You Are the Message - Roger Ailes, Jon Kraushar (1995)
Chapter 11. LIGHTEN UP, YOU’RE WEARING EVERYBODY OUT
I was once in a meeting with one of the most powerful chairmen in the entertainment industry—a much feared tyrant. Together with his top staff, we were discussing a television program I was producing for his corporation. The chairman was a temperamental man, and he proceeded to throw a fit over some minor scheduling problems. He yelled at everyone around the table. Like an irate prosecutor, he singled out and grilled each person, seeming to revel in his ability to intimidate. The tension was mounting. When he got to me, he shouted, “And you, Ailes, what are YOU doing?”
I said, “Do you mean now, this evening, or for the rest of my life?” There was a shocked moment of silence. The others in the room were wide-eyed, aghast. The chairman threw back his head and roared with laughter. Permission granted, the others laughed, too.
Humor broke the tension of a very uncomfortable scene. God knows we could use a few more laughs in this world. There’s nothing more tedious than a person who takes himself too seriously.
THE BOTTOM LINE
If I had to summarize in two words the advice I give to many of my clients, it is “Lighten up!” For seven out of ten people who lose their jobs, the reason isn’t lack of skill. According to studies by executive recruiters, it’s personality conflicts. The flip side to that is reflected in this quote from the management newsletter Bottom Line—Personal: “As an executive reaches middle management and beyond, the primary criteria for advancement are communication and motivation skills, rather than basic job performance. Relations with superiors and peers are also critical. Bottom line: Top management promotes people it likes.” What is guaranteed to make people not like you? Taking yourself too seriously.
You can always spot people who take themselves too seriously. Usually they are either brooding or talking a great deal about themselves. A positive ego can be the greatest ally in a communications situation, but negative ego can be the biggest detriment to your life. Whenever I see someone who talks a great deal about himself, I’m reminded of the old story about the actor who testified in court. The prosecuting attorney says to the actor who’s on the stand, “Sir, who is the greatest actor of all time?” The actor says, “Me.” The attorney says, “Isn’t that a bit egotistical?” The actor says, “Perhaps, but I’m under oath.”
Those people fired because of personality clashes or “office politics” probably would still have their jobs if they had only eased up and gotten their egos out of the way, so that people looked forward to seeing them and working with them. The hard premise for many people to swallow is that easing up is your responsibility. If you truly hate your job or the people you work with, go somewhere else. But as long as you’ve decided to stay where you are, it’s your responsibility to be enthusiastic, positive, and friendly.
Take a good hard look at your ego. Does it get in the way of your communications? Do you say “I” too often? Are you usually focused on your own problems? Are those problems out of proportion to reality? Do you complain frequently? Do you take every opportunity to tell others how tough you have it? When people tell you about a new idea, do you find a negative point to puncture their balloon? Do you believe fate has cheated you? Do you still blame your parents for some real or imagined slight to you?
You may see all of these questions as simply negative. Well, they are. But they are more than that because they are all about you. They’re ego questions. If you answered yes to even one of the questions, you need to lighten up. You’re wearing out your friends, family, and coworkers. Lightening up implies humor and not taking everything too seriously. But it’s part of your overall attitude. Do you bring other people up or down? This may be the most important question facing you in your career and your life.
A few years ago, an executive (let’s call him Fred) was sent to me for communications training with this ultimatum from the exasperated chairman of his company: “I’m on the brink of canning Fred, even though he’s suffering from the delusion that he should have been promoted to president of his division. He does know more about that division than anybody in the company. He’s brilliant at business planning and good at finding waste. But he never smiles and he’s indecisive. He depresses the hell out of everyone with his hangdog look. When Fred comes down the hall, people dart into closets, run behind watercoolers, and dive under their desks to avoid getting infected with his gloom. He gets so preoccupied with the dark side of things that it stifles his decision-making abilities.
“Ailes, if this guy doesn’t ease up, I’m gonna throw him off a cliff—before he makes me and everyone else want to jump.”
When Fred came to my studio for the first time, he didn’t have to say a word—it was all written on his face. He looked stricken, as if he’d just arrived at a funeral. When he spoke, his voice was monotonous, lifeless. He told me he was disappointed and hurt because he didn’t get the promotion. After twenty years with the company, he had risen to executive vice president on the basis of several measurable accomplishments. When the president of the division retired, Fred saw himself as the heir apparent. But the chairman hired an outsider as president and told me that Fred was passed over because he lacked certain leadership skills. Fred’s negative attitude caused him to always expect the worst. Because Fred always feared the worst, he delayed most decisions and sometimes became paralyzed.
Talking with Fred for just a few minutes confirmed for me the chairman’s assessment: Fred didn’t have a clue why he had missed being promoted. To make it clear to Fred that his negative attitude and his indecisiveness were linked, my associate, Jon Kraushar, presented Fred with this role-playing situation: “The entire executive staff of your company has been at a retreat at The Greenbrier in West Virginia. On the return trip home, the plane they all took crashes, and everyone is killed. You didn’t go on the trip because of a family emergency. So now you are the only surviving member of your company’s top management team. I’m your second-in-command. You’ve just called me into your office to tell me what I’m supposed to do now. You alone are in charge of the company. What do you say?”
Fred’s eyes widened. He looked frozen, like a rabbit in the headlights. He said, “What do you think?”
Jon replied, “You’re in charge. What do you want me to do?”
Fred stared vacantly for a full fifteen seconds. Then he said, “Do you think we should call the families?” We purposely tossed the question back to Fred, who fumbled with it. The same thing happened when we asked questions like “How do you want to handle the announcement to company employees?” and “What about the news media?”
It was just chaos and we had it all on videotape. Fred was in shock. It was a brutal exercise, but it was absolutely necessary to show him that he wasn’t ready to command the division.
Once he watched himself on videotape, he got the message. We discussed his need for some additional psychological counseling (he had been seeing an analyst). Our immediate goal was to save his job and make him perform better in the workplace. He thought he was very good at his job. However, his self-esteem was very low. He seemed to have no enthusiasm for anything—no energy or life force emanating from him. We first reviewed all of the good things he had done at work and the contributions he’d made to the company.
PART OF YOUR JOB
I went to the blackboard and wrote JOB DESCRIPTION. I said, “Let’s define your job. Let’s make sure you’re doing all of it. You tell me you’re great at your job and you should have been promoted. What are your duties, and what grades would give yourself on them?”
He went down the list, including financial management, strategic planning, and marketing. He gave himself high grades in each. When he finished, I said, “There are a couple of categories missing.” I wrote down decisiveness and attitude. On decisiveness we gave him a very low grade and reminded him of the videotape when he was in charge of the whole company. On attitude, I said, “Part of your job is to be enthusiastic and upbeat, and you’re failing. You’re supposed to lead a team and inspire them. But you’re getting an F there. You tell me you’re not depressed, just serious. Well, perception is reality and everybody else thinks you’re depressed. Even if you’re not depressed, you’re too damned serious. It’s fine to be serious about your job or your life, but it appears as if you take everything and yourself way too seriously. That’s why you didn’t get that promotion. Not because your job skills are lacking, but because your attitude stinks.”
I concluded, “Fred, I’ve got to tell you the truth. You depress me.” He laughed. I persevered. “Fred, that’s how your bosses view you. That’s why people don’t want to see you coming down the hall. Does your boss avoid meetings with you or cut them short?” Fred admitted that he did. Thinking about it, he turned pale, but it was sinking in. After meeting with us six more times over the next few months, he was able to accept that his attitude was part of his overall job description and that he had to lighten up. With some additional counseling Fred made a dramatic improvement at work and has assumed increased responsibilities.
To lighten up doesn’t mean you become a comedian. But if you can appreciate humor and occasionally see the light side in stressful situations, you’ll be the kind of person others enjoy being around.
A SENSE OF HUMOR
Almost everybody who comes to me for training would like to become more humorous. The general rule is, if you’re not a humorous person in life, the chances of your becoming funny once a month for fifteen minutes during a speech are probably not too good. But if you’re a relatively comfortable person off stage, you’ll have a better chance of succeeding with humor when you get up to the lectern. That’s because when you relax, your audience relaxes, and this allows them to be receptive to the humor you offer. The goal, you’ll recall, is to be as comfortable a communicator on stage as you are when you’re entertaining someone in your living room.
Occasionally someone comes to me and says, “I’d like to learn to be funnier.” I begin by asking a series of questions. Why don’t you try to answer each of them?
YOUR HUMOR QUOTIENT
Who’s your favorite comedian? Who or what do you think is funny? When was the last time you laughed out loud? When was the last time you chuckled? Have you ever made anyone laugh? When? And why was the situation funny? Do you know any jokes? Do you remember any time in your life when you laughed uncontrollably? Would your friends describe you as amusing in casual conversation? Who’s your funniest friend? Picture a favorite comedy scene from a film. Describe it and tell me why it’s funny.
If you had trouble answering any of these questions (as many of my clients do), you may have a higher interest in being humorous than in humor itself. If you don’t (or can’t) observe, understand, and enjoy humor, you won’t be able to use it. I’ve had guys come in to me who looked like killers, acted like thugs, and wanted to tell jokes. These are not people who are going to get big laughs. They intimidate people.
OUTSIDE THE DOTS
You can begin to get a grasp on humor by reading “outside the dots,” that is, outside of the normal reading you do for business purposes. Let’s say someone’s an engineer and he wants to be a good after-dinner speaker. It’s unlikely that he’ll glean a lot of laughs from reading Principles of Thermodynamics or Elements of Plastic Extrusion Blow Molding.
At a minimum, he could try scanning Reader’s Digest for a humorous anecdote he might use. Most humor from joke-books or anthologies cannot be used verbatim. But if the idea is funny, you can rework the language to suit your style and the occasion.
Here’s an example of a story adaptable to remarks before any professional group. R. T. McNamar, of the Treasury Department, told the California Association of Realtors this story about competition:
Before I tell you about the good news I thought I might set the stage with a story that happened back in Prohibition days. It seems that 25 of San Francisco’s top bootleggers were rounded up in a surprise raid. As they were being arraigned, the judge asked the usual question about occupation. The first 24, it seems, were all engaged in the same professional activity. Each claimed he was a realtor.
“And what are you?” the judge asked the last prisoner.
“Your honor, I’m a bootlegger,” he said.
Surprised, the judge laughed and asked, “How’s business?”
“It would be a lot better,” he answered, “if there were not so many realtors around.”13
It’s tough to teach humor to a person who can’t laugh at himself. How are you on that score? When was the last time other people laughed at you and you were able to laugh along? Think of something really foolish that you did. Would you be comfortable telling others about it and laughing along with them? Although you take your job seriously, can you see the funny side of it?
Economist Richard W. Rahn of the Chamber of Commerce of the United States told the Tax Foundation’s thirty-second national conference this story as a lead-in to a discussion of supply-side economics:
It’s a pleasure to be here on the first day of real winter in New York. New York hasn’t really changed, though, I’ve noticed. I got out of a cab this morning and a typical New York bum walked up to me and said, “May I have five dollars for a cup of coffee?” I had lived here for a couple of years while going to school and teaching here. It seemed to me the prices used to be lower, and I said, “Isn’t five dollars an awful lot for coffee?” And the fellow said, “Well, you know, the money supply’s been growing over 14 percent. That’s M1B.” I said, “Really?” and he said, “Yes, and the wage rates have been up an average level of about 11 percent, and it’s been very difficult for us out here on the street.” I said to this fellow, “Well, if you know all of this, why don’t you become an economist?” With that he reared back, stiffened up, looked me square in the eye and said, “Sir, I still have some pride left.”14
The intensity some people bring to their jobs and, more importantly, to themselves can stifle humor. They cannot understand why everybody around them doesn’t take them and their job as seriously as they do. The reality is, nobody cares as much as you do. Others may pretend they do. They may nod knowingly and look intent and compliment you, but running around behind their eyeballs is the feeling that “this guy is wearing me out. He is so intense about what he is doing. And he thinks it’s so important that if he stops, the world stops.”
Let me step outside the corporate world for a moment to tell you about a man who was a true professional, largely because he personified much of what I have just discussed. Whether you can identify with him or not, you can appreciate his lighthearted approach to his public life, combined with his enormous talent. I’m referring to Liberace.
Liberace was known to his friends as Lee. When he was a small boy growing up in Wisconsin, he had to play piano in beer halls to make money. His father was a very stern, somewhat humorless classical musician who insisted that Lee become a classical pianist. Lee reluctantly complied with his father’s wishes. Finally, he was booked to play a classical concert and his father attended. Liberace performed at his best that night with an unusual flair. But when the concert ended and he turned toward his father’s seat, hoping to see him beaming with pride, he saw that the seat was empty. His father had walked out of the concert. When Liberace arrived home, his father berated him for acting like a clown while performing great musical works. Liberace later said that his father’s rejection that night was the greatest disappointment of his life. However, he went on to turn tragedy into triumph.
He later became known as the greatest showman since Al Jolson. Without a sense of humor he never could have turned his tears into laughter. He was pure show business through and through. He knew what worked for him; he didn’t alter that. He never disappointed an audience, he did his homework, and he was able to take a joke on himself.
As a television producer, I worked with him several times, and he was a total professional. In the summer of 1981, I was in Las Vegas producing some special programs in the Fantasy Suite at Caesars Palace. One was to be an intimate, late night entertainment program and Liberace was scheduled as the primary guest. He was appearing at the hotel and had two shows to do in the main room. He agreed to make a brief appearance on our program and do one number on the piano. Unfortunately, everything that could go wrong did go wrong that day, and we were running over three hours behind schedule. It was almost two in the morning and we were still unable to tape. Liberace was exhausted from having appeared in two 70-minute shows already. When he arrived at our suite for taping, he quickly realized we were in trouble. Instead of leaving, he sat down at the piano and asked for requests from the crew to keep everybody in a good mood until we could get our technical problems solved. I remember seeing him there, exhausted, perspiring, but having a great time playing “Beer Barrel Polka” for the stagehands.
There have probably been more jokes about Liberace than about anybody in show business. He kidded about himself. And he became one of the most loved figures in the business. I don’t think there was a single producer, performer, or writer anywhere who knew Liberace and didn’t like him. He was a classic example of a man who never let you see the dark side. He was always smiling and he always had time for a kind word. When he was with people, Lee knew that he was what he had to sell. He was the message. And he never showed anything that interfered with the message. Here was a man who was a little different. Liberace was an extreme, of course, in dress and style.
But part of his legacy to us was to emphasize the importance of not taking yourself too seriously.
TO BE MORE HUMOROUS
I often recommend an exercise to people who want to be more humorous: Watch the opening monologue of “The Tonight Show.” Tell me what makes you laugh about it, if anything. Watch Jay Leno and tell me why you think he’s funny, or why he’s not funny. Go to a theater and see the best comedy films today. Then, explain a scene from the movie that made you laugh. Elaborate on why that scene worked. Also, be prepared to talk about three people in your life who you think are funny or who make you laugh.
BEGIN WITH RESEARCH
The ability to do humor depends on the six Rs: research, relevance, rhythm, rehearsal, relaxation, and risk.
I believe strongly that you have to do research to find a story that you like. Research is the first of six Rs regarding good humor and storytelling.
A lot of people read stories and then think, “Gee, this must be funny because it’s in a book or it’s in a newspaper.” They use it and it doesn’t work. Often they don’t believe in it themselves. I would never tell a story I didn’t personally think was funny. A lot of research has to go into it. As you do casual reading, look for humorous ideas. There are many stories that, by changing the ending, altering the punch line, or getting rid of antiquated or inappropriate language within the story, can be turned into a pretty good modern-day story. Most people don’t look at it that way. They take it at face value and say, “That’s not funny,” and therefore they don’t use it. I’ve seen my friend, humorist Mort Sahl, read an afternoon newspaper and create several new laughs for that evening’s performance. Very few of us are as good as Mort at creating humor, but it does point out that humor is right under our noses.
Of course, the critical element is to make the story relevant to what you’re saying. Relevance is the second R. Relevance lets you get into and out of a joke. A joke rarely stands alone. It has to relate to the material that you’re talking to the audience about.
When I give a speech about political polling, I like to tell the story of the fellow who moves to a new town. He goes down to the courthouse to try to make some new friends. He sees an old fellow sitting on the curb with a dog beside him. The new man in town walks over and asks, “Does your dog bite?” The old guy looks up at him and says, “Nope.” So the fellow reaches down to pet the dog, and the dog nearly rips his arm off. He jumps back quickly and says, “I thought you said your dog doesn’t bite.” The old guy looks up and says, “Ain’t my dog.”
Well, that fellow just didn’t ask the right question. That story gets me into the importance of asking the right questions when doing polls.
The next important point about storytelling in front of an audience is to get the rhythm of the joke. Rhythm is the third R. Many people expand jokes rather than contract them. They think that by adding more words and giving more detail, it will make the story funnier. Usually it makes it less funny. The quickest, cleanest way to get to the punch line is usually the best. The only exception might be a shaggy-dog story, designed to go on and on absurdly. But you have to be a master storyteller to pull that off. Stories have a natural beginning (setup), middle (information/conflict), and end (payoff/punch line). If you disturb the rhythm, you can kill the laugh.
Before I’d get up at a dinner party to tell a joke for the first time, I’d tell it to my family. Or I’d tell it to a friend. Rehearsal is the next R. You’ve got to rehearse the story or joke out loud, preferably to others who’ll react to it spontaneously. I’d work on it in a few places so that I had the rhythm of it down, hitting the right word at the right time, taking the pause at the right time, delivering the punch line at the right time, not physically moving on the punch line. Just do a little practice before you tell it in public. Even highly paid professional comedians like Steve Martin, Robin Williams, Rodney Dangerfield, and Eddie Murphy drop into small comedy clubs and work for nothing just to try out new material.
After research, relevance, rhythm, and rehearsal comes relaxation. It’s not the end of the world if your joke doesn’t work. Sometimes it won’t. Interestingly enough, the audience will always give you a higher grade for effort than for not trying, as long as you don’t embarrass them. The only way you can keep from embarrassing them is to avoid being embarrassed yourself. Be comfortable. Stay relaxed. If you give the story a try and it doesn’t quite work, just keep moving ahead with your remarks or kid yourself for bombing. The world won’t end. If you can, have your performance audio- or videotaped. Study the tape. Listen to your voice. Why did the story work or not work? Keep trying. It’s worth it. There’s no greater feeling than hearing an audience laugh at something you say. I know many serious actors who would give up their careers to make audiences laugh.
Finally, there is a reasonable risk in humor, and many people simply don’t want to take that risk. They’ll settle for the general embarrassment of not being a good speaker, rather than the highly specific embarrassment of a joke that doesn’t work. The most important thing to do is not set up any joke or story as the funniest thing in the world. Just segue into it and tell it. Either it works or it doesn’t. Life goes on. If you’ve done the Rs, you can at least count on a few smiles. Just stay comfortable and keep moving.
Many people have become good storytellers with this system, so I know it works!