THE FIRST SEVEN SECONDS - You Are the Message - Roger Ailes, Jon Kraushar

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


It occurred to me as the last iron door clanged shut behind me: “Nobody’s ever going to break out of this place.” Ten minutes later, in prison, I was face-to-face with Charles Manson, the cult leader serving nine life sentences for his role in what some consider the most gruesome and bizarre murders in history—the killings of actress Sharon Tate and six others.

It was 1981 and I was executive producer of NBC-TV’s “Tomorrow Coast to Coast,” starring Tom Snyder and Rona Barrett. Segment producer Shelley Ross had arranged for Tom to conduct the first network interview with Manson in thirteen years. Manson was housed in a maximum security prison for the criminally insane at Vacaville, California.

I had read all the books and background about Manson but was unsure of exactly how the interview would go. I knew that we were dealing with a person who was, at best, completely crazy.

The idea of the interview itself was controversial. Many people felt Manson should not be interviewed—should not be granted a public forum. Other people felt that since he was kept alive after California passed the “no death penalty” law, we might learn something by interviewing and studying this type of person. I had mixed emotions, but my job was to get the interview.

When we entered the prison, we were led through a labyrinth of steel gates and cement block hallways until we ended up in a holding cell about twelve by fifteen feet. Across the hall from the holding cell was the prison library. The guards asked Tom to wait in the library while they brought Manson up. In the meantime, Tom and I sat down and discussed the interview at some length. We had several general questions but knew that the discussion would take on a life of its own once Manson started to ramble. The camera crew was setting up in the holding cell, so I decided to leave Tom, walk across the hall, and make sure the camera angles and lighting were right before Manson arrived.

As I walked out of the prison library and made a right turn, I bumped directly into someone. My eyes focused as this person bounced off my chest. From a distance of six inches I was staring directly into the eyes of Charles Manson. He was small, wiry, and mangy. He looked like a quick, dangerous ferret. I was momentarily shocked. As our eyes locked, I at first said nothing. I realized that a very primitive confrontation and mutual assessment were taking place. Then I said, “Mr. Manson, I’m in charge of this interview. I’d like you to come with me.” For a split second more he stared at me. Then he lowered his head, backed away, and suddenly acted very obsequious. He was happy to meet me, he said, and wanted to know what I would like him to do.

In that first five to seven seconds, we had tested each other. I knew he loved to puff himself up like the Wizard of Oz and frighten people around him into doing what he wanted them to do. Since I didn’t budge, he backed off and lowered his head, much as a dog does. They say a dog tests you by coming at you, fangs bared, head and tail up, and if you continue to show no fear, he will back off. Humans do this in their own way. Charles Manson was like a junkyard dog. Once he backed away, I knew I had control for the rest of the day. Tom did an excellent interview, although Manson occasionally got out of control. For example, Manson alternately shouted, then abruptly be came quiet, as he menacingly made a noose out of the microphone cable. At other times, he’d pace up and down, change the subject, and mutter to himself.

Each time the crew stopped to change a tape, Manson asked me how he was doing, as if he needed my approval. It later occurred to me that even in this highly bizarre situation, where logical thought was largely irrelevant, the instinctive relationship set up by the first seven seconds made a difference.

Research shows that we start to make up our minds about other people within seven seconds of first meeting them. Much of this is unspoken, as my first few seconds were with Charles Manson. But we are communicating with our eyes, faces, bodies, and attitudes.

Consciously or unconsciously, we’re signaling to other people what our true feelings are and what we really want to happen in an encounter. It’s almost a reflex action, like the pupil of an eye reacting to light. People, in the presence of others, affect each other’s bodies. Sometimes imperceptibly, sometimes noticeably, we influence each other’s breathing, heart rate, skin temperature, sweat glands, blood pressure, eye blinks, body motions—even the way some tiny hairs stand up on the skin. In the first seven seconds, we also trigger in each other a chain of emotional reactions, ranging from reassurance to fear.


Stop and think about some of the most memorable meetings you’ve had with other people. It may have been an introduction to a friend or a lover. It may have been a job interview. It may have been a rude shock—an intruder, a stranger, someone very unwelcome. Or it might have been pleasant—a surprise party. Whatever it was, try to focus on the first seven seconds of the encounter. What did you feel and think? How did you “read” the other people and how do you think they read you? How accurate or lasting were the first impressions on both sides? Did the tone in the opening seven seconds carry over to the rest of the meeting? Was the ice broken initially, or was tension established?

Now, review the last few days. Did you meet anyone new? Try to remember. What happened in the first seven seconds? What was directly or indirectly communicated in that time? How did you feel about this person?

Finally, think about yourself. What sort of impression do you believe you make on others in the first seven seconds? How aware are you of all the verbal and nonverbal signals you send to others as you come face-to-face, or even when you speak to others over the telephone? How aware are you of the underlying messages sent by eyes, face, voice, and body (yours and others’)? How much control do you feel you have over these variables? It’s important to focus on these questions because they help define not just your communications skills in the abstract but also who you are and how others perceive you.

Try to read other people’s nonverbal signals in every situation. It may be business or personal, at a convention or an intimate dinner. It’s amazing how accurate these messages are. We all send them out and we all receive them.

Some body language specialists suggest that you can interpret someone’s hidden agenda from the positioning of arms, legs, torso, and so forth. That’s partially true. But it’s not so simple. You also have to take into account the other person’s pitch, tone, rate of speech, phrasing, breathing—even eye dilation. The interpretation has to be a blend of literal observation and instinct. For example, some people would interpret folded arms to signal a defensive attitude when, in fact, there are people who actually fold their arms for comfort. One signal alone can be misleading. Learn to look at and listen to the “composite” person.

Most children are natural at reading others. They know when to ask Daddy or Mommy for something. They know when to keep quiet and leave the room. They know when there’s tension between their parents. And they know when everyone thinks they’re adorable. As we get older, we begin to block these natural absorbing techniques. We need to open them up again. Pay attention. Watch. Listen. Talk less. Notice whether people’s words are saying the same things as their vocal tones.


I recall producing a documentary on gangs for WCBS-TV in New York. We interviewed a group of tough teenagers between the ages of fifteen and eighteen who were in a halfway house being rehabilitated. These young criminals robbed people on the subways. On a “good” day, they claimed, they made three hundred to four hundred dollars in cash without ever being detected by the police or turned in by their victims. We were having our initial meeting with these youngsters. They agreed to take us later on a tour of the subways and show us how they performed their “work.”

As they entered the conference room, it was clear that if any of them asked you for your money, you’d probably turn it over. The leader of the group was Henry, a seventeen-year-old who exhibited a great deal of confidence. I asked Henry why he robbed people.

“Because crime pays, man!”

“What do you mean?”

“I make fifteen hundred dollars a week in cash in the subways. I don’t have to hurt nobody. If somebody don’t give me their money, I go to somebody else. I don’t want flack, man. I don’t want problems. I don’t want to draw attention. I been doin’ it for three years. Now, tell me, where can I get me a job makin’ fifteen hundred dollars a week?”

“Why are you in the rehabilitation program?”

“I ain’t sure I’m gonna stay. They talked me into tryin’ so they could teach me a job skill. I’m open to listenin’. But I ain’t positive I’ll never go back out on the streets again.”

That was not a comforting thought. We asked for a demonstration of how the gang members “rolled” their victims. I asked Henry, in particular, how he picked victims. He told me he looked for people shuffling along, heads down, eyes averted, isolated, and frightened when they saw him. In effect, he used his senses and his instincts to read their body language.

I looked around the room, picked out individuals, and asked Henry if they would make good victims. He said yes or no.

“Would I make a good victim?” I asked.

“No, I wouldn’t mess with you.”

“Why not?”

“When I firs’ walked into th’ room, you stood up and turned right toward me. Your eyes looked right into my eyes and then you looked me up and down from head to toe as if measurin’ me, to judge if you could take me in a fight if you had to. Those kinda people cause trouble. I might hafta kill you to get your money. I wouldn’t want t’ hafta do that. Not for your sake, but for mine.”

This relatively uneducated street tough could instinctively read the body language that would allow him to make a hit and be successful. He made that determination in less than seven seconds.


Captain Eugene “Red” McDaniel was a Navy pilot shot down in North Vietnam and held as a prisoner of war for six years. In his book Scars and Stripes, he describes the desperate need of prisoners to communicate with one another to maintain morale. He says POWs tended to die much sooner if they couldn’t communicate. On many occasions, Captain McDaniel endured torture rather than give up his attempts to stay in touch with other prisoners, especially when he was in solitary confinement. Prisoners risked death to work out a complicated communications system where they would write under plates, cough, sing, tap on walls, laugh, scratch, or flap laundry a certain number of times to transmit a letter of the alphabet.

Captain McDaniel writes, “One thing I knew, I had to have communications with my own people here in this camp. There were people like myself who wanted to live through this, if at all possible. Communication with each other was what the North Vietnamese captors took the greatest pains to prevent. They knew, as well as I and the others did, that a man could stand more pain if he is linked with others of his own kind in that suffering. The lone, isolated being becomes weak, vulnerable. I knew I had to make contact, no matter what the cost.”1 For those brave men, it was communicate or die.

When we think of survival, we usually list food, shelter, and clothing as the essentials. I believe communications belongs in that grouping. Babies have died in hospitals because of lack of attention, caring, and handling. Human communication is incredibly important, but most of us take it for granted and think we know how to do it. We’ve been told many times that we only use a tiny part of our brain. We use only a tiny part of our communications abilities as well. For example, how many facial expressions can you read?


Research shows that the eighty muscles of the face are capable of making more than seven thousand different facial expressions.2 Most of us can read if someone is happy or sad or frightened, but what about the other nuances? Develop a curiosity about what you see in other people’s faces. Do you see apprehension, shyness, curiosity, hostility, humor, warmth? As you get better and better at reading these signals, you will become much more successful at interpersonal communications.

Facial expression is often the most difficult area of nonverbal communication to master because we are taught early that our faces can give us away. Many people, particularly business executives, freeze their faces regardless of the emotional state they are in. They believe a poker face is a strategic advantage. Sometimes it is. But often, you only gain complete credibility with an audience when they feel you’re completely open and not masking anything from them. The viewer generally perceives the warmer, more vulnerable personality as being stronger and less afraid.


Let’s try something you’ve probably never done before. Look in a mirror and study your own face. Begin to talk about a political issue and see which part of your face moves and which doesn’t. Using the same subject matter, repeat the conversation; however, imagine that now you’re speaking to a child. See if your face softens and if your eyes become more expressive, and if there is a tendency to care more that the listener understands what you are saying. Most people do tend to use more facial expression when talking to children.

Still looking in the mirror, think of something funny until you smile. When you do, see if your eyes smile as well as your mouth. It’s important not to try to make a smile but to concentrate until an incident or something someone said comes to mind which causes the reaction naturally. Dwell on that thought until your whole face smiles, including your eyes. Note carefully how your face smiles.


Concentrate on listening and reacting. As you listen to a newscast, allow yourself the freedom of relaxing completely and then, as if your face were your only means of communication, try to transmit the feeling of that story to an imaginary third party by use of your face only. Do the same exercise in a mirror, imagining different stories and trying to transmit your feelings about them.

Think of a very happy time in your life, a very sad time, and a time when you were most angry; think of a time when you were frightened or concerned and try to show all these emotions as if you were a mute. Study very carefully how your face moves and concentrate on how it feels so that when you aren’t looking in a mirror, you can re-create that look simply by muscle tension and feeling.

Ask a question such as “Did you enjoy the concert last night?” and see if your face can show an inquisitive characteristic. “Do you really mean that?” “Is it time to go?” Try thinking those sentences without speaking and somehow get the meaning across using only your face.


Even if you’re not a fan of television, turn on your set and watch it carefully for half an hour. Alternately turn the sound off and on. Change channels frequently and watch the facial expressions of the actors and actresses. Also watch their reaction shots, when they’re not speaking lines. Angela Lansbury, star of “Murder, She Wrote,” is famous for her reaction shots. See if you can interpret their meaning and then imitate the expressions.

We all wear masks, but it’s necessary to drop the mask to communicate fully. Get used to using your face every time you speak.

Often, writers describe eyes as steely, knowing, mocking, piercing, glowing, and so on, or they may refer to a burning, cold, or hurt glance. Look in a mirror. Can you demonstrate any of these emotional states just by using your eyes?

The duration of a stare, opening the eyelids, squinting, or the dozens of other manipulations of skin and eyes can send out many meanings. The most important thing to consider is the feeling behind the look or the stare. This tends to give the object being stared at either human or nonhuman status. Have you ever had a person stare at you as if you were an object and not a person? It’s chilling, isn’t it? If we wish to ignore someone pointedly and treat him with contempt, we give him the same unfocused look as if we didn’t really see him. Panhandlers are often treated this way.

To acknowledge humanness, we avoid the blank stare and focus our eyes while relaxing our faces. This creates a warmth and empathy with another person. There are a variety of ways to avoid a blank look—for example, the sideways glance, the furtive glance, the lidded look, the surprised expression which says, “Oh, how nice to see you,” and so forth.

Basically, we’re dealing with the art of conversation, encouraging others to speak by reacting facially as we listen to what they say. This is called active listening. Speaking with enthusiasm when it’s our turn is also essential to good conversation.


Good communication starts with good conversation. If you converse well, then you should be able to transfer that ability to a lectern or TV or any other format.

To gauge your conversational skills, you need constructively critical feedback from someone else. Ask a spouse, friend, or coworker to candidly appraise your conversational skills, based on these criteria:

✵ Are you self-centered or other-oriented? Do you try to dominate conversations? Do you talk too much, overexplain, or lecture others? Are you a complainer? Or do you draw other people out on topics they’re clearly interested in discussing? Are you a sympathetic listener? Do you smile, laugh easily, and respond to others genuinely?

✵ Do you have interesting things to say? Can you discuss subjects besides your job or home life? Do you occasionally use colorful language? Do you avoid trite expressions?

✵ Are you lively or dull? Do you speak in a monotone and without enthusiasm? Do you get to the point quickly and engagingly or do you belabor points? Are you passive and non-responsive or active in the give-and-take of conversation?

✵ Do you encourage monologues or dialogues? Do you ask others open-ended questions that draw them out? Or are your questions “closed,” prompting just one-word responses? Open-ended questions often begin with “how” or “what”; they elicit detail. You may need to use closed questions occasionally, as in this series of questions. You can recognize closed questions because they often begin with “do you …”

✵ Do you pontificate or do you ask others how they feel about a subject? Are you open, candid, direct, and friendly, or tight-lipped, secretive, elliptical, and aloof?

Ask yourself the question I ask every client: If you could improve a single thing about the way you communicate, what would it be?


Here are the ten most common problems in communications. Read the list. If any of them apply to you, the principles in this book will help you solve them.

1. Lack of initial rapport with listeners

2. Stiffness or woodenness in use of body

3. Presentation of material is intellectually oriented; speaker forgets to involve the audience emotionally

4. Speaker seems uncomfortable because of fear of failure

5. Poor use of eye contact and facial expression

6. Lack of humor

7. Speech direction and intent unclear due to improper preparation

8. Inability to use silence for impact

9. Lack of energy, causing inappropriate pitch pattern, speech rate, and volume

10. Use of boring language and lack of interesting material

Various polls show that the ability to communicate well is ranked the number-one key to success by leaders in business, politics, and the professions. If you don’t communicate effectively, you may not die, like some POWs or neglected babies we mentioned earlier, but you also won’t live as fully as you should, nor will you achieve personal goals. This was a lesson drummed into me at a very early age.


I grew up in the little factory town of Warren, Ohio. My father was a foreman at the local Packard Electric plant, which made wiring for GM cars. Dad had a high school diploma, which was as far as anyone in our family had ever gone in school. But he had a lot of common sense.

He taught me a fundamental lesson about communicating that relates to the idea of “absorbing” other people before you “project” yourself. He said, “Boy, you can’t learn anything when you’re talkin’.” (I later heard that advice expressed as “God gave you two ears and one mouth so you could listen twice as much as you speak.”) Based on what Dad told me, I tried to listen to other people and observe them before I spoke up. That was the era of the belief that “children should be seen and not heard.” Learning to listen made me more sensitive to other people, perhaps too sensitive, when I first ventured out into the business world.

I was all of ten years old. The Korean War was on and my family was nearly broke, even though Dad was working hard. My mother used to embroider handkerchiefs, and I would take them out and sell them door-to-door. I was terrible at it. I would always read the expressions on the faces of my potential customers and realize they couldn’t afford to buy. I began to recognize disappointment, hesitation, even embarrassment in my customers’ faces. Often they didn’t need to say a word. I felt sorry for them, so frequently I’d sell a handkerchief for less than it was worth. My mother was no fool. She made me stop selling the handkerchiefs, and my brother assumed all the sales duties. Even at age ten, I was reading things in people’s faces. And while it made me the worst handkerchief salesman in Warren, Ohio, it would serve me well later in life, especially in my career.


Television and I grew up together. The first time I saw it was in 1949. I was nine years old. On the tiny screen was a test pattern with Howdy Doody’s picture. I don’t remember watching much television again until I was fifteen or sixteen, when I went out of my way to see ball games, “The Jackie Gleason Show,” and “Toast of the Town” with Ed Sullivan. As it did for millions of others, TV soon became a part of my life, but I had no idea it could be a career.

When I went off to Ohio University, the only way I could finance my education was with part-time jobs. There was an opening at the university radio station. I auditioned and was hired. I became the 7 A.M. sign-on disc jockey. Although I enjoyed being on the air, I was more excited by the scripting, the deadlines, the creativity, and the enthusiasm of the other students. Radio—and later TV—also gave me the opportunity to provide the link between audiences and significant events and personalities in politics, sports, business, and entertainment. For the next four years I was consumed by broadcasting.

I graduated from college in 1962. I had two job offers: one as a sports announcer at a radio station in Columbus; the other as a prop boy for a television station in Cleveland. The radio job paid more. But my intuition told me that the future was in television. So I became a prop boy, which is another word for gofer (as in “Go fer the coffee, kid”).

The station was just starting a local television program called “The Mike Douglas Show.” The goal was to create a show that could be syndicated nationally, which most people thought would be impossible from Cleveland, Ohio. The show’s gimmick was that Mike, an almost unknown former band singer, would cohost each week with a different Hollywood star. It worked and the show became the most widely viewed nationally syndicated talk-variety show in television history up to that time. “The Mike Douglas Show” was eventually seen in 180 cities, lasted almost twenty years, and had more viewers at one point than NBC-TV’s “The Tonight Show,” with Johnny Carson. Most of the credit for the creation of this program goes to executive producer Woody Fraser, program manager Chet Collier, and a few talented others.

I was fortunate to join their group in the show’s first few months and my career grew with the show. By working very hard, I was promoted to assistant director, which is a gofer with stripes. I wrote cue cards for the songs, I ran for sandwiches for the stars, I picked up guests at the airport and brought them to the studio. I did whatever anybody asked. It was a great learning experience. Suddenly I was working daily with the biggest stars of the time—people like Bob Hope, Pearl Bailey, Liberace, Jack Benny, and Judy Garland. I mention these names because it was from these and others that I learned the elements of effective communications. Each person I met had some impact on me. But the greatest impact of all was made by television itself.