talking to a person from another culture or country. It’s one thing to drop the wrong references in conversation, and quite another when you do it as a public speaker. You think you’re being hip and topical but you can come across as tone deaf, out of touch or…gasp…OLD. Here are a couple of common mistakes and how to avoid them.
“You might think I sound like a broken record…”
“Aaaayyyyyyy!” [thumbs up]
“Just fax that document to me.”
“Back in the USSR!”
How many times do you refer to obsolete technology? To forty-year-old TV shows? To places that no longer exist? If you’re addressing an audience of people your own age or older, chances are they’ll understand and appreciate what you’re talking about. But if you’re speaking to young people, they’re going to think you’re square, Daddy-o!
Interestingly, this was a problem that was observed and addressed by Tom McBride, Ron Neif and Charles Westerberg of Beloit College in Wisconsin in 1998. Together, these men created the Mindset List, which started out as an amusing way to help professors to see the world through the eyes of their 18-year-old students. It has grown to become a valuable reference tool for people who want to understand how drastically different things are from when they were young. Check out the Mindset List for the Class of 2019 here.
I once gave a presentation that included photos of Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (“Bueller? Bueller?”) and JK Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson, cranky editor-in-chief of The Daily Bugle from the Spiderman movies. I thought that the photos I used would help communicate my message. But to the two foreign-born women in the audience, they meant nothing. In fact, the exaggerated expressions of the people in the pictures were off-putting to them. I had assumed that since everybody quote/unquote had seen those movies that people would know why I’d included those pictures. Nope, I had assumed wrong and they let me know about it in my review. Ouch.
Pop culture references from other countries can be just as baffling to Americans. Say, “Am I bovvid?” to a Brit and he’ll likely crack up, or at least know what you’re talking about. Bollywood is hugely popular all over the world but some people know nothing about it. What’s your favorite Mexican telenovela? Read any cool Japanese manga lately?
Does this mean that you shouldn’t include these types of references in your speeches? Of course not! But you can certainly introduce them in a way that will make even the uninitiated understand you. In my case, I might have shown the Ben Stein picture and said, “In the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Ben Stein played the part of an extremely boring, out-of-touch professor.” Boom! Done! If you saw the movie, you grin. If you didn’t, you know what I’m talking about.
Have you ever dropped a pop culture reference that nobody picked up on? How did you recover? Have you ever been in the audience when the speaker made a reference you didn’t get? How did that make you feel?