In the Beginning and Beyond: The First Few Moments Matter in Our Most Important Relationships

This is the first in a series of articles on nonverbal messaging that have emerged from my observations and experiences in the equine world, one realm where beauty is never vain, power does not produce aggression and nonverbal cues always trump talk.

The first few moments of a meeting matter. The first communication sets the tone. Even something like who is first to say “hello” can make a difference in the mood of the session. Last week I arrived at the farm where I board my horse and started chatting with another rider at the main barn when I heard my horse whinny, an equine greeting that translates to, “Howdy partner! Glad to see you!” My heart soared. I couldn’t stop smiling! You see, ordinarily he spends his days out in the pasture with the other geldings some distance from the barn. I have to walk a ways to get him. I initiate contact from a few yards back by whistling and calling his name. I initiate contact; I approach the field, open the gate, call his name, whistle and smile wide when I see him. Only then does he trot over to me. But this day, he was left behind in his private paddock, right near the main barn and I had no idea he was so close by. He saw and heard me before I heard or saw him. And he said, “Howdy” first. It mattered. It suggested that the affection in our horse and rider relationship is mutual. It was a delightful feeling that set the tone of our time together that day and beyond.

This experience got me thinking that mutuality matters between people, too, and we communicate this–or fail to–in the first few moments of our encounters. We seem to be aware of this at the earliest stages of new relationships—when first dating, moving into a new neighborhood, starting a new job, going after the account or client, or at the beginning of a new semester at school. At the outset we are punctual and polite and fully focused. But as time goes on and the people in our lives become more familiar and our relationships more cemented, we lose touch and sight of how precious the first few seconds of our routine encounters really are. Instinctively, we know better than to be reading a text while waving and saying hello during a first meeting with a prospective new customer. Intuitively, we know that without eye contact we can’t send a credible message that “you and your business matter.” Yet, in subsequent encounters we do just that. We get sloppy. We arrive to the meeting chatting on our mobile phones or checking email as we are walking into the room. And inadvertently, we send the message that we are not as invested in the relationship as the other party and/or don’t regard the encounter as a priority. Clients and providers, teachers and students, neighbors and friends, husbands and wives, parents and kids – we are all vulnerable to it and guilty of it.

Since this revelation, I am trying to initiate more contact with the people in my life and to be more deliberate in my initial glances, sounds and words. When I last drove to Manhattan and spent an aggravating twenty minutes in search of parking, I first composed myself and only then texted my daughter to say I had arrived and couldn’t wait to see her. By the time I did set eyes on her, my expression reflected my joy in beholding her, not the leftover frustration from traffic woes. It was then no surprise that I instantaneously saw the peaceful and confident look on her face that only a parent’s acceptance and support can engender. Those first nanoseconds set the tone for a warm, fun and relaxed visit. If my horse could talk he’d probably tell me the impact of those first seconds go well beyond that day or any one visit.


Jokes Are No Laughing Matter in Public Speaking

Jokes are No Laughing Matter in Public Speaking

In our pediatric educations our well-meaning elementary school teachers often suggested that we start a speech with a joke. Likely they were attempting to help us offset our anxiety. They figured that if we make the audience and ourselves laugh then the stress associated with making the presentation would melt away. Perhaps they were right – then, when we were children. But now, as adults, nothing could be further from helpful. Why is this? Why are jokes in our public presentations harmful to us? And if we can’t tell a joke at the start of a speech, what kind of device can we use?

Consider that the goal of any joke is to elicit laughter. And, to be sure, laughter does release stress. However, at its core, a joke relies on some form of ridicule. At the root of any joke is the poking of fun at some person, creature, group, place, organization, institution, idea or other being. And since a public speaker is the only one doing the talking, the victim of the ridicule is silent and defenseless. In essence, it is a form of bullying. One party has power over the other and takes advantage of the imbalance. It’s just bad form and public speakers do well to avoid it.

That’s the ugly side of joke-telling. But it is also misplaced as a practical matter. We already have a name for someone who stands up before a crowd of people and tells jokes to make them laugh. S/he is called a comedian or stand-up comic and we recognize that this allows for a profoundly different set of liberties to be taken with the audience than that of a public speaker. Certainly, from time to time we may be called to “roast” a friend or colleague, but that is a very particular type of oration before which the audience and speaker and one being roasted all agree together that jokes will be a defining part of the remarks.

So with what kind of material might a responsible public speaker open an address? I recommend humor. Pardon my pun, but that’s no joke. Humor makes for a strong start in which the speaker bonds with the audience right at the beginning. What’s the difference between humor and a joke? Humor may garner laughter, but it is neither necessary nor guaranteed. When laughter does erupt, it is incidental. In public speaking, humor is all about indulging the curiosity of the audience. People are naturally curious about one another and when a speaker ascends the podium an audience wonders about matters well beyond the speech topic. We all do it. We say to ourselves, “Hmmm, does she have any children?” Or, “Gee, I don’t see a wedding ring. I wonder if he’s married.” Even, “Oh boy; why did he wear that tie with that shirt!” So when a speaker indulges the audience’s curiosity, it soothes them and allows them to focus on the substance of the presentation. It also reveals that the speaker is a regular person in addition to being an expert on the matter at hand.

For many years when I gave workshops on public speaking I would start by asking my participants to raise their hands if they were parents (knowing in advance they were). As their hands went up I would nod my head and say, “You will love public speaking for the same reason I do; it’s the only chance parents ever get to talk without interruption.” They chuckled as they learned that I am a parent dealing with the same attendant challenges as them. This made me more approachable as well as satisfied their curiosity about who I am in life beyond my work.

In a presentation on interview prep, I opened with an anecdote about my own lack of preparedness for an informational interview with a Fortune 100 executive that nearly cost me my job early on in my first career. Again, my audience members were relieved that “the expert” who went on to coach interviewees with such success had in fact made a few booboos herself. They were soothed to know that they are not alone in their challenges and setbacks and that they are indeed recoverable. Their curiosity about my own failures and comebacks was indulged.

What other techniques might a speaker use to bond with an audience at the beginning and open up the speech? Check out, Cue Card #5 on strong speech starts, and for other handbooks, audio materials and easy-to-download materials for public speakers.

Defense attorney Don West told a knock-knock joke to the jury at the start of the murder trial of his client George Zimmerman in late June 2013. Mr. West was pilloried by legal experts and in the court of public opinion for his poor choice of material in opening remarks. For the vast majority of us who speak publicly our audiences are not juries. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Our listeners are very much our advocates; they want us to do well at the podium and they are on our side. This is even more reason to refrain from making jokes at any point in a speech and instead consider sharing and bonding as real and humble people sensitive to others.

Lisa Bernard is the founder and principal at Lisa Bernard’s Word of Mouth, Inc., an oral communications firm based in Westport, Connecticut. She can be reached at and Via coaching, seminars and courses Lisa helps people of all ages reach their potential one speech, interview and conversation at a time.