For over twenty years, I have given a red, sponge-rubber clown nose to every person who attends my keynote presentations. I estimate that I have given out nearly 95,000 noses during that time.
I do a process with them in which I ask everyone in the audience to hold an envelope, which contains the hidden nose, in their hands. I next ask them to close their eyes and think about some negative thing in their lives—some worry, stress or concern. Then, with their eyes still closed, I ask them to open the packet and put that thing on their noses. Once they have done that, I ask them to open their eyes and look around the room.
What instantly happens is that nearly everyone in the room starts laughing. Suddenly the stuff that was bringing people down dissipates. The once-solemn faces turn into smiling ones.
Over the years, people have told me how this simple prop has changed their lives. One person said he uses it to lighten up traffic jams. Another uses it to start a staff meeting on a high note. And still another has several around the house. When one spouse gets angry with the other, popping on a clown nose by the person being yelled at heads off the escalation of a full-blown argument.
Perhaps the most powerful example of the power of a clown nose happened when my then-teenaged daughter, who worked in a camp one summer, invited me to speak to her fellow counselors. The accommodations were less than ideal, the food was mediocre and the fee was nil, but the experience was golden. In the past, I have addressed 1,500 case managers at Opryland Hotel’s grand ballroom, an audience of cancer patients who no longer had all their original body parts, and people dealing with or dying from AIDS. But this was one of the speeches I will remember most.
I could not begin my talk until nearly 11 P.M.—yes, P.M.—after all the young campers were asleep and the counselors had some time for themselves. The room was packed with young, eager-but-tired faces. (They had been working since 6 AM.)
As I started to speak, I scanned the room in search of one counselor that I was concerned about. He was a friend of my daughter who I had previously met. He was very shy and frequently severely depressed. I didn’t see him in the crowded room and thought to myself that because of his depression, he probably chose not to attend my upbeat program. Then I spotted him peering at me from behind the couch. The speech went very well and it ended near midnight with a standing ovation.
I didn’t encounter my daughter’s friend again until months later. Though he never wanted to chat much in the past, this time he was eager to share something with me.
It seems that several days after my talk, things were not going well at camp so he decided to leave. Since he did not get along with his dad, he couldn’t go home. So he left it up to fate and began hitchhiking. For most of the day, one car after another passed him by. He began to feel more and more depressed and deserted. He started to plan how he would kill himself. Then he put his hand in his pocket and discovered the clown nose he got at my talk. He put it on. Immediately someone stopped and gave him a ride.
“Maybe lightening up a bit can get me further than I thought,” he told me. “Thank you, for coming to speak to us. And thank you for saving my life.”