Why the Sweaty Armpit Test Matters to Marketing

No sweat. I’ve got this…

Fishing boat Hythe

WARNING: Please do NOT read this while you are eating or just about to eat. This is a hygiene issue…

Personally, I’m laying the blame at Vanessa’s door. She’s the one who did the test.

Not that Kay should be gleeful, either. She’s the one who sent me the video…

… and added “I thought this might interest you, Gary”.

The video was of an 18-minute TEDx London talk by Vanessa Van Edwards.

Vanessa had got curious about TED talks – why some went viral, why others did not.

The winning ‘ingredients’

Vanessa put together a team to analyse a TON of TED talks.

From watching and watching and watching, the researchers concluded this.

It’s down to people’s hands.

Their use of them. Their gestures.

That’s it.

TED talks with an average of 465 hand gestures in 18 minutes were winners. Very popular.

TED talks with an average of only 272 hand gestures did not fare so well.

The core theme of Vanessa’s 18 minutes on stage was that we, as humans, are contagious. We are constantly sending out messages.

Some of the ‘messages’ are non-verbal.

And this is where the talk took a nosedive into stinky smells. I did warn you at the beginning.

In the video, Vanessa describes a scientific test her team conducted around ‘non-verbal’ messages.

They took one group of people who went running on a treadmill. They took another group of people who went skydiving.

And here’s the ‘pew’ part.

Researchers stuck sweat pads under the armpits of the participants in both groups of the study. And let them do their thing.

After people had completed their activity…

… Yep, the researchers asked for the ‘used’ sweat pads to be handed in.

And then they did the REAL test.

They got a bunch of unsuspecting volunteers to….

Yes, you know what’s coming.

… to SNIFF the used sweat pads.


However, there was a purpose to the armpit sweat study. And the results revealed something interesting.

Here’s the Something Interesting

Volunteers who sniffed the pads used by the skydivers experienced a FEAR response. They could sense the emotion just from smelling the sweat on the pad).

Non-verbal messaging.

It’s happening all around us. And people are able to pick up on it.

So you might be at a network meeting, for example.

You say one thing. But your facial expression or body language says something different. 

People probably think they can do this and ‘get away with it’ – it seems not.

The second way of being ‘contagious’, says Vanessa, is through verbal means. In other words… Talking.

The Wrong Thing to Say

Instead of asking someone “How are you?” or “What do you do?” or “Where are you from?” (our typical choice of opening) we could ask one of the following instead:

“Working on anything exciting these days?”

“Have any vacations coming up today?”

“Anything good happen lately?”

This gets the brain of the person you’re talking to searching for a ‘hit’ to that question. 

It can make you more memorable to that person.

It can open up a different kind of conversation.

Don’t take Vanessa’s word. Try it next time you’re out networking or on the phone.

The Emotional Side

The third means of being contagious is through tapping into the emotional side.

This is the area where the serious copywriter loves to play.

People respond emotionally. People buy on emotions. (They justify things with the logical left-side of their brain).

Why am I sharing a story about sweat-soaked armpits?

Firstly, there are some lessons you can use for your messaging and marketing. Use them.

Secondly, it’s a reminder of the power of storytelling. Vanessa’s talk is smart and beautifully delivered. You can watch the whole 18 mins here.

Thirdly, it’s an encouragement to think differently and look beyond traditional sources for marketing and business advice.

What could you learn and apply from a TED talk? From watching a movie? From people-watching at a bus stop or in a cafe? From reading a magazine at random from a newsagent (careful which section you pick from)? From striking up a conversation with a stranger? From old posters and billboards?

Be More Contagious

How could you and your business or organisation be more ‘contagious’ (in a GOOD way)?

Vanessa leaves you with three tips.

1. Smile more
2. Use hand gestures
3. Pick up the phone call with a ‘happy’ face on (the person on the other end can hear your smile).

And, remember, if you want help with your messages, finding your voice, positioning in the marketplace, using story for marketing or simply want a fresher approach to writing copy….

… the gesture you want is to HIT reply and start the conversation.

To the new contagion.


P.S. I thought you would prefer a picture of a fishy fishing boat than of a pad of armpit sweat. Trust you approve.

P.P.S. Vanessa assures me the sweaty armpit pads were disposed of after the study. I’m going to leave my next meal for a while and get some air.

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