UPDATE below.

One of the lessons I tell my friends who want tips on speaking is one that, in the intensity of the moment, I often forget to do myself. Last Tuesday, I remembered. It is to lead with a tribute to your audience for what they do professionally.

I was giving a speech in Dallas to about 400 to 500 managers and executives of credit unions. I stood up and said the following:

I ran into a young man on the hotel elevator last night and we got talking. I asked him what he was in Frisco for and he said it was for a meeting of people with the pharmaceutical company he worked for. I asked him what kinds of drugs the company makes. “Vaccines,” he answered. “Thank you,” I said. He looked a little surprised. Last winter, I was skiing in Colorado and on a chair lift on the way up I sat beside a man about my age. I asked him what he did for a living. He said he had recently retired from a major oil company and had spent most of his career exploring for oil. “Thank you,” I said. He also looked a little surprised.

Why did I thank them? Because both of them were involved in producing things that many of us badly want. Sure they were paid. But as Adam Smith, whom Bob Genetski quoted earlier today, wrote in the most famous passage in The Wealth of Nations, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner but from their regard for their own interest.” Both the pharmaceutical man and the oil man were doing what they were doing to make money. But they had figured out, as most of us have, that the best way to make money is to serve others, to do things that those others want us to do.

So I want to thank you in the audience. You’re trying to make money by lending to people who you think have a high probability of repaying it. And in doing so, you’re serving them. They’re using those loans for what are likely to be productive uses. In other words, they’re trying to serve people too. Thank you for your service.

That’s not just a throwaway line. If I were a giving a speech to employees of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, I would not thank them for their service.

UPDATE: The story by Bob Murphy below motivated me to add this. About 10 years ago, I was seated on a flight from Newark to SFO. I got talking to my neighbor and asked him what he did for a living. He told me he was a detailer for a pharmaceutical company. “Which one,” I asked. I can’t remember his answer because it was a company I hadn’t heard of. “I haven’t heard of it. What are some of their more important drugs,” I asked. He mentioned a few that were pretty important in going after disease. “Thank you,” I said. “For what?” he said. “For helping get those drugs out so that you’re making people better and sometimes saving their lives.” “I’ve been in this business for over 20 years,” he said, “and you’re the first person who’s ever thanked me.”