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Patti Wood Headshot

What's Behind Letterman's Words?

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Imagine someone telling you they were being blackmailed because because they ".. did terrbible awful things." How would you respond? I don't think many of us would laugh. David Letterman said those very words to his audience last Friday night. He said them with a playful voice and crooked smile and slight head tilt so we didn't cringe, we ate it up. On Friday and Monday night's show Letterman was was brilliant.

As a body language expert and media coach I was awed by his near perfect example of how to handle a crisis. Friday he spent over seven minutes masterfully establishing himself as a victim of blackmail and we felt sorry for his plight. But he was also very funny, so that when he finally did reveal his misconduct saying, 'I have had sex with women who worked for me on this show,' the laughs and favor he gained from the audience made his sexual misconduct appear to be nothing but a naughty little boys put gum under the school room chair offense.

Overall, his nonverbal cues also showed his stress, his anger, his true shame, and ultimately his honesty -- as well as a true media master.

He did show stress. For example, as he said that one line his blinks per minute shifted from his normal baseline of 20 to 30 blinks per minute to over 55 blinks per minute that is a biologically uncontrollable response and quite understandable.

He showed embarrsement. Letterman is famous for his tapping his note cards on his desk and he rarely looks down to read them but on Friday he looked down and away from the audience at the end of statements frequently, nonverbally showing his honest shame. He also read some of the more formal thanks straight from the pieces of paper in front of him revealing how difficult the statements where for him.

Monday he again showed a potent mixture of humor and stress. In the beginning of Monday night's monologue, Letterman bathed in the audiences cheers, then gave a charming little boy grin and his characteristic little stammer as he inquired, "Did your, did your weekend just fly by?" He paused again, head bowed waiting for the audience to show him they still loved him; he continued with a tight downward smile: "I mean, I'll be honest with you folks -- right now, I would give anything to be hiking on the Appalachian Trail."

"I got into the car this morning," he added, "and the navigation lady wasn't speaking to me. Ouch." Letterman noted the cool fall weather, reporting, "It's chilly outside my house; chilly INSIDE my house." Often he followed these comic statements with what I call a tongue eraser: an action where the tongue visibly moves from one side of the mouth, signifying that this person does not like what he is saying.The frequency showed that Letterman doesn't like that he has to take a comic's stance on what is happening and it is leaving a bad taste in his mouth.

On many shows Letterman will play with his pencil but on Friday he used it as a symbolic weapon sticking it out and stabbing with it as he spoke about the man who blackmailed him. When he got to the statement 'unless I give him some money,' he put both his hands up in a stop gesture, to emphasize that the request is the truly terrible, awful thing he wants to stop. His vocal emphasis on the amount -- two million dollars -- indicated his anger at the sum being demanded.

The strongest nonverbal cues on Monday were for the media. His hands came up in fists and struck out as he talked about newspapers, radio and other media people, then he moved his hands as if he were wringing their necks. In fact his apology to the staff was not specifically for sexual misconduct, but for subjecting them to "being browbeaten and humiliated" by reporters since his revelations.

He was stressed but was able to hold it together. On Friday's show he would sometimes finish a difficult statement, then hold his hands together in a self comfort gesture over his heart indicating the hurt was truly heartfelt.

As he talked about his wife's pain from this event, his arms came up and straight out from his body with both palms up as a sign of supplication to his wife. I felt a great sincerity in that nonverbal request for forgiveness. As he began his apology to his wife he again cluched his own hand. As a way of pacifying and comforting himself and you could see it was a real moment of pain for him. Though his voice showed true remorse, he distanced himself a bit from his error with his choice of pronouns, saying, "If you hurt a person and it's your responsibility, you try to fix it." Instead of using the word 'I' and saying I hurt my wife and I am responsible for fixing it.