YOU ARE THE MESSAGE - You Are the Message - Roger Ailes, Jon Kraushar

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


The most pressure-packed communications spotlight in the world follows the president of the United States, and on the morning of Monday, October 8, 1984, the pressure on Ronald Reagan was particularly intense.

The press had pretty much decided that Walter Mondale had won the first television debate with Reagan in Louisville the night before. Speculation swept the country that there was hope for Mondale yet, and that maybe, just maybe, he could pull the election out over the popular seventy-three-year-old president, who had appeared so tired and confused to the nation’s viewers.

A couple of days later, I received a call from the White House. Up to that point, I had played a small, creative consulting role on the president’s Tuesday Team, the group masterminding the reelection campaign. Now some of the president’s staff wanted me to come down to Washington and see what I could do about averting a second TV debate disaster, an event even they feared could cost Ronald Reagan the election. There was great resistance to bringing me in, because many people felt that the president had been overcoached for the first debate. Nancy Reagan was upset that the president had performed so badly against Mondale after all that coaching, and since she didn’t know me, she probably thought, “God, that’s all we need—one more consultant. We had too many the first time.” She wasn’t wrong, but my aim was to provide the structure needed to bring the president back to basics.


What the American people wanted from the president, I felt, was some reassurance that he wasn’t too old for the job, and given that, they would reelect him. Clearly, they hadn’t received that reassurance in the first debate, although his supposed losses from that performance were exaggerated. Although there had been a drop in Reagan’s polling results in the large cities of the Northeast—which were not his natural constituency anyway—I was told his numbers stayed even or actually went up in places like Texas after the first debate. Nevertheless, it was important for the president to do well in the second debate.

When I arrived at the White House, the first thing Reagan’s top aides, Jim Baker and Michael Deaver, told me was that I would not be talking to Mr. Reagan directly. They said, “We’d like your ideas, and if we think they’re good, we’ll present them to the president.” So I said fine, and we got down to business.


“What are the president’s goals for the second debate?” I asked. Their replies were vague, so I went through a checklist of possible objectives.

Finally Baker said, “Maybe you ought to go to the debate practice this afternoon. Don’t say anything, just sit in the back and watch, and give us your observations.”

At 4 P.M., I arrived at the little theater in the Executive Office Building next to the White House. There were two lecterns on the stage, with Reagan standing at one and his budget director, David Stockman, at the other. Several members of the administration were set up as a panel of questioners. The moment I walked in, I could see that the president was uncomfortable, out of sorts, and tired. He clearly didn’t want to be there, but this mock debate was on his schedule.


Someone fired a question at Stockman and he gave a perfect answer, reading it out of some notebook put together by Ph.D.s. In response, the president ad-libbed, fumbling around a bit. Then back to Stockman, who read a perfect rebuttal and buried the president again, making him look confused about the facts. Every time they finished a round, somebody in the audience would raise a hand and say, “Mr. President, the tonnage on that warhead is wrong. The date of that treaty was so-and-so,” and they’d correct him.

I watched this performance for about twenty minutes, with Stockman’s written answers annihilating the president, and Reagan trying to remember all the detailed facts and statistics as he had in the first debate. I signaled for Deaver and Baker to come out into the hall. “If you think he was bad in Kentucky, wait till he gets to Kansas City. It’ll be a disaster if you keep this up.”

“Well, what do we do?” they asked.


I told them to cancel the mock debates, get everyone off his back, and give me access to him for a couple of hours between then and Sunday, when the second debate was scheduled. I also asked for the last half hour before the debate alone with the president. “If you give me that,” I told them, “he’ll win. If you don’t, he’ll probably lose.” I realized that sounded presumptuous, but actually I was gambling on Reagan and his innate gift of communication. I felt pretty sure that if I could get him back to being himself again, he’d be okay.

When I went back into the theater, they were still at it, correcting everything the president said. Finally, someone asked him a fairly tough question, and he gave a brilliant answer.

There was complete silence. So I stood up in the back and called out, “Mr. President, that was a terrific answer!” Reagan flashed me a big smile and seemed to grow about four inches. He was like a guy in a batting slump who finally puts one over the wall. He really needed someone to give him a cheer.

Two days later, I met with Reagan and his aides. Again I asked the question. “Mr. President, what’s your goal in the second debate?”

He obviously hadn’t thought much about it, and finally he said, “Well, Mondale’s saying some things that aren’t true and I’ve got to correct the record.”


“Mr. President,” I said, “there are five strategies you can choose from. You can attack, defend, counterattack, sell, or ignore. You’ve picked defense, which is the weakest possible position. If you do that, you’ll lose again.” That got his attention. Then I talked to him about communications, debates, and what I thought the public expected. I said, “You didn’t get elected on details. You got elected on themes. Every time a question is asked, relate it to one of your themes. You know enough facts, and it’s too late to learn new ones now, anyway.”

After about fifteen minutes of conversation, Mike Deaver, the man who knew the president best, slipped me a note that said, “He’s really tuned in. Keep going!”


After that, we did what I call a pepper drill. We fired questions at the president and he had about ninety seconds for each answer, which was considerably less time than he would have in the actual debate.

“What I want you to do, Mr. President, is to go back to your instincts. Just say what comes to you out of your experience.”

I asked others in the room not to interrupt the drill but to make a note of anything they thought should be corrected later.

That was a little risky because there were a lot of high-powered people there, but I knew that I was in charge and that I had to remain in charge of that session until the president regained his rhythm and confidence.

For the next hour, we fired away at him. Every time he’d start to stumble, I’d ask, “What do your instincts tell you about this?” and he’d come right back on track. He was very good. Finally I said, “Mr. President, if you do that Sunday night, you’re home free.”


On Saturday, I met with Mike Deaver in his office prior to my ninety-minute meeting with the president in the White House residential quarters. Before we went upstairs, Deaver warned me, “Don’t introduce anything new at this meeting. Let’s just see if the president has any questions or concerns about the debate, and if he has, we’ll go over them.”

I said, “I have two concerns. One, the close that the president has prepared is too long. It won’t fit in the time allotted.”

“It’s too late to change it,” Deaver said. “The president’s working on it. He’s got it.”

I offered a second close, which was much shorter. Deaver rejected it. Then I asked, “Has anybody talked to the president about the age issue?”

Deaver replied, “We don’t want to introduce anything new.”

I took that to mean that they’d already discussed it, that it was none of my business, and that they didn’t want me to get into that sensitive area with the president.

On the way to the president’s residence, Deaver and I met up with Robert McFarlane, who was then national security advisor, and we all went upstairs to join the president. He came in carrying his yellow pad and looking relaxed in casual slacks, loafers, and a polo shirt.

The four of us discussed several issues and the president read through his closing statement. Then, as we were walking out toward the security elevator, I realized that no one had discussed the age question. Although I had been warned not to bring up anything new, I was sure some reporter would ask the question. So I said, “Mr. President, what are you going to do when they say you’re too old for the job?”

He stopped cold and blinked. Silence.

“It’s critical that you get by that issue successfully,” I said.

He thought for a moment. Then he smiled and said, “Well, there’s an old line I’ve used before about …” and he told me what he planned to say.

“Fine,” I said. “That’s a good answer. But whatever happens, say that and nothing else. Don’t get drawn into the age question at all. Just say your line and stand there.”

“I got it,” he said. We left.

On Sunday, in Kansas City, I met with the president in his hotel suite just before the debate. He led me into a back bedroom where there was one chair and a bed. I expected him to take the chair, but he took off his jacket, bounced up on the bed, and said, “Okay, coach, what do we do?”

We ran through the strategy one more time—how to go on offense, when to move, what to hit on. He had it down pretty well. Then I gave him a pep talk and asked him if he was ready.

“Let’s go get ’em,” he said.


During the debate, I sat in a room under the stage watching the monitor. Sure enough, someone asked the age question. Everybody around me groaned. “Don’t worry,” I said. “Here comes a home run.” Up on stage, Reagan was saying that, of course, he felt up to the job, and then he let Mondale have it: “… and I want you to know that I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” It was not just the president’s words. It was his timing, inflection, facial expression, and body language which made the moment powerful.

As far as I was concerned, the debate was over. The news media had their lead quote for the next day, and everybody had a laugh. I watched Mondale’s face. Even he broke into a smile, but I could see in his eyes that he knew it was over, too. I could almost hear him thinking, “Son of a gun, the old man got away with it! He got a laugh on that line, and I can’t top it.” The public had the reassurance they were looking for, and Reagan had the election won.


This story wraps up everything I’ve ever learned about successful communication. It says, “You are the message.” What does that mean, exactly? It means that when you communicate with someone, it’s not just the words you choose to send to the other person that make up the message. You’re also sending signals about what kind of person you are—by your eyes, your facial expression, your body movement, your vocal pitch, tone, volume, and intensity, your commitment to your message, your sense of humor, and many other factors.

The receiving person is bombarded with symbols and signals from you. Everything you do in relation to other people causes them to make judgments about what you stand for and what your message is. “You are the message”comes down to the fact that unless you identify yourself as a walking, talking message, you miss that critical point.

The words themselves are meaningless unless the rest of you is in synchronization. The total you affects how others feel about you and respond to you. In the case of the Reagan-Mondale debate, the audience really had just one thing on its mind: Is the president too old to serve another term? Reagan was very popular with the majority of voters. But was he physically capable of handling a second presidential term? The president could have insisted in words that he was feeling fit and able. And he certainly did that. But that was only a small part of the message.

In the first debate, the president had seemed tired and nervous and even confused at times. He now needed to demonstrate that he was still the same Ronald Reagan the voters had elected in 1980. My role in coaching him was to remind him that his objective in the debates was to communicate that composite personality which the voters liked so much. My advice to the president was simple: “You are the message.”


What does all this mean to you in terms of getting what you want by being who you are? What it means is that your composite message determines whether you’re going to be successful in whatever career you’ve chosen, whether you’re going to move up in the management of your company, whether you’re going to be a winner or a loser, whether you’re going to succeed in negotiating situations, whether you’re going to become a superstar or just another droning voice who eventually gets a wristwatch at retirement. The stakes are that high. It’s that important for you to accept that you (the whole you) are the message—and that message determines whether or not you’ll get what you want in this life.

Over the past twenty-five years, I’ve worked with literally thousands of business and political leaders, show business personalities, and men and women who just want to be successful. I’ve helped many of them learn to communicate more effectively, control communication environments, make persuasive presentations, field hostile questions from journalists or irate corporate shareholders, and generally handle the ever-changing communication situations we all find ourselves in every day. The secret of that training has always been “You are the message.” If you are uncomfortable with who you are, it will make others uncomfortable, too. But if you can identify and use your good qualities as a person, others will want to be with you and cooperate with you.


Take a piece of paper and list personal assets that help you communicate. Consider your physical appearance, energy, rate of speech, pitch and tone of voice, animation and gestures, expressiveness of eyes, and ability to hold the interest of people who listen to you. Perhaps you can add other qualities. These assets form the best part of the composite you. Study the list to see which areas you wish to improve. Those categories you feel less confident of are also part of your total message. In this book, we’ll show you, as the old song says, how to “accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.”

“You are the message” is a new way of looking at yourself and others. Sometimes we can make mistakes about others if, as we view them, we segment them and only get a partial picture. This person has good-looking hair; that person has no hair. This person should lose weight; that one should gain weight. We look at all these parts of people, but then we quickly perceive the person in totality. You can have the greatest head of hair in the world, or the greatest smile, or the greatest voice, or whatever, but after two minutes you’re going to be looked at as a whole person. All of those impressions of your various parts will have been blended into one complete composite picture, and the other person will have a feeling about you based on that total impression. Enough of that image has to be working in your favor for you to be liked, accepted, and given what you want.


Bennett Cerf, former chairman of Random House Publishing, was a man who never gave in to the pressure of growing up completely. He was an incorrigible punster. He would make a joke about anything and always seemed to be in good humor. He had a tremendous interest in other people. This quality alone made him one of the most sought-after friends and hosts in the world. He wasn’t great-looking, he didn’t have a great voice, he wasn’t even a great speaker, and yet he became well known on national television, where publishing house executives usually aren’t public figures. The reason? People liked Bennett!

They always had the feeling he cared about them and was interested in what they were doing—and he truly was. He was interested in everyone he met. After meeting Bennett and spending ten minutes with him, you would find yourself engrossed in a deep conversation about yourself. Bennett was probing, interested, caring. He never hesitated to offer advice or ideas. He never held back because he thought he might lose some of himself if he gave it to others.

I had enormous respect for Bennett. I only knew him well for a few months, but I knew him well enough to understand why people were drawn to him. At the most serious moments, the little boy in Bennett would surface, he would say something funny, and everyone would start to giggle. I’ve seen many other people who careened from crisis to crisis, but I always had the feeling that Bennett Cerf was laughing from crisis to crisis and enjoying the trip. Bennett Cerf built a publishing empire and was a successful businessman, yet he gave the overall impression that life was a lark.


For the next week, whenever you meet someone, quickly form an overall impression. Do I like this person or not? Am I comfortable or not comfortable? As soon as the overall impression is formed, try to identify as many particulars as you can about the person. Look at eyes, face, attitude, style, and voice. This exercise will sharpen your instincts about people. It will enable you to better “read between the lines” with others. You’ll quickly spot if people mean what they’re saying. You’ll more readily discern nuances from others—for example, if they’re tired, depressed, bored, or anxious, or if their interest has suddenly been piqued (reading other people accurately is essential if you want to succeed in any sales or negotiating situation).

Practice by writing down everything your senses tell you about each person you meet. If you cannot list at least twelve impressions or observations, you need some concentrated work in this area. This exercise will sharpen your instincts about people.

The fact is, our senses are always working, although we’ve trained ourselves to ignore them at times by tuning out. The goal of opening up your senses and practicing this exercise is to expand the sensory radar that all of us have but that only the most astute communicators tap into. Have you ever noticed that some people—maybe a boss, a teacher, or a friend—seem to be able to read your mind at times? The gift some people have is that they have trained their sensory radar better than you have. You can become more like these master communicators by opening up your senses instead of shutting them down.

The fact that most of us only use a small percentage of our sensory potential is demonstrated by the heightened sensing abilities developed by certain handicapped people. For example, the blind often hear, touch, and smell with great perception and subtlety. It’s not that their other senses are better or different than those of sighted people—they’re just more acutely used.


When I was in college, I cohosted an early morning radio program called “Yawn Patrol” with another student, Don Matthews. Don was a better broadcaster than I was. He had a terrific voice, a good sense of humor, and a natural radio style.

Don was blind. During our program, we sat close together at a table with a microphone hanging between us. Each day, Don made a list, in Braille, of the records he wanted to play for the following morning’s show. My job was to read the news and to banter with him. If I was going to speak, I would cue Don by tapping his hand so that we wouldn’t run over each other. We were extraordinarily successful together. Eventually we became so sensitized to each other’s breathing and speech patterns that we were able to give up the “tap” system.

Because our show was the first broadcast of the day, I used to arrive about fifteen minutes before airtime, open up the radio station, and turn on the lights and the transmitter. That required throwing about three switches, then going to the control room, cueing up the national anthem, opening the microphones, and signing on the station. Once Don took his place at the table, we would start the show.

One morning, there was a power failure in town and my alarm clock didn’t go off. I woke up with a start, jumped into my clothes, and raced to the station, knowing that I was late. As I arrived, I heard the national anthem playing. I went directly to the studio. Don was there and we went through the program. I assumed that someone else, perhaps an engineer, had shown up early and turned on the equipment.

After the program, I asked Don who had turned on the transmitter. He said, “I did.”

I was stunned. “How could you have turned it on?”

Don explained, “I used to follow you around when you turned everything on in the morning, so I knew basically where everything was. But about a week ago, when we were in the transmitter room, I noticed that there was a slight breeze coming from the right side of the room, which told me that there had to be a window open. When I arrived at the studio and you weren’t here, I realized you must have overslept. So I went around to the back of the building, lifted the iron grate to the bottom window, lowered myself to the sill, lifted the window, and got into the transmitter room. Once inside, it was pretty easy to find the buttons by feel, since I’d heard you snap them on every day.” He chuckled and went on, “It didn’t matter that it was dark. It’s always dark to me. So I got to the control room. I knew where you kept the national anthem record, so I cued it up and decided to start the show myself.”

He said it all matter-of-factly, but I realized how keen his senses had to be to go through a series of fairly complicated steps without having the gift of sight.


You can begin to heighten the powers of your senses right now. Close your eyes. Focus on listening as intently as you can. Even if you’re in a quiet room, you may hear the hum of the fluorescent lights or the rustle of the trees outside—sounds you filtered out just a moment ago.

Next, focus on sight without sound. Look out the window at moving objects or at people and study them closely. If you’re near a TV, turn it on without the sound and just watch. Try to mentally list five different characteristics of each object or person you observe.

Finally, close your eyes again and try to picture streets where you often walk. Either in your mind or on a piece of paper, catalog every building and landscaped area you can recall in the greatest possible detail. Later, walk those streets and make a note of anything you missed in your inventory. We often look at but fail to observe people, places, and things.


One of my clients was a combat infantry officer in Vietnam. He says that he survived the war, in part, because he realized the importance of keen observation. “I could walk into a thicket of jungle and tell you if someone—or something—had passed through recently. I’d look for freshly broken twigs and grass that hadn’t sprung up again—things a casual passerby might never see.

“Today, as I walk city streets or ride subways, I’m aware of exits, blind spots, dead ends, and places of vulnerability—all sorts of things we were sensitive to in ’Nam. During my tour, I learned to speak a little Vietnamese. But even if I didn’t understand each word, I could always read the person’s face. Even today, I can spot in someone else the quickest flicker of fear, apprehension, anger, or hostility.”


Many clients I work with come in and say, “I don’t want you to change me.” Well, I can’t change anyone. All I can do is help them identify and bring out their best qualities, the ones that communicate a positive message. I’ll often sit down with someone who’s quite good at communicating on a one-to-one level—someone who’s friendly, warm, and articulate. We’ll have a good conversation. Then I’ll turn on the video camera and ask the person to stand up at the lectern and answer a few questions. Suddenly, that person, who is basically a good communicator, changes into someone entirely different. He becomes self-conscious, wooden, dull, uninteresting, tongue-tied, and cold. That person has changed himself, and then my job becomes one of trying to get him to change back into that warm, comfortable person he was when we were just sitting and chatting.

So when I say that you can get what you want by being who you are, I mean that you don’t have to make any dramatic changes in your personality. You don’t have to assume a phony posture. You just have to be yourself at your best. The truth is you already have the magic of good communications within you, because nobody can play you as well as you can.


Take a piece of paper and list three times in your life when you know you’ve communicated successfully. Think about those times. What made them work? I’m sure of a few things: You were committed to what you were saying, you knew what you were talking about, and you were so wrapped up in the moment you lost all feelings of self-consciousness.

Another critical point: Once you reach a comfortable, successful level of communications, you never have to change it, no matter what the situation or circumstances or the size of the audience. I define an audience as anyone other than yourself.

Whether there’s one person or a thousand people listening to you, or if you’re on television and there are millions watching, the essential principles hold true. The key element is that you not change or adapt your essential “self” to different audiences or different media. The thing that most confuses people trying to learn to be good communicators is the idea that somehow they have to act differently when giving an after-dinner speech than they would while being interviewed on television or for a job, or while conducting a staff meeting. They think they have to act all these different ways, and nobody’s given them the script to do this. Remember: You are the message, and once you can “play yourself” successfully, you’ll never have to worry again.


The trick in good communications is to be consistently you, at your best, in all situations. All communication is a dialogue. You (the speaker) are selecting and sending symbols (words, facial expressions, and so forth) to the audience. The audience may not be speaking back, but they’re sending you symbols as well—for example, facial expressions and body language. Learn to read those symbols coming back to you.


The best communicators I’ve ever known never changed their style of delivery from one situation to another. They’re the same whether they’re delivering a speech, having an intimate conversation, or being interviewed on a TV talk show.

During the late 1960s, as executive producer of the Mike Douglas television talk show, I would decide who the program’s guests would be and how much airtime each guest should receive. Gradually, my ear became trained to listen for the interesting stories, the easy conversationalists, and the hesitations (“No, I don’t want to talk about that”). I was able to tune in to the rhythm of their voices. Sometimes I’d only have a five-minute conversation from an airport telephone booth and have to decide, right then and there, how good a guest would be, what kind of an impression he or she would make on the TV audience, and how much airtime to allow. I developed an internal “guest meter.” Sometimes I was fooled, of course, but most of the time my first impression of the message the person was presenting—even over the telephone—turned out to be a pretty accurate gauge of that guest’s impact.

Stop and think for a minute. If you were a TV producer, would you book yourself as a guest?

I also had the opportunity to see many of these excellent TV communicators perform in other situations, like after-dinner speaking. It really impressed me how they kept the same personal style and delivery they used on television. They didn’t change a thing. Interestingly enough, Mike Douglas was not a particularly good after-dinner speaker, even though he was terrific as a TV talk show host. Whenever I heard him speak, I used to think, “Mike, if you’d just do up there at the podium what you do on the air, which is to have a good conversation, you’d be great at the lectern, too.” So the principle here is not to change yourself because the environment changes, but rather to become totally comfortable with yourself wherever you are. Once you realize that you are the message, you can transmit that message to anyone anytime and be pretty successful at it.


Now that I’ve told you what your goal should be, let me give you the good news. You can become as good as some of the people you admire on TV. And assessing your skills can be fun, because it helps you to know yourself better. It also improves your relationships with the people around you. In short, it helps you get what you want.

One important note: You can’t rely on other people to change themselves to accommodate you. That’s a strategy of reaction. The way to influence others is to do it actively—with your composite message. If there is a misunderstanding between the communicator (you) and the “communicatee” (your audience), it’s the communicator’s fault. This requires that you take complete responsibility for the flow of communications, whether you’re speaking or listening. This is good news, because it empowers you to be, in effect, in charge of every communications situation you’re in. You can change the mood and the flow of the communications exchange.


Bob Hope taught me that lesson when I was a young, twenty-three-year-old associate producer of “The Mike Douglas Show.” I unexpectedly met Hope when he was on a media tour to promote his book I Owe Russia Twelve Hundred Dollars. I say “unexpectedly” because Hope was passing through Cleveland, Ohio, where our then local show was produced, when his publicist suddenly called us to say that the great comedian would appear on our program. In the sort of chance that can make or break a young person’s career, all the producers senior to me were either ill or out of town on business when we got the chance to have Bob Hope as our star guest. I was so inexperienced that I thought management would cancel the show rather than let me take charge, but they gambled on me.

Hope arrived at the front door of the television station with a large entourage of public relations people, local friends, and hangers-on. I was pretty intimidated. I knew that Bob Hope’s appearance could be the critical showpiece performance to help catapult “The Mike Douglas Show” into national syndication. As I met Hope, I mumbled nearly incoherently in trying to explain the show to him. Many of the people hanging around Hope were rolling their eyes as if to say, “Who is this kid and what are we doing here?”

I was too scared to say so, but I really wanted Hope to stay for our entire ninety-minute show and sing, dance, and joke around. He wanted to plug his book and leave in five minutes. In the middle of my stammering, Hope grabbed my shoulders and steered me away from the others, through a doorway and into the scenery shop of the television station. Suddenly Bob Hope and I were alone.

He looked at me and said, “Kid, I know nothing about your show. I’ve never been on it and I don’t know what you expect me to do. It’s very important for you to speak up and tell people exactly what you want. I’m a big enough star to refuse whatever you request, if I decide to. But if I don’t even know what you want, there’s no way I can give it to you. Now, tell a little bit about the program and the host, when I’m on, where I enter, and what’s expected of me.”

I realized in a flash that I had one chance and had better go for it. I admitted to Hope that I was not the producer but that an awful lot depended on his staying for the entire program, to entertain as well as to plug his book.

He started to laugh and said, “The network is paying me a hundred thousand dollars to do that.” He patted me on the shoulder and said, “Okay, now that I know what you want, I’ll let you know what I’ll do later. Let’s see how it goes. In the meantime, just tell me when and where I go on.”

As it turned out, Bob Hope stayed for the entire show. Once he was in front of the audience his natural performer instincts took over. He enjoyed Mike, they sang a duet, Bob danced and joked with the audience. His command performance undoubtedly helped “The Mike Douglas Show” later to be sold into national syndication.

After the show, as he was leaving, he saw me and said, “How’d I do, kid?”

“You were great, Mr. Hope.”

He turned and pointed at me. “Next time, speak up.” He smiled and left.

I never forgot that lesson—and I’ve never been afraid to speak to anyone since then. It’s your responsibility—not your listener’s—to insure that your message gets through, and if you don’t speak up, people can’t help you get what you want.

Let me demonstrate with one simple example. If you say to me, “I’ll never lie to you,” but you’re looking at the floor when you say it, I could doubt that message or at least wonder, “Why doesn’t he look at me when he says that? Maybe he’s not telling the truth.”

On the other hand, if you take charge and look me in the eye, the statement becomes not only believable but also reassuring, strong, and positive.


The words you choose to speak are important, but they’re just part of your message. However, many people think that their words are the whole message. Corporate executives are famous for this. They often get up and send all sorts of weird signals to their audience. My favorite is “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m very happy to be here.” But they’re looking at their shoes as they say it. They have no enthusiasm whatsoever. They look either angry, frightened, or depressed about being there.

In fact, they’re often only reading these words. So while the words say “happy to be here,” the rest of the person is sending a very different message. The signals are confusing, and the audience will always go with the visual signals over the verbal ones. They’ll say to themselves unconsciously, “He’s telling me he’s happy to be here, but he’s really not. Therefore, he’s either uncomfortable or a liar, or both.” The speaker is the message and the message is negative.


I once heard a story, which is probably apocryphal, about an executive invited to address a very distinguished audience at the Harvard Club. The night of the speech, the executive went to the platform carrying a long, erudite text written by his Ph.D. speechwriter. As he prepared to launch into reading the scholarly but dull remarks, he suddenly changed his mind, stopped, and looked up at the audience. He said, “You know, ladies and gentlemen, I pay a brilliant speechwriter a great deal of money to make sure that I sound intelligent, don’t make any mistakes, and never utter an expletive.” Then he smiled and added, “Well, the hell with that. I’m just going to talk with you tonight from the heart.” He threw the speech aside, delivered his remarks extemporaneously, and got a standing ovation.

Of course, there may be times when you must read a text. But the point is, when you can, extemporize, using an outline. That makes you appear to be more comfortable. However, if you must read, you can become very skilled at making yourself sound conversational. Never write “I’m very happy to be here” to open a speech. In fact, the only thing you should have at the top of the page is the word “Greeting” and the name of the group you’re addressing, so that you can’t blank out on that. Then you’re forced to extemporize the opening.

Look at the audience when you speak, and speak with sincerity. Don’t make sentences too long. Use short, punchy phrases so you can scan the paper with your eyes and look up and deliver the speech. Don’t be afraid to pause between lines. Don’t look down to read the final word of every line. Instead, quickly glance down to “scoop up” the last few words of a sentence. Pause. Look up and speak directly to the audience. Then pause again for a “beat” before you look down to scoop up your next phrase.

Take your time. Most people rush back into the text because they’re afraid they’ll lose their place. Their heads bob up and down like yo-yos. Use one index finger to guide you back to where you left off in the text. To repeat: Go slowly. Time gets distorted when you’re in front of an audience, and you may think you have to rush more than is necessary. Pace your looking down and looking up so that your eyes are always up at the end of a sentence. To achieve that, feel free to take an extra beat to silently scoop up the final words of each sentence with your eyes before delivering them directly to the audience.

Try reading the following remarks in that manner. Note how the text has been laid out for easy “scoop reading” and delivery.
























—Theodore Roosevelt

Don’t use stark white, shiny paper. If you deliver the speech in a room that has bright lights overhead, the page will reflect, making it difficult to see. Instead, use off-white, matte-finish, porous paper. Have the speech typed on the upper two thirds of the page, double-spaced between lines, and sextuple-spaced between paragraphs. With that spacing, there is less chance of losing your place, and your eyes are never forced to the bottom of the page, making you look too far down and away from the audience. This helps you maintain eye contact.

Depending on your eyesight, you may need to adjust the size of the type and the darkness of the print. Generally, a slightly blown-up typeface is easier to read. Large type sizes are available on most typewriters or word processors today. Have the speech typed in such a way that ideas or sentences end on a page (see our sample above). Try to limit a single thought to one or two lines so that your eyes can scan it easily. It’s better to have more pages than to have the speech crowded together and difficult to read.

Be sure you number the pages in case they get out of order during a practice session. I once saw a man run from a trailer to an auditorium with a forty-page speech. The wind caught the pages and blew them all over the parking lot. The good news was that they found all the pages; the bad news was that he forgot to number them and he was due on stage at that moment.

Never flip the pages on the podium so that they’re upside down. When you finish a page, just slide it to the side, face up. That way the audience does not become overly aware of all these pages flying; otherwise they might pay more attention to that distraction than to the speech itself.

Never rush the speech just to get it over with because you’re reading. If it has no value and isn’t worth reading, don’t do it. If it does have value, read it slowly enough and with enough pauses that the audience can follow what you’re saying.

Just like the beginning of the speech, the ending should be pretty well memorized so that you can deliver the last few lines while looking at the audience. Again, the same comfortable feeling used in all good communications should be used here. The audience knows you’re reading and so do you. There’s no need to try to hide it, nor is there a need to feel self-conscious about reading. If the speech is interesting, and you’re comfortable and committed to what you’re saying, the audience will go away feeling, “That was an interesting speaker,” not just “That was an interesting speech.”