EVEN HEROES GET SCARED - You Are the Message - Roger Ailes, Jon Kraushar

You Are the Message - Roger Ailes, Jon Kraushar (1995)


If you’ve ever had to get up and give a speech, did your stomach tighten, your palms sweat, and your throat dry up? If that’s ever happened to you, then you should read this chapter, because otherwise it is going to happen again.

In a poll of human fears, twice as many people were more afraid of speaking in public than of dying. I believe that fear of failure and embarrassment are the biggest reasons people don’t do certain things in life—including speaking in front of an audience.


Once on a television show, we had as a guest a Marine Corps general who had won a congressional Medal of Honor for his service in Vietnam. Life magazine had written about his courage.

I went backstage just before airtime and asked, “General, are you ready?” He said, “I’m not going on.” I had planned twenty minutes of the program around him, so I said, “General, this is not a good time to tell me you’re not going on. The show starts in five minutes.” He choked out the words again: “I’m not going on.” He looked ashen. He was clearly terrified by the prospect of appearing on a national television show. If he didn’t go on, the show would be a disaster; I had to think quickly. I finally said, “General, let me put it this way. In just a few minutes you will be introduced, and either you’re going to walk out there and talk or I’m going on in place of you and tell everybody you’re chicken.” There was a long pause. He was huge, and I thought he was going to pound me into the floor. But then he smiled. First he got a smile in his eyes, and then his face smiled, and it seemed to relax him. He seemed to gain energy from the challenge I’d thrown at him. He went on the show. He was a little shaky starting. His throat was tight and he gave one-word answers. But after the first couple of minutes, he was fine.


The temporary paralysis that the general experienced was for years known as “stage fright.” Dressed up in psychological lingo, today it’s often referred to as “performance anxiety.” Whatever you call it, you certainly know when you have it. The most common symptoms are increased heartbeat, a queasy feeling in the stomach, sweating, trembling, quick breathing as if gasping for air, dry mouth, and difficulty vocalizing. Due to stress, the vocal cords often tighten, choking off normal, relaxed speech and sometimes causing the voice to crack. Most of us don’t get all of these symptoms at once, but even experienced speakers feel some of them some of the time.

Stage fright has been compared to what psychologists call the fight-or-flight syndrome. This is the decision humans make when confronted by a threat. They either run away from it or take it on. The prehistoric caveman spotted a wild boar in the jungle and he either hightailed it out of there or took up his cudgel. Our contemporary fight-or-flight situations usually imperil our egos more than our lives. When we are asked to face an audience, the atavistic instincts remain in us: Do we retreat or charge ahead?

That’s the first decision anyone has to make when faced with stage fright. I pushed the general to that decision and he reverted to character. He decided to fight.


He put his fears into perspective. He contrasted his temporary anxiety with the longer-term confidence he felt about himself. I joshed him into seeing how absurd it was that a man with the courage to dodge bullets would dodge an interview. Once he smiled about the funny dissonance of these messages, he was able to relax a bit and return to who he was—a man of courage. Interestingly, courage isn’t the absence of fear. It is action in the presence of fear. That’s what it takes to overcome stage fright. The general was still afraid of going on television. But because he had enough inner strength, he decided to grapple with the fear instead of submitting to it.

You handle your fears in direct relationship to your inner strength. If you feel confident as a person, you can admit weakness, even fear and anxiousness, and not imperil your mission. Your self-image is strong.


But overcoming self-image problems, at least on a temporary basis, is the real challenge. Performance anxiety results when you get nervous that all of your weaknesses over your whole life will become apparent in what is actually a short-range situation—for example, a particular speech, or even saying a prayer or making a toast at a holiday meal.

What many people tend to focus on is “I need to overcome all of my weaknesses and anxieties here and now. I need to be more handsome, more charming, more articulate, funnier, more intelligent.”

But that’s the impossible dream. So the anxious speaker stands backstage and says to himself, “When they introduce me, I need to be all these things which I’m not. I’ve spent my whole life trying to be those things and I didn’t make it.”

Instead, they need to ask themselves, “What is important right this minute? What do these people need or want to know right now? Why was I selected to speak on this subject? And how can I best communicate it?”

That puts the situation into perspective. It’s like putting a cockroach under a magnifying glass. It looks like the star of one of those Japanese monster movies. Enlarged. The bug looks as though it could eat you. Get rid of the magnifying glass. It’s just a cockroach. Step on it.

People with stage fright tend to put their whole self-worth and value against, say, 1 hour when they attend a meeting and give a speech. But there are about 720 hours in a month. Don’t judge yourself just on the basis of 1 hour before an audience. Your place in history probably will not be determined by what you say in 1 specific hour.

It’s a mental process to overcome stage fright. You have to say, “I have a right to be here. What I have to say is of value to this audience. I am an authority on this subject.” Use whatever works to overcome your obsession with all your lifelong insecurities.


Because you are the message, you must view yourself in both a short-term and a long-term way. Long-term, it is valuable for you to try to improve yourself and your abilities constantly, thus striving to broadcast a clearer signal of a better you over a lifetime. But as with playing golf, when you’re faced with a specific situation, you should play the best game of golf you’ve got right now. That means use everything you’ve got in your power at the moment and forge ahead. Missing a golf shot does not make you a hopeless, unathletic, lifelong jerk. Stumbling a little in a speech does not make you an inarticulate fool for life.

The process of putting fear into perspective will vary from person to person. The controller of a large financial services company suffered from stage fright so severe that he believed it would derail his career. My associate, Jon Kraushar, taped this man in our New York studio, first in conversation, then at the lectern doing a slide presentation which he had delivered, under duress, to his company’s board of directors. Jon also observed the controller making brief remarks before a live audience. The amazing thing was that, in both cases, the man was a very good speaker! He had an excellent dry wit. He was knowledgeable and interesting. Because of his inner anxiety he didn’t show as much commitment to his subject as he might have. However, contrary to his worst fears, he appeared to be comfortable. The live audience, in fact, gave him hearty applause when he finished.


Where then was this man’s stage fright? In his mind. In conquering his fear, he found it helpful to watch himself on tape. He slowly realized that the perception he had of himself as a speaker was much less flattering than the reality.


When I feel anxious before I make a speech, I ask myself, “What is the absolute worst thing that can happen to me in this speech?” The answer is I can blank out. The audience could get up and leave—or worse, they could stay and derisively laugh at me. They could have secretly brought in bags of groceries to throw at me. Perhaps I’ll humiliate myself in front of everyone else on the dais and never be able to give a speech again. That would be the end of my business. I’d be destroyed and never be able to get a job. Then I ask myself, “How likely is this to happen, even if I did blank out for a moment?” Of course, it’s all nonsense. But by thinking that’s the worst thing that could happen and knowing it won’t, I’m able to realize that the situation is simply not that critical. I can laugh at myself and my inordinate amount of fear about speaking. Sure it’s important to do well but it’s not life and death. Keep in mind one other thing as you move toward the lectern. You are an authority on what you are about to say. No one in the audience knows the subject better than you do. Therefore, you can draw on a certain amount of positive ego and approach the speaking situation with confidence.


There are two kinds of anxiety: exogenous anxiety, caused by frightening outside situations that may occur (like giving a speech), and endogenous anxiety, which is actually a disease caused by internal anxiety or panic. Very few people (probably less than 2 percent) actually suffer from endogenous anxiety. The rest have normal anxiety attacks at understandable times for logical reasons. If you recognize that this fear isn’t something that’s inherent in you, then it becomes a matter of controlling your externally induced fear.


If you’ve read how-to books, you’ve been told that a normal amount of fear in a tense communication situation (like firing an employee or delivering a eulogy) is not only reasonable but good. Well, I don’t disagree entirely with that. However, only a minimal amount of anxiety and fear is necessary if you are prepared. The single greatest antidote to fear is preparation. If you know exactly what you’re going to do when you get in front of other people, you will do it and the fear will disappear immediately. The most important moment in communicating is that moment of beginning. There are two things every speaker should know besides what he’s going to talk about: how to begin and how to end. Actually, it’s nothing new. Vaudeville performers had their openings and their closings down cold. Every communicator must do the same. If you launch properly and with confidence, you will forget anxiety and your speech will go well.

Why doesn’t every speaker do it if it’s that simple? The reason is they don’t plan exactly what they’re going to say in the first thirty to sixty seconds. That is an absolute must. If you have to write it down, word for word, do it. But then transfer it into an outline form so that you’re not staring at a piece of paper when you say, “I’m happy to be here.” Do the same thing with your closing, and know that you can go to your closing at any one of several moments within a speech or talk. Even if you’re on the telephone, speaking to a potential customer, you need to know how to grab his attention and how to sum up your main points. If you sense that you’ve been talking too long, cut it short and go to your ending paragraph. If you will work out the opening and closing of your remarks, you will never fail as a communicator—assuming, of course, that you have something to say in the middle. And more importantly, you will never be really afraid.


A large number of people come to me and say that when they first stand up to speak, they’re frightened. One of my clients said, “I’ve tried everything and I’m still petrified.” A week later he was having a physical, and he told his doctor about his stage fright and its accompanying symptoms, including heart palpitations and sweating. His doctor prescribed a drug called propranolol, used to treat patients suffering from hypertension, migraine headaches, and various heart ailments. Propranolol is classified as a “beta blocker” drug. It generally lowers hyper-stimulation of the cardiovascular system.

My client pronounced propranolol his “magic potion.” It at least relieved him of his anxiety symptoms. Eventually, with the skills learned in my training course, he was able to stop taking the drug.

I relate his experience in the interest of sharing information and not to recommend taking propranolol or any other drug (including alcohol) to calm fright symptoms.

According to medical authorities, propranolol is not a narcotic or a sedative. Therefore, it is said to be nonaddictive and won’t make you sleepy. Some professional performers, including musicians and actors, use propranolol to combat stage fright.

If you wish to learn more about propranolol, you must consult with a doctor. The drug reportedly is dangerous for certain people, including those who suffer from diabetes, asthma, or hay fever. It may also cause side effects, such as light-headedness, nausea, and insomnia.

Despite my client’s enthusiasm, propranolol is not a “magic potion.” It may be a short-term tool. But the real “magic” to effective communication is found inside of you.


When some of us stand up in front of an audience, we have a tendency to feel that this big red arrow is pointing at us. In other words, we’ve lost all perspective. We don’t see the audience. We don’t focus on our topic. This huge arrow has a sign on it saying, “Ah, get him! Get him!” We think the whole world is looking at us and judging us. If we can psychologically turn the arrow around and aim it toward the audience, we can take the pressure off ourselves, because the longer we think the arrow’s pointing at us, the more the pressure builds.

There are simple techniques to get over this. One is breath control. As the anxiety increases in a speech situation, your chest and throat muscles tighten and your breathing gets constricted. It’s a vicious cycle. As you start gasping for breath, you get more frightened. When this happens, calm yourself by breathing deeply just before you move to the lectern. Inhale deeply through the nose, exhale through the mouth. Inhale again, not as deeply, exhale again. Then start speaking.


The fear of speaking in front of an audience must date back to early civilization, when the cavemen used to sit around the campfire at night and say, “Hey, what did you do today?” As long as they were in conversation, everyone was comfortable. But as soon as someone clanged his bone on his stone cup and said, “Barney, you get up and tell us what you did today,” the rest of the people hushed up. There’s Barney wearing his bearskin, standing before his peers cast in the light of a roaring fire. He’s no longer part of the group. He’s separated from the pack, and he has a different feeling. He feels anxious because he’s now being judged by others. So, to the extent that we can make ourselves feel a part of the group, we can continue the relaxed, secure feeling and the confidence that we have in conversation. That goes to the heart of what we discussed earlier, that good speech is really nothing more than good conversation on your feet.


The one way to fail in a public speech situation is to try to be perfect. Perfection is the sure route to failure, because it complicates your life and creates so much more stress.

Many “how to speak” books suggest that you can make a speech perfectly and, with practice, can be so skilled that you will never make a mistake. But I say it’s okay if you make a mistake. I tell our clients to put a speech into the category of human activity as opposed to computer activity or precision activity.

Of course, you should have your facts straight. You should not be sloppy. You cannot be unprepared. But you shouldn’t believe you’ve failed if you didn’t do everything perfectly. And unfortunately, many businesspeople are trained to be perfect and that’s why they’re not good public speakers.


I see the perfection block very often among senior executives. They are driven people.

Drive played a major part in their success and, along with that, the desire to be perfect. The perfection syndrome is especially true of those who come from engineering, finance, or science, where precision is absolutely necessary for their success. So they apply the same standards to communications. The trouble is, their version of “perfection” when speaking translates to an overcontrolled delivery that is stilted, dull, mechanical, and boring.

It’s tough to convince people that they shouldn’t worry about being perfect in oral communications. One reason they set such a high standard for themselves is that they’re afraid of becoming public targets. Remember, most businessmen got where they are in private rooms. They were very good, very skilled, and persuasive. But they didn’t do it in public. Today, there’s much more pressure on people in business to be public figures. The news media and the community expect more openness from executives today. Therefore, executives spend a great deal of time trying to appear as if they’re not vulnerable, when in fact, if they appeared more human, more vulnerable, and didn’t try to be perfect, they’d do a much better job at communications. I’ve seen people who are technically very good at speech and the audience goes out of the room yawning. I’ve seen people who don’t have great voices, who even fumble a bit, but because they’re committed to what they’re saying and they’re interesting, the audience goes out happy, saying, “I could have listened longer.” Given a choice, the audience will always opt for the interesting but technically imperfect speaker over the one who’s technically near perfect but boring.


Ironically, strength comes from vulnerability. This is true in public speech as well as in interpersonal communications. In business, we’re taught not to be vulnerable. We go in with a poker face, we sit a certain way, we have a so-called command presence. We have learned to be the leader in the rigid militaristic sense of the word. But imagine, as an alternative, that you toss a certain amount of your own vulnerability on the table. You’re not frightened that you’re going to be exposed or ruined or used unfairly. You choose instead to be open and candid. Because of your openness, other players feel more relaxed. Let me give you an example.


In 1980, New York City Mayor Ed Koch appeared on one of those Sunday “newsmaker” programs in the aftermath of the city’s financial crisis. Koch had spent three hundred thousand dollars to put up bike lanes in Manhattan. As it turned out, cars were driving in the bike lanes, endangering the bikers. Meanwhile, some bikers were running over pedestrians because the pedestrians didn’t know the bike lanes were there or didn’t understand how they worked. It was a mess. The mayor was coming up for reelection, and four or five journalists now had Koch cornered on this talk show. The whole purpose was to rip the mayor’s skin off for the bike lanes and for spending money foolishly when the city was nearly broke. The trap was set. One reporter led off with “Mayor Koch, in light of the financial difficulties in New York City, how could you possibly justify wasting three hundred thousand dollars on bike lanes?” Cut to Koch. Tight close-up. Everybody was expecting a half-hour disaster. Koch smiled and he said, “You’re right. It was a terrible idea.” He went on, “I thought it would work. It didn’t. It was one of the worst mistakes I ever made.” And he stopped. Now nobody knew what to do. They had another twenty-six minutes of the program left. They all had prepared questions about the bike lanes, and so the next person feebly asked, “But, Mayor Koch, how could you do this?” And Mayor Koch said, “I already told you, it was stupid. I did a dumb thing. It didn’t work.” And he stopped again. Now there were twenty-five minutes left and nothing to ask him. It was brilliant.

Sometimes candor and vulnerability are the best answers. I thought to myself at the time, “This guy’s going to get a heck of a lot of votes from doing this, because they’re trying to beat him up and he’s already admitted he blew it.” Mayor Koch went on to receive both the Democratic and Republican endorsements for reelection.


In addition to showing a little vulnerability, using some energy can help you overcome fear, too. If you’re energized and your heart’s pumping a little bit, you won’t black out. Gesturing helps to keep your energy up because physical movement burns off anxiety and helps pump the blood to the brain. When I work with clients, I try to get them to move a little when they speak, to gesture naturally. Not only does it counteract their fear, it also makes them look more dynamic. Just imagine our caveman friend Barney describing the hunt without gesturing. That would ruin a good story. Yet the modern “caveman,” in his three-piece suit, has turned many an exciting report about a “hunt” for new business into a dull paper chase because he reads without energy from a text.


Audiences generally want the speaker to succeed. Part of the reason is that we can picture ourselves in the speaker’s place, so we sympathize. Also, we don’t want to be bored. Therefore, most audiences want to make the speaker comfortable in the hope that it will help the speaker perform better. We’ve all been in an audience when a speaker starts to wander, or his voice starts to quiver, or he forgets what to say and panics. It’s clear he’s in trouble and you pray that a trapdoor will open up and swallow him. Then you realize that he’s got twenty minutes more of this agony to go through. When this happens, the audience begins to reflect the speaker. They begin to grip the arms of their chairs, clear their throats, look at the ceiling, and slide lower in their seats.

On the other hand, if the speaker gets up and appears to really know what he’s doing—he’s in charge, he’s relaxed, he’s comfortable—the audience begins to reflect that, too, and enjoys the speech. To a large extent, the first thing a speaker has to do is get all the attention off himself and deal with his topic. This helps make the audience comfortable. The comfort level of the audience begins with the speaker.


If you do goof up, which we all do, don’t get worried. I once saw Walter Cronkite in person and he blew a few lines in his speech. He stopped, smiled, picked it up, and pulled out of it beautifully. It’s important to have good grammar, but if we were to transcribe each word, some sentences would be grammatically correct and some wouldn’t. That’s okay as long as the audience understands what you mean. After all, if a guy comes up to you and says, “Stick ’em up,” you don’t look for the subject and the predicate. You look for your wallet.


The most dramatic example I ever saw of speaker comfort was what happened to one of my friends who was running for governor. He’s a very nice, easygoing guy with a good sense of humor. His campaign was lagging and he was not getting much press coverage. He was set to speak at a legislative-correspondents dinner. The whole audience was made up of tough, professional reporters. On the way to the lectern, going up the stairs to the stage, he tripped and fell clear to his hands. He just got up, dusted himself off, and joked about it.

He said, “It’s been so long since a reporter has listened to me, I got a little overanxious.” The audience laughed and then applauded.

I later asked a newspaper reporter how the candidate did in his remarks. The reporter was somebody who didn’t like his politics. She said, “On a one to ten, he got a ten.” Then I asked another reporter. He said, “He got a nine.”

Very few people literally “fall on their face” in front of a potentially hostile audience. This man did. But with his confident attitude and good humor, he ended up with rave reviews because he was able to relax the audience.

Some of the greatest communications challenges are faced when we are put in a position of leadership. In the next two chapters, we’ll examine a critical aspect of leadership communication: dealing with the news media.