5 communication lessons from entertainer Jim Nabors

An outpouring of appreciation followed the death of the Alabama actor and singer. This writer knows why. If you can win over a bunch of cynical junior high kids, you can win any audience.

The news that actor, singer and comedian Jim Nabors died drew an outpouring of sympathy and appreciation from fans and fellow entertainers across the internet Thursday.

I suspect some younger readers are scratching their heads over the flurry of tweets and stories about a performer best known for his role as “the amiable bumpkin Gomer Pyle in two hit television shows of the 1960s while pursuing a second career as a popular singer with a booming baritone voice,” as The New York Times described him.

For me, though, the Alabama native’s death sparked memories of the gifted entertainer whose grace, skills and love of his audience offer lessons for communicators today.

I saw Nabors perform in the 1970s, back when my junior high friends and I were more inclined to listen to Jethro Tull than Nabors’ “Hymns and Country Favorites.” I lived in Los Angeles, and one afternoon my class attended the videotaping of the “The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour,” starring (you guessed it) Sonny Bono and Cher.

We were profoundly unimpressed to learn that the special guests would include Nabors, an entertainer we regarded as a has-been and, well, an amiable bumpkin.

Please clap.

This was the pre-teleprompter era, and as the cameras rolled for the opening dialogue, assistants held up colorful poster boards on which the couple’s lines were hand-lettered in all caps. We could read the jokes before they were delivered. Never mind. Flashing signs overhead instructed the audience when to LAUGH and APPLAUD.

We adolescent cynics responded with slow clapping, noisy guffaws, and outbursts of Gomer Pyle phrases (“Golllly!” and “Shazzam!”), hoping the overhead mics would pick us up. Our teachers scowled and mouthed dire threats.

Just as the show-biz couple got going, something popped and flashed backstage, and puffs of blue smoke drifted through the overhead lighting. Sonny and Cher fled for their lives. If the studio was going to burn down, these two big names were not about to perish with the little people.

So, were we supposed to run for the exits, or what? The teachers looked as confused as we were.

Move along, people.

A producer came out and told us the show was canceled due to technical problems with the lighting. We could all head home.

Just then Nabors came onstage. He took the mic, assured us that there was no danger and proceeded to spend the better part of an hour singing, telling stories and answering questions from the audience. His numbers included a beautiful rendition of “How Great Thou Art.”

We junior high cynics came home that night excitedly telling our siblings and parents what a cool show we’d seen. Jim Nabors was there! He was terrific!

Over the years, I have often thought of Nabors’ grace and professionalism. Indulge me in a few communications lessons inspired by an amazing entertainer:


1. It’s all about them.

When I interview leading communicators, they often advise people to put themselves in their audience’s shoes, asking, “What’s in it for me?” (i.e., for your listener). Who cares what bromides your hairy-eared CEO wants to drum into their heads? The only way they will remember your message is if you show the impact on them.

The more famous (at that time) entertainers Sonny and Cher didn’t see their job as entertaining us. They were there to tape a show. So there was a short in the wiring? Bummer. Let the electricians fix it, and we’ll try again tomorrow.

Nabors understood that he was there to entertain us. It didn’t matter whether the cameras were rolling. We felt his care.

2. Address the elephant in the room.

Sonny and Cher skedaddled rather than talk about what must have been an embarrassment to them: a failed production. It wasn’t Nabors’ program, yet he took charge, made a joke about the problem and went on with the show.

Which approach would leave your workforce more confident in and trusting of your leadership?

3. Field dumb questions with a smile.

Anyone who has answered questions at a public event knows that there are always duds: the angry gesticulator, the goofball who showed up late and would like a review of the first 15 minutes, the gal who proposes a deep analysis into a side-issue relevant only to her. What matters is how you handle these.

After Nabors sang several songs in his booming baritone, one potbellied chap sneered: “How come that hillbilly accent of yours goes away when you sing?”

Nabors chuckled and said he hadn’t noticed. If memory serves, he followed up with a story about his youth in Alabama. His charm won over us California teens who had previously been mocking Gomer Pyle’s accent. You could hear kids muttering about Mr. Potbelly, “Rude!” and “What a dork.”

4. Throw away the script.

Some executives slave over presentations and insist on scripts and teleprompters. Others are comfortable winging it. Yes, there are occasions for a formal speech, but you’ll seem more spontaneous and genuine in a town hall meeting if you can extemporize.

5. It’s all right to be silly sometimes.

Not every communicator (or executive) is comfortable with pie-in-the-CEO’s-face antics. But it’s OK to lighten up sometimes, as Denver Water did when the utility produced a video of a toilet punching a man for trying to flush down pills.

If Nabors was willing to dress in ridiculous costumes and play up his down-home accent, surely there’s someone in your organization who’s game for creative messaging, such as a Hitchcock spoof.

After all, no matter how silly Gomer Pyle appeared in uniform, people loved Nabors. After his death, even the Marines were proud to claim him. And that’s no laughing matter.


(Image via © 1968 CBS Television)


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