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I Am Not Miss Scarlet

I had gotten to my auditorium room at the New Orleans Convention Center where I would be speaking to the National Auto Association. The first thing I did was a sound check. That afternoon I would be doing the last speech on the last day of the event and it was raining outside, so I knew I needed to remove about a hundred chairs from the back of the room for what I figured would be a smaller crowd than planned. Dolled up in my hot pink silk suit, I moved chairs and rearranged the rows. When the AV person came in I started chatting with her. We talked about the city, the weather and people in general. Her name was Sally, she looked to be about the same age as me (thirty-something) and we had a lot in common. After I had finished with the chairs we continued chatting, sitting on the edge of a back table and dangling our legs, laughing and teasing around. As people started coming in I excused myself to say hello to them. I went up and touched Sally on the forearm, said, “Thank you, and that mike check sounded good to me,” and then walked to the front of the room and started my keynote speech.

This does not seem like a very exciting story, does it? But after the last audience member left the room, I was in for a surprise. I went up to Sally and thanked her for making sure everything ran so smoothly.  She said, “You just freaked me out! I have been the AV person here for seventeen years. I have seen every speaker you can imagine. But you are the first one who talked to me like a person. Usually speakers yell directions at me from the back of the room. They never stand close to me, much less sit close to me. I think they think I may give them ‘worker bee cooties’. They talk to me as though they’re Scarlett O’Hara and I’m Prissy the maid or something. They look past me, not at me. You were totally different. I thought you were a room setup person! And the weirdest thing of all was that when you got up to speak, you were the same way on stage that you were off stage talking one-on-one. You’re real - funny, and smiley and kind of down home. Other speakers treat me like dirt, like I said, all mean and stuff, then they put on the smile when they get up on stage and start running around all happy and Mr. Motivational--like an Energizer Bunny that just got some new batteries. You perked up a bit, but you were still you on stage. I’ve never seen that happen before.” 

Her comments blew me away. It was by far the finest compliment I have ever gotten about my speaking. I have remembered this incident for many years and feel better about it than any round of applause or standing ovation I have ever received as a speaker. But at the time it made me think again, just as being the temp receptionist made me reconsider how we choose to treat people nonverbally and how much we actually control our nonverbal behavior. Think about how Hillary Clinton’s recent emotional moment affected what we thought of her (see my blog entry on that at  So many people say to me, “I can’t change my body language and voice, because it’s too complicated and I wouldn’t be me. But as this story illustrates, you are constantly choosing how you act nonverbally. Every single human interaction speaks volumes about the person you are and the person you wish to become. How will you choose to be today?