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What will you WHISPER in 2020?

A friend of mine shared this story with me and I began to wonder how this simple concept might shape our personal and cultural performance in 2020.

Enjoy the story…

The Whisper Test

Mary Ann Bird was born in August of 1928 with a cleft palate before the time when reparative surgery was easily available. She was also deaf in one ear. In school, her classmates teased her without mercy. She couldn’t blow up a balloon without holding her nose or drink from a water fountain successfully.

“Oh Mary Ann,” her classmates would say, “What happened to your lip?”

To avoid the embarrassment of being disabled, “I cut it on a piece of glass,” she would lie. Like many people living with a disability, Mary Ann was a lonely and isolated child – cut off socially from those around her.

One of the worst experiences at school, she reported, was the day of the annual hearing test.

The teacher would call each child to her desk, and the child would cover first one ear, and then the other. The teacher would whisper something to the child like “the sky is blue” or “you have new shoes.”

This was the whisper test. If the teacher’s phrase was heard and repeated, the child passed the test. To avoid the humiliation of failure, Mary Ann would always cheat on the test, secretly cupping her hand over her one good ear so that she could still hear what the teacher said.

One year, Mary Ann was in the class of Miss Leonard, one of the most beloved teachers in the school. Every student, including Mary Ann, wanted to be noticed by her, wanted to be her pet. Then came the day of the dreaded hearing test. When her turn came, Mary Ann was called to the teacher’s desk.

As Mary Ann cupped her hand over her good ear, Miss Leonard leaned forward to whisper. “I waited for those words,” Mary Ann wrote, “which God must have put into her mouth, those seven words which changed my life.” Miss Leonard did not say, “The sky is blue” or “You have new shoes.”

No, Miss Leonard carefully leaned over to get as close as possible and whispered, “I wish you were my little girl.”

Mary Ann knew she was loved and accepted by more than her parents. She knew beyond a doubt that someone cared deeply about her as a person.

Inspired by her teacher’s words, Mary Ann went on to be a successful reporter, the first civilian dispatcher of the Foxboro, Massachusetts police department – a wife, and a devoted mother.


During our almost 130 training sessions with corporate leaders & teams in 2019, we have been focusing people on the powerful concept that “Culture turns on Language.”

Words count.

Language changes mindsets and belief systems. Mindsets and belief systems adjust behaviours.

And, according to Marilee Goldberg: “While language structures reality, questions help structure language.”

Here are a couple of key questions as we close out 2019:

What words will you "GIFT" to friends and family this Christmas season?

What words will you WHISPER to build your team in 2020?

What words will you choose to WHISPER to yourself in 2020?


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