You Are the Message - Roger Ailes, Jon Kraushar (1995)
Chapter 12. OKAY, AILES, FIX ME: THE AILES METHOD/COURSE
Two types of clients come to us for communications coaching. Some clients want to improve at everything. They see themselves on a fast track. They want to move up quickly, and they recognize that communications is going to help them. Those in the second group are sent by someone else, usually from their company. These clients are dragged in kicking and screaming, and they don’t want anybody to mess with them.
The first type of client—the “can do” type—usually is already pretty good at speaking and wants to get better. The second type is the “can’t do” type. My favorite of the second type was an entrepreneur sent to me by a financial consultant. He came in, sat down in front of my desk, folded his arms, crossed his legs, slouched down in the chair, scowled, and said, “Okay, Ailes, fix me.”
I knew immediately that here was trouble. This was a very successful entrepreneur who had built a multimillion-dollar company on his own. But now he was going to expand, and he needed to go to Wall Street to raise more money. This meant he would be standing up in front of investment bankers, making a pitch, asking for help. Up to this point, he’d been spectacularly unsuccessful at this. So he was sent to me, and he resented it.
I asked, “What are you so scared of?”
“Nothing. I didn’t get where I am by being scared. I’m a multimillionaire and I worked my way up from nothing. Now I’ve got to go to Wall Street and talk to those silver-spoon jerks about giving me some money.”
“Well, apparently you’re failing at that.”
He blanched but said nothing.
“Let’s go into the studio and see what’s going on.” I rolled the camera and said, “Just stand up there and start making the same request for money that you do on Wall Street. Tell me about your business and why I should invest.”
THE FIRST THIRTY SECONDS
I let him talk for about thirty seconds, and then I stopped him and asked, “What are you afraid of?” “Nothing.”
“Why are you angry?”
“I’m not angry.”
“So far I’ve seen five visible signs of fear and hostility and you’re only thirty seconds into your pitch.” I stopped the tape and played it back.
The tape showed him using inflammatory words, with his hands in front of his face and his eyes up to the ceiling. He built himself up too much. He had a wary look on his face and folded his arms as if to protect himself. He made just about every conceivable mistake.
I told him, “I think what’s happening here is that you’re a self-made man—you didn’t get a business degree—and you feel far more successful than the people from whom you have to raise money. And you resent them because you think Wall Street people inherited their money and never had to scramble—they went to preppy schools in the East which you couldn’t afford. So, as you face them, you’re dumping all this hostility and anger out on them. And frankly, pal, if I were one of them, I wouldn’t give you a nickel.”
Again I played the tape back and froze it at certain points for him, to explain what I meant. He just slumped down in his chair and said, “Oh my God, I had no idea.”
AN ALTERNATIVE APPROACH
We worked for a while. But I still couldn’t get him to ease up enough. Finally, we took a break and I asked him if he had any children. He said he did. So I told him, “Pretend that your kids have asked you to come over and talk to their class about what you do for a living.” We rolled the tape again and he just extemporized about his company, its product, its history, his plans to expand the business and make it even more profitable. He was terrific and very likable. A whole different side of his personality had emerged. After we watched the replay together I said, “Now, if you talked to me this way, I’d be more likely to consider your proposal.”
Apparently Wall Street agreed, because a couple of months later, he reached his financial goal.
In my business, we refer to ourselves as communications consultants. Some people, though, like to call us image makers. The truth is, no one can manufacture an image for anyone. If you want to improve or enhance yourself in some way, the only thing a consultant can do for you is to advise and guide you. We can point out assets and liabilities in your style, and we then offer substitutions and suggestions to aid you. You have to want to improve and work at it. Most importantly, whatever changes you make have to conform to who you really are—at your best. All the grooming suggestions, all the speech coaching, all the knowledge about lighting, staging, and media training—everything popularly associated with “image making”—won’t work if the improvements don’t fit comfortably with who you essentially are.
One of the tools we use to diagnose “you at your best” is a simple checklist of items. It includes physical appearance, energy, rate, pitch, tone, phrasing, gestures, eye contact, and holding an audience’s interest. Let’s say we videotaped you in a session in my New York studio. When we replay the tape, we hand you the list and say, “Imagine you don’t know this person on the screen, and just fill in your impressions next to the items on the list. I’ve called you in now to give me your advice. What do you think of this person you’re watching? What do you think of this person’s voice, his use of language, his descriptive abilities, the way he moves, the way he makes you feel?”
What’s interesting here is that most people score themselves either too high or too low. Very few people actually hit it right. That tells us something about their self-image, which gives us a place to start. Some people, so as not to show great vulnerability, will say, “You know, I think it’s pretty good.” They’ll puff it up. Other people will say, “Boy, that’s awful.” You can see the blood drain from their faces.
What we’ve found about the people who describe themselves pretty accurately is that they generally are fairly secure people. They can usually take criticism pretty well and often display a certain amount of humor. It’s very important for us to determine early on in the course how much positive and negative feedback we can safely give. If people have low self-esteem and think they’re terrible at everything, they need to get some positive feedback before they can work on problems. There are always some good things about what they do, and we have to be able to point out those qualities. But in order to help them, I have to give them an honest assessment. It’s always good to remind ourselves of our good points, because these assets are a foundation we can build on to become even better. Make a list of what you consider to be your strengths as a communicator.
Then ask a friend, a coworker, or others who know you well to tell you what they consider to be your strengths, especially as they relate to the way you communicate. Review the lists and consider whether some of the qualities are really over-strengths. For example, someone described as “persistent” might actually overdo it and become a pest. Or “eloquent” might be a polite term for someone who talks too much.
My job is to identify the strengths and weaknesses of my clients—and to draw the line between the two with a mixture of honesty and diplomacy. Many people who contact me are in a difficult position, such as the vice president of public relations who recognizes that his CEO needs some speech coaching. It’s difficult for someone on the inside to critique his boss with complete candor and objectivity. In some cases, bluntness is needed. That’s why it’s helpful to bring in an outside consultant who can get in the same room with him and tell him like it is.
We usually work one-on-one so that we can be more candid. I believe in as much candor as the client can take, and many successful people want just that. However, we take care not to put anyone in an embarrassing situation.
I had an executive ask me recently what his real problem was. I said, “You’re boring.”
He was startled, but then started to laugh. “You know,” he said, “I always thought that, but nobody ever said it.”
I wouldn’t say that to every client because some couldn’t handle it. My job is to be sensitive to the needs of the client. But this guy was boring. Deep down he knew it and wanted to know how to be less boring. So we worked on it.
I asked him what he read, what he listened to, what he was involved in outside of his work. It turned out that years ago he had been a musician. In college he was in theater. When he began to open up, he was pretty interesting.
I videotaped him as we talked, and once he got into some subjects that interested him, he came alive. Later, he could see that on tape.
Once people see themselves doing well, it’s much easier for them to “play the tape back” mentally and perform better.
The hardest thing for me is to get clients not to change when the situation changes. Sometimes, before I can convince them to just act naturally, I try to capture them on videotape in an unselfconscious moment. Once we see the model behavior, that’s usually the way I want them to come across in every communications situation. Behavior shouldn’t change when the situation changes. They may need to slow down or talk a little louder. But basically they should be the same whether I put them on tape, go out to dinner with them, or put them in front of an audience.
In essence, we hold a mirror up to people. We say, “Take a look. Here’s what other people see. What do you think?” Then we guide the impressions, because if the client says, “Gee, I really look terrible and, oh, I sound awful,” and so on, we’re there to put things into perspective. I even had to tell one client, “Ease up on yourself. You’re successful.” He was so tightly wrapped, so driven, that he drove other people up the wall. He was unrelenting to others and to himself.
THE HUNDRED-YEAR VIEW
When I work with someone like this, I encourage him to take what I call the hundred-year view: In a hundred years, will the thing that’s giving you ulcers really be one of the highlights in the recorded history of the human species? Or would it be a better idea to take a little of the pressure off yourself and others?
When I was a young TV producer, I was so driven that one of the station executives said to me, “Ailes, I believe if I asked you to single-handedly move this building around the block over the weekend, you’d find a way.” Some of this bulldogged-ness was admirable. But for a while there, it threatened to burn me out. One day, a senior producer who was fond of me took me aside and gently suggested that I should take my work seriously, but not myself so seriously. Since then, I have often found myself, having a good laugh when work pressures are at their height. “In a hundred years,” I say to myself, “Who’ll care?” (Think about that the next time you get very full of yourself.)
Some people say, “Don’t change me. I know who I am, and I don’t want to be changed.” With these people I first record them in conversation before they’re aware they’re being taped, and they are quite good … warm, interesting, and comfortable.
Then I say, “Would you walk up to the lectern and give me a five-minute extemporaneous speech on your job?” Immediately they change into entirely different people. It’s as though I turned my back and someone else took their place. They become very stiff and formal. And cold. They’re often not aware that they’ve changed.
Afterward, we play back the two recordings and I show them the contrast in their two performances. This helps them over their fear of being changed, because they can see themselves changing and that our goal is to help them to stay themselves—in that warm, likable mode.
We record our clients in a series of formats—conversation, extemporaneous speaking, and reading a speech. By the end of the first hour, we have a pretty good idea of what we think is going on. We then try to elicit what the client would like to improve, because if we try to work on an area where he thinks he’s terrific, we’re not going to get very far.
The company sponsoring the client usually has a perspective on the problem, too. We combine our perception, the company’s, and the individual’s to find a common ground. Then we ask, “What would you like to improve?” From this, we can focus the training and develop it individually along these lines.
“I’M NOT AN ACTOR”
Another variation on “Don’t change me” is the executive who tells me, “I’m not an actor. I don’t want to learn to act. I’m me. I want to be me. I’ve been successful being me. I’m a successful person. I can’t change now.” They get all lathered up, and when I agree with them, they’re nonplussed. “You mean I don’t have to act?” they ask in these small, relieved voices.
I explain that I’m not going to teach them how to act. That would take years. Besides, acting isn’t the skill required for effective communication of your own ideas. Acting is when someone asks you to be somebody other than who you really are. He or she hands you a script and asks you to play a part. On the other hand, performing is being you at your best. Most of us have seen actors appear as talk show guests. Some of them disappoint us because, when being themselves, they don’t have the same aura, command, or even charm that they portray in their roles. On the other hand, those who are impressive personal communicators when being themselves have only used their acting training to be more comfortable in front of the camera or, perhaps, to move and gesture gracefully. The real meat of what they have to say comes from their off-screen or off-stage communication skills—especially their commitment.
There are many trained actors who also are effective personal communicators. Four who come to mind are Paul Newman, Liv Ullmann, Charlton Heston, and Katharine Hepburn. When they speak personally in an interview, they are performing, as opposed to acting. Again, performing is being you at your best.
We all perform at one time or another. In fact, every time you’re asked to make a presentation, you’re asked to be yourself at your best.
DON’T BE AFRAID TO PERFORM
Don’t be frightened by the word “performing.” Accept it. It’s real. It’s true. We all must do it and we all must do it well to be persuasive. It does not mean anything false. Remember, performing is simply being you at your best.
There’s a natural momentum to life that distracts most of us from focusing on being better communicators. At the dinner table, we’ll say, “Please pass the salt” and we get it. Many people assume they’re communicating all right because, on a mundane level, they’re getting what they want. But in the world of business, where time, information, and competition are factors, the communications skills required to get what you want are more demanding. You need to exert more energy than you do at the dinner table.
Times have changed in corporate America. At one time, the most qualified person got the job. Today, in a situation where three people with equal qualifications are interviewed for a job, the one with the best communications skills gets it. This becomes a bigger consideration every year.
The public image of a company is very important today. For recruiting, for advertising, for reaching the public, for being involved in the community, or for representing the company abroad—the person in charge has to be very good at presenting the company image to the public.
One of the most important communications situations you can be in is a job interview. Some of my senior executive clients find themselves out in the job market, either because they’ve been fired or because they’ve quit. They first go to an “outplacement consultant,” where they get a great resume written and typed. They think that’s going to get them a job.
A resume gets them in the door—maybe—but after that, the job interview is everything. Unfortunately, most senior executives haven’t interviewed since they got out of college, and maybe not even then, because they were probably recruited. Suddenly they’re sitting on the other side of the desk, and it can be a very traumatic, terrifying experience.
One of our clients for this type of training was a woman who was leaving a prestigious consulting firm. She was very good at her work, was highly paid, and had a formidable resume, but she was having trouble finding another job.
After listening to her for half an hour, I said, “We wouldn’t hire you.”
“Because you’re looking for something in the neighborhood of $150,000 a year. I’ve listened to you talk about what you’ve done for clients for half an hour and you have not once addressed the bottom line. In other words, I can’t precisely determine how I would get my $150,000 back if I hired you. Are you going to save it for me because of your work? Or are you going to bring in new business to compensate for it? Whenever I hire somebody in that range, I want to know how I’m going to make my money back plus. If you don’t tell me how you did that for past employers or clients, you won’t be hired.”
We worked with her on communicating the tangible value of her skills and accomplishments, including their potential monetary worth to an employer. This type of training is usually done by us in three sessions. But after the second session, this woman was hired by a new company at a 25 percent increase in compensation.
If you ever find yourself in the job market (or know someone who is), you might find the following questionnaire and checklist helpful to review in preparing for a job interview. In fact, even when you’re employed, it is helpful to be sure you can address these issues:
1. How is my physical appearance? Am I dressed and groomed appropriately for the job, the company, and the industry culture?
2. How self-assured do I seem? Can I put the interviewer (or others) at ease?
3. Can I communicate the following during the interview in a clear, brief, and interesting manner?
✵ How I represent a return on the employer’s total investment in my pay and benefits if I’m hired (for example, I’ll bring in x amount of business and I’ll add measurable value to the company)
✵ Specific examples of my achievements at work, each delivered in no more than a one-minute “mini-case history” (focused on results, not activity)
✵ My knowledge of the industry (marketplace, products, personal contacts, inside and outside pressures)
✵ Knowledge of my potential employer’s company (including its goals, challenges, history, and top management)
4. Can I demonstrate with concrete examples my:
✵ Maturity and readiness to take on responsibility
✵ Desire and enthusiasm to learn and grow on the job
✵ Positive attitudes toward management and coworkers
✵ Commitment and involvement: doing more than the basic job requires
✵ Understanding of the technical language and the practices of the industry
Here are some dos and don’ts for the interview (these also apply to communicating on the job).
✵ Ask questions about relevant issues like job responsibilities, management practices, the assignments of coworkers, and performance reviews (how often, with whom, how done).
✵ “Bridge” or segue to a discussion of your skills. Relate your abilities to your potential boss’s (or the company’s) needs.
✵ Sit and walk upright, comfortably, and confidently. Look the interviewer in the eye. Smile.
✵ Listen actively. Nod and show interest with your eyes and face.
✵ Ask the interviewer to clarify anything you’re unsure of.
✵ Be concise. Don’t overexplain. If in doubt, ask, “Is that what you wanted to know?”
✵ Ask if you can provide additional background on yourself.
✵ Fiddle with your hair, glasses, pen, or clothing
✵ Avert your eyes
✵ Criticize former employees, bosses, or coworkers
✵ Be too aggressive or arrogant
✵ Argue with your interviewer
✵ Apologize for any of your shortcomings
ONE THAT GOT AWAY
Although our female client found a new job quickly, not every story has been a success. Shortly after starting my own company, around 1971 or 1972, I gave someone’s money back after the second session. I’d spent two hours working with him and played back the tape, and I swear to you he was worse!
In retrospect, I didn’t establish the proper rapport with him in the beginning. I failed to do what I counsel others to do, and that is to make the other person comfortable. I clearly didn’t make him comfortable. Because of that, he was completely unwilling to let go and try anything. Fortunately, I had enough positive reinforcement from other clients at the time to keep on going. Otherwise, I might have gotten out of the business because that was so depressing.
A key ingredient of success in our work is that our clients feel safe. They know our training is confidential, so they feel free to talk about themselves. They often tell me about traumatic experiences they’ve had in speaking situations.
One of my clients was a young female executive, a graduate of one of the top business schools in the country. She was very charming, very smart, very articulate. But her eyes shifted all over the room. She was nervous and it was coming out through her eyes. She couldn’t make eye contact.
What we discovered was that this was a cultural thing for her. She’s Eastern European and was taught that women don’t hold eye contact with another person, whereas in America it’s totally acceptable to look into the other person’s eyes. We discussed the problem and had her watch herself on videotape to see how distracting it was.
CAN’T HEAR YOU
Occasionally, someone will come in and mumble, “I don’t know why I’m here.”
I’ll say, “What? I didn’t hear you.”
This is an obvious problem. This person has to learn to project his voice clear across the table. But if his world is charts and forecasts and numbers, he may not have to do that at work. So with him, we work first on helping him to become aware of how to amplify his voice, then on increasing volume comfortably.
I mentioned earlier that at my company we “hold up a mirror” to the people we coach. Actually, it’s a three-part process. As the Chinese say, there are three mirrors that form a person’s reflection. The first mirror is how you see yourself. The second mirror is how others see you. The third mirror is how you really are. We move our clients to that third mirror by combining their descriptions of themselves, the feedback others have given them, and our observations into a frank discussion of who they really are.
A HOT DOG AT FIFTY-THREE
For example, I had one client—a $600,000-a-year man—whom I asked to describe himself. He told me that he had always been the bright young man of the company. He was fifty-three. I had to tell him that he was fifty-three but acted like twenty-three. We had a serious discussion, and he could also look on the tape and see how he came across as a hot dog. A hot dog at twenty-three is okay, but a hot dog at fifty-three just doesn’t fit. (Could this be you?)
Like everyone else, I have my own personal way of working. Many of my perceptions come when I go off to my study alone and watch a videotape for a few minutes.
If I’m having trouble putting my finger on clients’ problems, there’s one technique I can always count on: getting in touch with how they make me feel. In essence, I become their audience.
WHAT’S GOING ON?
Sometimes, I’ll look at a tape with the sound turned off and try to examine my feelings just watching how a person moves. Then I’ll ask myself, “Is there anything going on here that makes me want to turn the sound up?” It’s an emotional thing. And often I tell the client, “Look, I don’t see any technical problems in what you’re doing. I can only tell you what I feel.”
Professor Albert Mehrabian of the University of California, Los Angeles, conducted an extensive research project in which he studied many different speakers and audiences to determine which factors most influenced listener impressions. His findings might surprise some people. Professor Mehrabian discovered that audiences’ interpretations of messages are determined 55 percent by the speaker’s nonverbal communication (facial expression, body language), 38 percent by the speaker’s voice (quality, tone, pitch, volume, variation) and only 7 percent by the words themselves. This doesn’t mean that words are unimportant. But audiences generally process words as indications that you can “speak the language” of your subject. Some of your words may be powerful or catchy enough to remember. But what audiences remember overall are two things. First, concepts—the idea clusters formed by the words. Second, your emotional expression as communicated through your eyes, face, voice, and body. The total package (composite) of these elements makes up the speaker, and the speaker becomes the message.
The one overriding element which can distort your message is fear. It’s the major block to clear, crisp communications. Many people think they must conquer fear once and for all. They spend their lives jousting with fear—but never win a clear victory.
Fear is a natural emotion in all humans, and we must learn to live with it. Keeping fear in perspective and converting it to positive energy is the secret. We’ll discuss that in our next chapter.