You Are the Message - Roger Ailes, Jon Kraushar (1995)
Chapter 10. AN OUNCE OF ENERGY IS WORTH A POUND OF TECHNIQUE
I can correct fifteen communication technique problems with one ounce of energy. It’s so fundamental to success. Of course, that doesn’t mean that you come on like some used-car salesmen, leaping all over people, because that really turns everybody off. With the right kind of energy, you’re absorbing what others are broadcasting to you. You project enthusiasm, and most so-called speech problems clear up automatically. A good communicator’s energy is perceived as “life force,” vitality—an aliveness and vigor exemplified at its best by very good communicators like John F. Kennedy, Lee Iacocca, Elizabeth Dole, the young Muhammad Ali, Ted Koppel, and Barbara Walters. One of the absolute rules for control of the atmosphere is focused energy. Many people have trouble focusing their energy in formal presentations like speeches. Either they are too inhibited to let themselves go, or they overdo it.
Properly focused energy comes across as positive, a magnetic intensity, rather than negative, an overwrought intensity. It is an inner flame that we all display when we sincerely believe something and we talk about it. We’re committed. Intuitively we know true energy when we see and hear it in a communicator. It is the energy associated in its most consistent form with Harry Truman, Martin Luther King, and Winston Churchill. We all have known people who radiate this “life force” in abundance. Maybe it’s a parent, a friend, a coach, a teacher, or a member of the clergy. When people with energy speak, or even listen, they don’t display inattention, lack of focus in the eyes, or lack of interest on the face. People in love have energy. People who truly relish their jobs have energy. Communicators with positive energy are involved with their audience (whether one or a thousand) and their message. Because they believe in what they’re saying, you believe them. You may disagree with them, but you can’t question their conviction. Keep this rule in mind: If you have no energy, you have no audience.
A NATURAL STATE
If your energy is up, your rate, volume, and pitch will be appropriate to the communications situation. If you are enthusiastic, if your posture is good, if you’re friendly, and if you’re comfortable, you have the “right” kind of energy. Here’s the good news: We have all demonstrated energy at some time in our lives. At those times, we’ve been excellent communicators. It is a completely natural state. Remember back to a moment when you know you were communicating effectively because you absolutely believed in what you were saying. Remember how you felt? Harness that power and you will be successful at communications.
When I first started speech coaching I did it the old-fashioned way: with drills and practice on rate, pitch, and volume. My clients made progress, but it was slow and tedious. Today, I do it organically. I work on the energy level of the communicator. Is it appropriate for the situation? What are his goals? What is he trying to say? What does he mean? How does he feel? How much does he care? If he is in touch with these things, his technique will improve quickly and, often, dramatically. Instead of trying to remember several speech variables—like pitch, rate, volume, and gestures—just remember “energy” and all the variables will take care of themselves. I put the letter E in the margin of all my speeches to remind me of energy.
Today, tomorrow, or next week, when you experience strong feelings and high energy, make a mental note of what you’re thinking about. It will be something about which you feel strongly. My experience is that just about everyone gets good at communications when they get emotional. I don’t mean “out of control” emotional—that’s overly energetic; that’s unfocused energy. We’ve all seen high-strung people or people who flap around, overgesturing. That’s negative energy—motion in search of purpose.
How do you get that kind of positive energy, especially when you’re nervous about giving a speech, chairing a meeting, or being interviewed for a job or by the news media, for example?
Ask yourself: What am I thinking about? Am I focused on positive things like “This is an opportunity.… Let me review my agenda: What are the points I want to make? This can be fun; I’ve been asked to speak because they believe I’m an authority and can contribute something”? These kind of thoughts will energize you in a way that will help you be successful. The reverse is also true. Negative thoughts can energize you. But they won’t help you. Examples of negative thoughts are “What if I go blank? I’ll make a mistake and my boss will fire me. I’d rather be anywhere but here.” Negative thoughts create self-destructive energy. As Elbert Hubbard said, “The greatest mistake you can make in life is to be continually fearing you will make one.”
You don’t have to go through life demonstrating energy. But there are certain times, such as when you make a presentation, that you need to marshal your positive energy.
JACK BENNY’S SECRET
One of America’s greatest comedians, Jack Benny, taught me about energy. Benny was one of my heroes because he was able to get a laugh just by walking on stage. His timing was perfect. His facial expression was unsurpassed. He was not just a comedian, but also a great comic actor. His strength was not so much in telling jokes as in getting laughs within the parameters of the script, such as a comedy sketch. In over fifty years in show business, he never did anything that was off-color, but he always entertained the audience. Late in his career, when he was quite old, Jack was a guest on “The Mike Douglas Show.”
When my assistant told me he was waiting in my office, I rushed in to meet the great man. I found instead a frail little old man hunched over in a corner of the couch.
“How do you do, sir. I’m Roger Ailes. I’m the executive producer.” He looked up weakly, shook my hand, and softly said, “Jack Benny.” He went on, “Tell me about your show.” But he was talking in a monotone—very quietly—and I thought, “Oh my God, he’s going to pass away right on the air today.” I explained the show and where his segment would come. He asked, “Do you have a dollar bill?” I said yes. He said, “I’m going to do this thing with Mike using this dollar bill, where I end up getting the dollar.” I said fine. We worked it all out, but I was terrified. I thought, “Maybe I shouldn’t present him, because it will be so disillusioning to the American people.”
We went down to the studio just before airtime. He was to be on first. We rehearsed his theme song, “Love in Bloom,” with the band, and I showed him where he would enter. All this time he was shuffling along, with the weary steps of an old man.
Moments later, it was airtime. Mike Douglas said, “We’ve got a great thrill for you today. Ladies and gentlemen, our special guest, the great Jack Benny.”
I held my breath. The band hit “Love in Bloom.” Benny inhaled and energy seemed to enter his body. He looked sideways into the full-length backstage mirror and straightened up. I swear he grew an entire foot. He looked twenty-five years younger. He looked at me, smiled, and winked, and as the doors opened for his entrance, he broke into his famous arm-swinging stride and walked on stage. The real Jack Benny had suddenly appeared right before our eyes. On the show, he was the delightful, brilliant Jack Benny that we knew—age thirty-nine, as he always said—and that we all remember.
Benny’s use of energy was a great lesson for me. He had been saving it for the performance, and he knew exactly when to turn it on. And I remember thinking something then that I still teach today. Know when you have to do a good job. Know when you’re on. And anytime you perform, if your energy rises to the occasion, you’ll carry the day.
Since then, I have learned that you must use your own natural life force—the energy that we all have when we are interested in something and are just “being ourselves.” That will make up for a variety of deficiencies in style and technique. I’ve seen many speakers who have good technique. They are gifted with a great voice, and they do everything that traditional approaches teach them to do, and yet the audience walks away bored or indifferent. I’ve also seen speakers without great voices and great techniques, but they are interesting, comfortable, and committed to what they’re saying. The audience walks away enriched and happy because the experience was worthwhile. Strive to be that second kind of speaker—whether you’re testifying in a courtroom or giving a tour of your city to out-of-town visitors. If the audience knows you care about what you’re doing, you can forget about most speaking “techniques.” Using your natural energy, or life force, when you communicate sends a strong, clear message to your audience that you are committed to what you’re saying. Because you believe it, your listeners are much more likely to believe it, too.
RX FOR ENERGY CRISES
People often ask me, “How do you do this? How do you get your energy up?” I can’t answer for everyone but I can answer for myself. The way I do it is simple. I’ve often been asked to go into an interview with a reporter when I’m exhausted. I usually sit quietly and collect my thoughts. I breathe deeply. Prior to going in, I think about the goals of the interview and I think about what the reporter wants to get out of the interview. I try to give the reporter as much as I can without doing anything damaging to myself. Then when I actually enter the room, I walk with confidence. Sometimes I will even walk around in the hall for a few minutes before I go in just to get my heart pumping. When I enter the room, I focus on the new person I’m meeting and find things to like about him. I concentrate very hard on that person: I ask a few questions about him and his background, why he’s interviewing me, and what the article is about. All this time, the focus is off of me. Once I come through that doorway, I no longer think about myself. The reporter is either going to like me or not going to like me. He is either going to attack or not going to attack. There’s not much I can do to change that. The only thing I can do is read the person, show that I’m not threatened by the situation, try to be as candid as possible, and try to help the reporter achieve his goals.
The same principles can be applied when you walk on stage to address an audience. Just focus on something other than yourself; walk around and be physically energetic. I’ve known people who go to the rest room prior to a speech and just vocalize, opening up their throats and loudly saying, “Ah, ah, ah.” I’ve known people who do push-ups before a speech. Choose whatever works to get you physically engaged—not to the extent that you’re breathless or hyperventilating, but just to the point where you feel a healthy glow before you walk in and deliver.
IN THE LION’S CAGE
As soon as you get into the room with a reporter or in front of an audience, move your eyes comfortably and in a random pattern, look directly at whoever is in the room, and smile. This demonstrates that you have no fear of the situation. Some people have the feeling that going before an audience is like going into a lion’s cage. To me that’s a negative thought. But even if I were to think that, I’d keep my eye on the lion. I sure wouldn’t look at my feet, and I sure wouldn’t look at the ceiling if I got into the lion’s cage. So if it’s more helpful for you to see it that way, fine. I don’t see audiences as threatening, but if you do, just look at the lion!
I learned this lesson of energy and commitment very early in my career and in a particularly forceful way. I was an assistant director of a television program. One of the producers I worked for was very creative and could be charming, but he often displayed a brutal, sadistic personality. Frequently, he’d pick out a staff member and browbeat him or her all day long. It was very embarrassing to witness and humiliating to endure. Nobody liked it. But everybody put up with it because we were all afraid of him.
One day it was my turn to be in the barrel, as we called it. He started picking on me first thing and kept it up all morning. By two o’clock in the afternoon, I’d had it. I went right up to him, looked him in the eyes, and said, “That’s it. Don’t do that to me anymore.” Well, he had to do it just one more time. That was unacceptable to me, so I took a swing at him. It turned into a regular brawl. We broke up some office equipment, and finally two guys dragged me into the men’s room to end the fiasco.
I figured I’d just ruined my career. But actually it had quite the opposite effect. Two years later, that producer left the program and I was considered for his job, along with several others who were older and more experienced than me. One day, the company president called me to a meeting and told me he wanted to put me in charge of the whole operation. “We’ve got three reasons for picking you over the others,” he said. “First, you can make other people believe that you can do what you say you’ll do. We’re going to gamble on you, Ailes, because we believe that you believe you can do it. That’s valuable to us. The second reason is that you’ve demonstrated that you have creative ideas and are not afraid to try new ones. Third, two years ago you proved that you’re nobody’s boy. You’re the only one who ever fought back. You showed guts and although your method was immature, we want someone who can make independent decisions.”
I was not quite twenty-six years old and became a national television producer. When I took over the program, it was seen in about 32 cities. When I left the program three years later, we had built it to the phenomenal level of 180 cities.
Now I don’t recommend you get into the fistfights in the office to win promotions. But you can see how much importance people place on commitment and on putting some energy behind your belief in that commitment.
Most people think that their energy level is much higher than it is. Eighty percent of our clients are surprised when they first see themselves on tape. They usually say things like “I thought I was more forceful,” “I didn’t know I was so boring,” “I never move my face or hands,” “I’m talking in a monotone.” Most people think they’re coming on too strong in a speech, when usually it’s just the opposite. Whether you think your energy level is too high, too low, or just right, ask some of your friends what they think. You may be surprised at what you learn. Actually, you should always bring your energy up a little bit in front of an audience. Ninety-nine percent of us have natural inhibitions which will keep us from going too far. If you happen to be in the other one percent, your wife, husband, or friend can point it out, and it’s easy to back off just a bit.
In our next chapter, we’ll talk about a problem we all have at one time or another: taking things too seriously!