How To

Tricks of the Trade

For every occupation, there is a catalog of secrets only its employees know—such as how waiters with heavy platters know to look straight ahead, and never down. Armed with a bag of reader mail, we unfurl a whole lot more true insider knowledge.

A while back I read an interview with a children’s birthday clown. At one point the interviewer asked, “What if you’re dying out there? What if the kids are hating it?” And the clown revealed a fascinating trick of the birthday clown trade: Every year, it seems, there are two or three funny words that invariably crack kids up, and when things are going sour, you can blurt one out and bring the house down. But a clown’s got to keep up to date, because the funny words mysteriously change over time. Where “booger” might have killed in 1998, 2004 demands nothing less than an “underpants.”

Curiously, I’ve noticed an almost identical aspect in the software development trade. Every year there seems to be a technical whatsit that management recognizes as the sexy-cool new thing but doesn’t really understand. This year, for instance, a programmer can always tack the phrase “and I’m thinking of incorporating some XML functionality” onto a project summary to explain why he’ll need an extra week, account for a missed deadline, or impress a superior. In this respect, the gap between software engineers and birthday clowns is almost negligible.

Wondering if there were more of these, I recently asked readers for their “tricks of the trade,” and was amazed by the response. It seems every profession is rich with clever little occupational secrets. Here are some of the best of what I received.


Every actor eventually is called upon to act drunk. Most do this by slurring their speech, stumbling around, and perhaps drooling a bit. This is what a freshman drama teacher calls “indicating.” A better way to appear drunk is to act very, very sober. Walk very carefully, and try not to let anyone see that you’re inebriated. This is much more subtle and will register on a level the audience won’t immediately recognize.


Do whatever it takes to fit your contracts onto a single page: Format with single-spacing, use a 10- or 9-point font, and reduce the margins to less than an inch. Most people assume any contract that fits on one page will be simple and straightforward, and even sophisticated negotiators can be charmed by the lack of a staple.

Auto Mechanic

Always put copper grease on the battery terminals after servicing a car. The performance benefit is negligible, but when customers look under the hood they will immediately see that something’s changed and thus feel happy to pay you.


When you’re twisting balloons for children, never tell them what you’re making. The majority of the finished products—despite your best attempts—almost always look like a dog, a blastula, or something vaguely phallic. If you identify what you’re actually attempting to make, the children will respond to your finished product with, “That doesn’t look like a [insert animal name]…” But if you make the animals and then ask, “What does it look like to you?” the child’s imagination will take over, turning the blue, four-legged balloon into Blue from Blue’s Clues, the blastula into a Pokemon, and the phallic object into an elephant. You’ll also get bonus points because you were so cool for making exactly what they wanted.


When working in the field, stick a strip of duct tape to your pants. You can take it off while working to quickly remove large masses of ticks, biting ants, and thorns.

If you know the length of each of your fingers as well as your handbreadth in centimeters, you can measure the leaves of most plants without having to pull the ruler out of your backpack.

And when doing botanical work in South America, steer clear of the monkeys: They will throw sticks at you with surprising accuracy.


In Australia, the butchers have a secret language called “rechtub klat” that they use to gossip about customers without getting caught. The code is formed by speaking words backward. Old-timers could have entire conversations in the language, but these days a core vocabulary of about 20 to 30 essential words are used. Sometimes, if a word can’t really be pronounced backwards, a couple of letters will be traded around (e.g., “tish” for “shit”), or the first letter might be pronounced separately (e.g., “bmal” is pronounced “beemal”). The most common words are:

  • kool, toh lrig
  • cuf ecaf
  • on erom feeb/gip/bmal
  • traf
  • toor
  • doog tsub
  • tish
  • doog esra
  • gaf

Nothing is more enjoyable than shouting at the top of your lungs to the other butchers that the difficult customer right in front of you is a “on doog cuf ecaf.”

Cardboard Box Flattener

When hitting the sealed bottom of a cardboard box to flatten it, do not punch it with your knuckles like you’re boxing—that will start to hurt real quick. Instead, strike it with the bottom of your fist, as if your hand were a gavel.


Mapmakers will often use “copyright traps,” bits of information in their maps that are purposefully wrong. They might label a body of water “Lake Strongbad,” for instance, and then examine the next editions of competitors’ maps to see if the incorrect information makes an appearance.


Clarinetists in orchestras often need to swap between a clarinet in the key of B-flat and one in the key of A right in the middle of a piece—with only about two seconds to spare. To do this they must yank the mouthpiece off the instrument they’re playing, grab the other clarinet from its stand, shove the mouthpiece onto the new clarinet, and drop the other one onto the stand. Worse, clarinets are black, clarinet stands are black, and this maneuver is usually done in the darkness of a concert hall. So what many clarinetists do to know which clarinet they’re holding is place a piece of blue painter’s tape on the back of one, or use thumb rests of different colors. And to help aim for the clarinet stand, some paint theirs with glow-in-the-dark paint.

Desktop Support

When desktop support technicians resolve a ticket, they are usually required to document the cause and solution to the problem. Supervisors see these records, so you have to be professional, but can usually get away with using the acronym “PEBKAC” in situations where the user caused the initial problem. PEBKAC stands for “Problem Exists Between Keyboard and Chair.”


Never walk behind another person in the woods, because yellow jackets build their nests underground. The first person in line will disturb the nest when they walk over it, but it’s the poor suckers trailing behind who catch the wrath of the stirred-up bees. You can generally tell the more experienced forester in the group because he’ll be the one in the lead.

The senior forester also will be the one either driving the truck or sitting in the middle seat; it’s the guy who’s riding “shotgun” who has to get out to open and close every gate they encounter.

Graphic Designer

If you have a client who is unable to approve a proposed design without putting her stamp on it, just put an obvious error in the proposal: a logo that’s too large, a font that’s too small, or a few judiciously seeded typos. The client requests the change and feels she’s done her part—and your design, which was perfect all along, sails through to approval.


When setting a semiprecious gem, set a tiny piece of silver or gold foil behind it to make it sparkle.

Also, because most stones are pretty irregular (being stones and all), fill the base of the setting with sawdust so the stone will set evenly.


With any routine under seven minutes (which is almost all of them), you only really need one thing: a good closer. And there are only two things you really need to know about a great closer. First, it needs to be impressive. That sounds obvious, but most beginning jugglers think “difficult” and “impressive” are synonymous. Your closer must look hard, but there’s no real reason it has to be hard. Secondly, you should intentionally blow your closer on the first two tries. If you get it on the first try it looks too easy, but if you “miss” it a few times it looks harder and builds tension.

Landscape Architect

You will often have to create a large presentation for clients, and will spend hours coloring in landscape illustrations with markers. But if you say the drawings are “rendered” rather than “colored,” you can charge four times as much.

Lounge Pianist

Never agree to Christmas sing-alongs if there is alcohol involved. Your singer will only remember the first two lines of his favorite tunes, or you’ll waste a half-hour on a drawn-out, stumbling, “12 Days of Christmas.” The singer will be forgiven when he sobers up, but you’ll look unprofessional.

Massage Therapist

In massage, properly orienting the top sheet over the client is referred to as “draping.” To keep female clients from having their breasts exposed while draping them for an abdominal massage, start with the client face up with the top sheet fully covering her from the neck down. Now, put a pillowcase over her neck, rumpled up. Pinching the pillowcase and sheet together, pull both down, with the pillowcase unraveling and trailing the sheet down the client’s body. Once the pillowcase has covered the breasts, leave it behind and continue with only the sheet until her abdomen is exposed. Tuck in pillowcase and sheet, and voila!


If you have to change a light bulb where the glass is broken, you can press a potato into the metal base to unscrew the remains of the bulb from the fixture.

Newspaper Headline Writer

If you can’t think of a headline for a story, use one of these three magic verbs: “weighs,” “mulls,” or “considers.” They’ll work for pretty much anything from court stories (“Hamilton mulls plea deal”) to government stories (“Governor weighs Paseo extension”) to entertainment (“Colvin considers new album”) to features (“Benson mulls those who consider weighing Kasey’s artwork”).


Patients will occasionally pretend to be unconscious. A surefire way to find them out is to pick up their hand, hold it above their face, and let go. If they smack themselves, they’re most likely unconscious; if not, they’re faking.


When paramedics arrive at a car crash or similar accident, they very, very rarely announce any casualties at the scene—almost all deceased will be pronounced “dead on arrival” at the hospital. This is because it involves about 10 times more paperwork to announce someone dead right in situ than it does to say they expired in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.


When taking family portraits that include a dog, don’t use the dog’s name or say “doggie, doggie” to get its attention, because it might trot over to you. Instead, call out “kitty, kitty, kitty.” The dog will perk up and look around for a cat, and you can get a great shot if you time it right.

Piano Salesman

If you see a potential customer eyeing a piano, estimate their age and calculate what year it was when they were 18 years old. Play a big hit from that year on the piano they’re looking at. With a lot of preparation and a little luck, you might play the exact song they were listening to when they lost their virginity, got married, or drove their first car. The emotional resonance will overcome sales resistance and even open their wallets to a more expensive piano.


If you’re reading too fast, your brain can “correct” typos, preventing you from catching them. That’s why it’s sometimes a good idea to read a page upside-down. It forces you to pay closer attention to individual words out of context, and you can’t race through pages too fast.

Software Tester

Because developers don’t expect testers to read through their code, doing so is a quick and easy way to find possible bugs. Look for comments like “// HACK” or “// fix this crap later.”

Street Performer

In street performance, it’s possible to make money without really knowing how to play your instrument. You can pick up a cheap accordion at a thrift store and simply make stuff up on the street corner. Most people usually won’t stick around and listen for long if you are on a sidewalk where there’s little room to stand, and you can play the same thing over and over and still make money.

Technical Support

When helping someone fix their computer over the phone, and you want them to see if all the cables are plugged in correctly, don’t ask, “Have you checked to see if the cable is plugged in?” because the customer will always say, “Of course I did, do you think I’m a moron?” Instead say, “Remove the cable, blow the dust out of the connector, and plug it back in.” The customer will most likely reply, “Hey, it’s working now—I guess that dust really builds up in there!”


When you realize you have forgotten to submit an order to the kitchen, go to the table and mournfully say, “Did you just hear that crash?” Nine times out of 10, the customers not only will say “yes,” but actually will believe they just heard a noise of some sort. You can then sigh sadly, and say, “Unfortunately, that was the chef dropping your food,” and then scurry back to the kitchen to hand in the neglected order.

Wedding Coordinator

People’s fingers swell when they get nervous. So, when exchanging rings, tell couples to only slide the ring up to the first knuckle and let the other person push it up the rest of the way. Otherwise you run the risk of the groom breaking his bride’s finger in the middle of the ceremony.