A Quiet Secret for Getting What You Want

I did a lot of public speaking in my former life.

Sometimes audiences were large. Other times small.

Sometimes prestigious. Sometimes not.

A few times they paid. Other times they didn’t.

Big, small, important, anonymous, payers and not: Reasonable diversity over the years.

Content varied, too. There were technical presentations dealing with data and theory. And there were breezier ones with a larger entertainment component.

A Quiet Secret for Getting What You Want
A Quiet Secret for Getting What You Want

Despite the diversity, there was one essential truth to the art of public speaking that never varied.

And it’s a powerful metaphor for how to really, truly, always put ourselves in the very best position to get what we want.

Au Naturel

Those schooled in the oral arts will be familiar with common speaking pointers: Take deep breaths into your belly, slow your speech down a little, use eye contact, smile a bit… blah blah blah.

I’ve seen hundreds of people give presentations: professionals, deer-in-headlights novices, smart people, dumb people, charlatans and prodigies.

To an extent, they all followed the rules. But some just did it a helluvalot better than others. And that’s the trouble with checklist rules like these. People get up there and run through the catalog of how to breathe, where to stare, how to stand, when to grin…and they end up looking like an Austin Powers Femmebot shorting out from the overload.

The people who succeed on stage do all the stuff on the checklist (usually). But they do it naturally. It’s just part of their personality and humanity when the spotlights are on.

Which is why I shun hard-and-fast “rules” for doing stuff that requires humanness and punishes robotics.


There’s one rule in public speaking that works. It works every single time. Yes, it has to be done artfully. No, you can’t count on it to make your presentation great if you’re a bumbling idiot with nothing to offer your audience but unintended comedy.

But it is so super-powerful, so useful when done right, that I incorporated it every chance I got.

“Every chance, FL? Tell me more,” you say. “Tell me what it is!”

That thing? Lean close and I’ll tell you.

But it’s kind of a secret.

“Please,” you say, “tell us!”

Ok. Here it is.


Well, kind of whispering.

“All that buildup, FL, and you tell me to whisper!?!?” you say.

Hush, Puppy

The next time you’re up in front of people, give it a try.

Say what you’re gonna say – something that’s relatively important to your speech – but say it slowly and quietly. Work your way into it, turning down the decibels one syllable at a time, until you anti-crescendo at the apex of importance.

Emphasize your point with the un-yell.

Like a tractor beam, that quiet voice, that conspiratorial I’ve-got-a-secret tone reels people in. They can’t help themselves. They lean forward. They drop their BlackBerries like they just realized BlackBerries suck. They cling to every word like it’s all that’s keeping them from ruining an otherwise splendid day at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

It’s a subconscious thing. It’s a psychological thing. It’s a human thing. It drives us nuts to not be in on the secret. If there’s hush-hush info getting passed around like chickenpox at a daycare, we want in.

There’s a whole field of research dedicated to whispering. One key takeaway: By whispering to someone, you make them feel like they’re “in.” And they love you for it.

But more broadly, the power of the whisper is found in behavioral economics.

As part of an audience watching me on stage, you want to hear what I’m whispering simply because it’s quiet: You want to be in on it. So you lean in. And that makes you really value what you do hear…because you had to invest a little to get the message.

And this, precisely, is the secret to making sure you care about my message. Or, in other circumstances, making sure you care about the deal I want you to take.

Listen, Puppy

The lesson: Making your audience or your (prospective) client, or the object of your affections work just a little bit, invest just a hair, or change their perspective just a sliver about hearing, buying or loving what you’ve got…vastly improves your odds that they’ll care to hear, that they will buy and that they’ll see you after hours.

When I started my consulting firm, we opened our doors to a cool zero existing clients. We had no revenue. No nibbles. We were the proverbial tree falling in the forest with nobody around.

Did I want clients? Did we need cash flow? Did it seem like we were stuck in marketing quicksand?

As sure as smog in L.A., yes.

Did I literally jump up and down in the office with excitement when, finally, after tireless pitching, we got a call on a project?

Like day meets night.

Did I second-guess my choice to tell the client we might not be able to take the project?

For a few days, definitely. And then, not at all.

Here’s how it went down.

I’d been pitching nonstop. Across the country. Dozens of prospective clients. Hundreds of thousands in prospective revenue. Decades off my life in stress and worry.

Then I fielded The Call. The caller was a prospective client I liked. A good client. A desirable one, with a pipeline of lots of future projects he didn’t have to mention because everyone already knew they were there.

He outlined the scope, told me some details, hemmed and hawed on budget (like everyone does) and asked what I thought.

I said something like, “It sounds interesting, and we’re exactly the right fit for this sort of work. But I’m not sure if we have the bandwidth to take this on right now. We’ve got lots of other commitments.”

He was surprised. Caught off guard. Which, for this guy, probably happens once every 30 years or so. He sort of stuttered. What if the project didn’t happen right away, he asked. They could push it a couple weeks if need be, he told me.

I replied that could be helpful, but the real issue was just a high level of interest in our services. And I wanted to make sure that, for a client like him, we gave only the most exacting level of attention. Just so much on our plates right now, you see…

He said he understood. He needed to talk to some people.

That was mid-week. Which gave me a few days to think about how stupid I’d been for not just sending the engagement letter and getting on with it.

Until early the next week. When he called back. He’d talked it over with other decision-makers. They wanted us; they’d make it worth our while. The project scope had grown. Related projects were mentioned. The hemming and hawing on budget was gone. Could we help them? What would something like this cost?

That client paid our first year’s bills. Then told others about us. Then came back again and again. Yeah, we did good work. But the real reason for all the love (and money) was that he’d invested in us right from the start.

He’d leaned forward on his elbows when I didn’t jump all over the project right out of the gates: What’s this upstart got that’s so good he’s telling ME “maybe”? Then, he finally got what he’d learned was a scarce commodity: My firm’s expertise.

I whispered. And he fell all over himself to hear what I was saying.

Hear, Puppy

“FL,” you say, “that’s great, but the dude might have never called back. How’d you know he would?”

I didn’t. I took a chance.

But it was a calculated gamble.

Everybody knows how this stuff works: As soon as you think you can’t have something, you want it more. Way more. If people are lining up to give it to you, you just couldn’t care less.

I took a gamble that the client was human. That he’d want something all the more (and pay more for it) if he thought there was a chance we didn’t want him.

I essentially asked him to change his perspective on the way he anticipated things were going to work out.

We both knew I was on stage giving a speech I wanted people to hear: Else, why would I be on stage in the first place? I was running a consulting firm. I’d been out pitching business. We both knew I wanted clients.

But I made him, my audience, feel like there was a little bit of work he’d need to do to get what he wanted out of the transaction. Which he did. And which changed the nature of our interactions.

Now, some of you in the sticks are thinking all this sounds a bit underhanded. Like “whispering” is somehow like cheating or swindling. It isn’t.

To pull this off successfully, you have to be honest.

When I fielded The Call, I didn’t tell the dude we couldn’t do the project. I didn’t ever tell him we were too busy with other clients. I just hesitated. I told him – honestly – that we had a lot going on. We did. We were marketing like crazy. And I told him there was a lot of interest in the firm. There was. Prospective clients were interested (or so they told me), and some of my research work was getting media attention. So there was no falsity. Just suggestion.

I also told him I wanted to be sure we gave him the highest level of attention. That the project was interesting. That we were perfect for it. True. True. True.

“I really want to help you out. But here’s the thing…”

“Lean closer and give me your ear…”

Framing things that way requires the counterparty to invest. By causing them to invest, you gain the upper hand in the interaction. Once someone’s invested in something, the likelihood of their walking away is much lower.

This is technically known as the “sunk cost fallacy,” but, in our context, it might be more instructive to think of it as “sunk cost claiming.”  We all know that sunk costs – costs already incurred that can’t be recovered regardless of what’s done next – shouldn’t impact decision-making. But most of the time, for most of us they do.

As Richard Thaler reminds us:

“Ignore sunk costs; assume everyone else doesn’t.”

When someone has invested even a tiny bit – when they’ve leaned closer – they want to make sure their investment doesn’t appear wasted; they want to “claim” benefits from their sunk costs.

When someone leans forward to hear what you have to say, they find the message more important, interesting and relevant than if they hadn’t leaned in.

We can do little things to cause people to make tiny investments in us. That they then want to pay off. So they stick around and invest even more.

Fetch, Puppy

How to turn “whispering” into profit in your own life?

1. Go (a Little) Against Type.

When you’re speaking on stage or fielding a call from a new client, there’s a generally-accepted and expected script to follow. The speaker speaks, and the audience listens. The client calls, and the consultant works on the project.

To successfully “whisper,” you’ve got to deviate from the script. But just a little. Don’t stop speaking mid-presentation. Just modulate the volume. Don’t tell the client to beat it. Just don’t say “yes” right away.

2. Ask for Small Investments.

By slightly modifying the script, you invite the counterparty to invest a little in order to keep things more or less moving along as they previously anticipated. (And as you both want.)

It’s this action that causes them to lean forward, to want even more what they unexpectedly can’t have quite so easily.

You’re causing them to do a little something to get what they thought there were entitled to. The trick is to make the (initial) investment hurdle very small: Lean forward. It’s almost costless. Almost. But it totally changes to mindset of the counterparty from “I’m entitled to this” to “I have to work for this.”

The mindset change means that you and they are no longer oppositional. Instead, you’re cooperating to achieve a common goal.

3. Frame from the Counterparty’s Perspective.

To get from opposition to cooperation, you’ve got to make it clear you’ve got the counterparty’s interests at heart from the beginning.

The speech already has to be good. The consulting firm’s capabilities already have to be interesting. That’s foundational. But it’s only the first step.

To seal the deal here, you want to explicitly frame the “whispering” from the counterparty’s perspective. In a speech, this means lowering the amplitude right when you’re at a crucial point that you’ve already sold as important and valuable to the listener.

When the new client called, I told him my firm was perfect for the work and that I thought the project was interesting. But I was hesitating because of his best interests – Could my firm keep up with the demand?

That let him know a couple of things. First, we were into the work, so it must be paining me to say maybe we can’t do it. Second, I had his best interests so much at heart that I was willing to sacrifice for his needs.

That meant I was cooperating with him. The farthest thing from oppositional-style negotiating. Which meant I’d already claimed as much value from the negotiation as I’d ever be able to.

So get after it, Luchadores. And do it…shhh…quietly.

Luchadores, has there been a time when “whispering” worked for you?


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