INSTINCTS AND RULES - You Are the Message - Roger Ailes, Jon Kraushar

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


A few strong instincts and a few plain rules suffice us.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson

Many traditional how-to books advise you to stride into a room and forcefully take charge, purposefully invading others’ space and asserting your personality in an attempt to dazzle and impress. These books say this gives you charisma. They offer formulas on how to mix and match the “right” clothes. They instruct you to greet others by using viselike “power handshakes.” They tell you to rivet your eyes on the other person as if you were a hypnotist. They even tell you what to order for lunch. If you follow all this advice, not only will you drive everyone else crazy, you’ll drive yourself crazy.

In this book, we’ll show you why immediately projecting yourself when entering a room is a mistake. We’ll discuss how best to analyze or “absorb” the moods, feelings, and hidden agendas of the other people in that room. Only then can you project appropriately for that situation.

The problem I’ve always had with the exclusive use of “how to speak” books was that as I read them, I wondered, “How am I ever going to remember all these helpful pointers when I stand up to speak or otherwise communicate with others?”

I quickly realized that what was needed was a new, more instinctive approach to communications. That’s when I began to develop You Are the Message. The idea really came from observing so many good communicators in the early days of television, watching them perform before live audiences as well as before the camera. I realized that these communicators didn’t change their style from private conversation to an appearance before a large audience. They simply increased their energy at times but otherwise stayed conversational in every format.

In the old days, we’d read a book and it would give a list of dos and don’ts like “Stand up straight. Use your arms. Know your subject. Don’t sway back and forth. Use eye contact” and so on. But today we sit in front of a television set and watch great communicators in our homes. We absorb everything about what they do—how they move, how they look, their sense of humor, their attitudes. This is how people learn to communicate today. It’s visual. It’s intuitive. It’s kinetic. It’s watching, feeling, sensing, hearing. We use our senses to observe and learn the process of communications.

Many of the people who study public speaking today take courses that are based on outdated approaches. Even contemporary “experts” still teach by the methods of thirty or forty years ago. Famous comedian and talk show host Steve Allen wrote a book on how to give a speech, but the best way to learn how to give a speech is to watch Steve on television. There he’s at his best in conversation, and good speech is good conversation whether you’re seated or standing.

Television techniques are exciting, loose, and comfortable. That’s why when my associate, Jon Kraushar, and I teach communications, we don’t use rigid rules or repetitive exercises. We avoid drills. We don’t use textbooks. But we do use video. Because if you can see yourself doing something well and can re-create it the next time you get up, you’ll improve over and over again. Compared to the textbook method, it’s like the difference between reading about how to swing a golf club and watching a video of yourself swinging a golf club. There’s no substitute for the hands-on approach. You try, you watch yourself, then you refine.


As a consultant to a major broadcasting company, I traveled to various cities to evaluate television talk show hosts. I spent time with each of them and watched them on the air at their stations. But even before meeting them for the first time, I’d check into a hotel and watch their programs on television, with the sound turned off, for five or ten minutes. If there was nothing happening on the screen in the way the host looked or moved that made me interested enough to stand up and turn the sound up, then I knew that the host was not a great television performer. I’d watch the screen for interesting expressions on people’s faces, sudden movement, laughter, or whatever made me say to myself, “Hey, I wonder what’s going on here? I want to reach over and turn the sound up.” If nothing moved me toward that sound knob, I would often recommend terminating the contract of that performer.

There may be some ex-television hosts somewhere in America who are gagging while reading this because they now know that they lost their jobs because some guy was sitting in a hotel room watching the television set with the sound off. However, this is a technique that I still use today with clients in our training course.

If you have access to videotape, ask someone to interview you. Then turn the sound down and watch yourself. Are you still interesting? Or place a mirror by your telephone. Watch yourself as you speak and listen. Do your eyes and face look engaged and lively? Do you gesture when you speak? Do you ever smile?

People who are the best communicators communicate with their whole being. They’re animated, expressive, interesting to watch—just as they should be on television. Once you recognize these changes in communications techniques brought about by television, you can take some of the basics of video-age communications and transfer them to a meeting in your office, a business negotiation, or a sale to a client. Certainly, you should speak loudly enough for your listeners to hear, and of course you should look at them. You should gesture. But none of these things will work for you unless they’re organic, meaning that they come from within. Employing communications techniques in a mechanical fashion only makes you seem wooden, and you’ll be seen as insincere.

You can’t force a smile. Many people think that smiling is just a matter of moving the facial muscles. But it’s much more than that. It’s triggered by emotions generated from thought. Stop for a moment and think of someone who makes you smile. Think of an incident in your life that was funny. Think of a time when you truly laughed. As you close your eyes and recall these experiences, your face will change. It will soften. The smile comes naturally. When a photographer says, “Smile,” people often produce forced grins. If you just concentrate on someone you like, who makes you happy, your face will automatically smile. And it will be real. Remember: Smiling is first in the brain, then on the face.


Our voices are much more flexible than we think. We often have a much wider vocal range than we realize. I’m reminded of an actor I once worked with who turned out to be one of the best impressionists in the world—Frank Gorshin. I was told that when he was young and first starting out in the business, he went to a nightclub with a friend to see a hypnotist. The hypnotist selected Gorshin from the audience to come up on stage, hypnotized him, and then told him that he was Kirk Douglas and other movie stars such as Burt Lancaster and Clark Gable. Although Gorshin hadn’t yet made a career as an impressionist, amazingly, in front of the audience, he imitated those actors with an almost exact replication of their voices, rhythms, and styles.

That night, Frank Gorshin the impressionist was born. When the hypnotist brought him out of the trance, Gorshin found that he could mimic those and other famous voices. He had a terrific ear and wonderful control of his voice. He built a spectacular career as an impressionist, entertaining audiences worldwide.

Gorshin expanded his talents into an acting career, but he really got launched because a hypnotist cleared his mind of what he thought he couldn’t do and allowed him to use his voice in a new way. It had always been physically possible, but he had never known it. All of us have a much broader vocal range than we realize. We must clear our minds and avoid concentrating on what we can’t do. We should be open to what we can do.


Mark Twain was a renowned speaker in his day as well as a famous writer. One morning as he was dressing, he found a button missing from his shirt. Annoyed, he took another shirt. But it was also short a button. Exasperated, he took a third shirt from his bureau. It, too, lacked a button.

Twain flew into a rage, swearing like a stevedore. When he was through, he was startled to see his wife standing at the door, fuming in her own way at his intemperance. Carefully, slowly, and without a trace of emotion, she repeated every obscene word just uttered by her husband.

That took several minutes. When she was through, she stood impassive and silent, hoping her display would shame Twain. Instead, with a twinkle in his eye, he puffed on his cigar and said, “My dear, you have the words, but you don’t have the music.”

The voice, like the smile, is shaped by a combination of muscles and emotions. My experience is that you can improve your voice more by working on emotional expression than on mechanical drills. Let’s say, though, that you commit months or years of your life to visiting a speech therapist twice a week, and you work on the often recommended, boring, and repetitive vocal drills. You can, in fact, expand and improve your voice.

The drills will work, if you work that hard. But in twenty-six years of working in this field, I’ve never met anyone who actually practiced those drills, except one man who locked himself in a room and tried to do the la-la-la drills every night. His wife divorced him.


But don’t despair. There are some practical, nonrepetitive things you can do to improve your voice. One alternative to the conventional drills is to tape-record random excerpts of yourself speaking on the phone. Then play the tape back. Listen for common vocal problems such as nasality, unnaturally high or low pitch, mumbling, breathiness, or sibilance. To overcome these problems, buy a tape of a famous actor or actress reading selections from literary works or speeches. Record yourself reading those same selections and compare your vocal quality. Your goal isn’t to become a performer, but when you hear good speech and attempt to emulate it, you will improve your voice.

People who want to be radio announcers train their voices by taping the best professionals and trying, at first, to imitate the pros. The process is called “tape and ape.” The goal isn’t to become a mimic. It’s to develop a range for the voice. Range, or vocal variety, should be your goal, too: It’s what makes a voice interesting, alive, and distinctive. Just as you’d watch a tape of Jack Nicklaus swinging a golf club to help perfect your own swing, or of Martina Navratilova swinging a tennis racquet to improve your backhand, you can do the same with recordings by professionals. You don’t have to turn this into a second career. Fifteen minutes of practice a day will make dramatic improvements not only in your voice but in your pronunciation, articulation, and inflection.


As an alternative exercise, try this, using a video recorder or even an audio recorder. Tape yourself as you talk extemporaneously on a topic you really care about. Here’s one possible topic: Recall the best vacation you ever had in your life. Assume you’re talking to people looking for a great getaway. Your job is to convince them that they should go where you went, see what you saw, feel what you felt, understand why you liked it so much. Do that for five minutes and tape it. Replaying the tape, you’ll hear your voice move up and down the musical scale. There will be lots of vocal variety because you relish the topic.

Here are some variations of this exercise. If you’re a business executive, describe to your friends the best business deal you ever made: how it happened, why it happened, what you did that was right, and how you felt about it. Or describe the person who had the most influence on your life. Explain why. Your audience: a group of teenagers, either from an honor society or from a street gang. If you’re able to paint a verbal picture with some emotion, you’ll hear your voice move automatically. Keep this in mind every time you have to give a speech. If you care, your listeners will care and your voice will automatically move up and down gracefully and naturally. If you don’t care, it will automatically flatten out and be b-o-r-i-n-g. And whether you’re talking on the phone, running a meeting, or giving a speech, the last thing you want is a dull, monotonous voice that puts people to sleep.


William Jennings Bryan, a nineteenth-century American statesman, was famous for filling halls with his stentorian tones. He once spoke to a large audience for over three hours. Can you imagine that today? The old-fashioned William Jennings Bryan “school of oratory” taught that you must project yourself—in other words, “throw” your voice and gesture theatrically. I say that you must absorb what’s going on before you can project. It’s much like a programmer at a TV network. He decides who his audience is before he puts together a television show.

When you enter a communications situation, don’t immediately stand up and start projecting your voice and throwing out your opinions. Stop for a second. Absorb what’s going on. What’s the mood of the room, the crowd—are they down, up, happy, expectant? Read what people are feeding back to you. Are they skeptical or eager?

Look at their eyes. Listen to them. Watch their breathing. Are they relaxed? Excited? Notice how they sit. What does their body language tell you? Do they move their chairs away from you or toward you? Do they lean forward or back? Are they anxious to learn from you or do they radiate a “show me” attitude?

Should you start with small talk and relax them before you get to the meat of the message? Or do you need to come in, grab them by the throat, and throw them to the floor with an arresting fact, statement, or story?


There are many ways to open a speech, including the use of humor, anecdotes, startling and relevant facts, apt quotations, historical references, rhetorical questions, and audience participation.

Here’s an example of a speech opening that combines a number of these elements. It’s adapted from a talk by Gerald C. Myers, chairman of the American Motors Corporation, before the Society of American Business and Economic Writers:

I’ll start with a medieval morality tale—a story about how important it is to have a sense of direction.

The story is about a knight who returned to the castle at twilight in a state of total disarray. Dented armor, helmet falling off, face bloody, horse crippled, and the knight himself about to fall off the limping horse.

“What hath befallen you, Sir Knight?” asked the lord of the castle.

“Oh, sire,” answered the knight, “I have been labouring in your service, robbing and plundering and pillaging your enemies in the West.”

“You’ve what?” cried the lord. “I don’t have any enemies in the West.”

“Oh,” said the knight. “You do now!”

There’s a strong parallel in the recent history of the American car market. It lost its sense of direction, too.3

Whether you use humor, historical references, or any other attention-getting opening device, you should be comfortable with the style and content. It should fit your style.

You might like the simple, direct approach, used by John R. Beckett of Transamerica Corporation: “This morning I will be talking about five subjects: customers, employees, education, executives, and the importance of the ‘concept of commitment.’ ”4 Or you might prefer a “breezy” approach, as taken by banker David Rockefeller before the Los Angeles World Affairs Council: “Coming to Southern California is a delightful way to begin the spring, although your kind invitation might have been even more welcome in the dead of winter. At that time, however, I understand this area was being hit by floods, mud slides and earth tremors. Somebody probably figured that the last thing you needed was a great gust of wind from the East.”5

Robert O. Skovgard, editor of The Executive Speaker newsletter, offers this helpful list of tips for opening a speech:

✵ Use comparisons, examples, illustrations, and anecdotes.

✵ Use familiar, concrete language; avoid general and abstract wording.

✵ Use “fireplug” words (short, bright, utilitarian).

✵ Use picturesque, image-producing words.

✵ Rely on simple subject-verb order.

✵ Stay with one idea per sentence.

✵ Use no more than one dependent clause per sentence.

✵ Make frequent use of transition words.

✵ Use conversational language (first-person pronouns, contractions, short words, sentence fragments, simple sentences, questions, action verbs, personal anecdotes).6

Incidentally, every one of these suggestions for making you more effective in a formal speaking situation also will work in informal communications situations—whether you’re chatting with friends over dinner, mingling with new acquaintances at a cocktail party, or participating in a business meeting.


The conventional advice to establish eye contact with your audience is fine. But that does not mean combing the crowd with your eyes like a minesweeper. It means using your eyes to absorb, to detect nuances, and to help you adjust your communications accordingly. If you’re afraid to look at the members of the audience (for example, if you never look up from reading a text), they won’t be very impressed with you regardless of your words. If you stare blankly at them or at a point at the back of the room, they won’t feel you’ve reached them.

What you should do is break the audience down and treat it as a collection of individuals. Look at individual people as you speak. In the beginning of the speech, look at one person who has a friendly, warm face, because that will help put you at ease. But as the speech progresses, look at small groups of people all through the audience and continue to talk. Do this purposefully. As you move from small group to small group—or from individual to individual—in the audience, linger for a few seconds and talk just to that person or just to that small group of people as if you were having a “miniconversation” with them. This should not be done in any kind of a predictable pattern, but in a random fashion, so that it doesn’t look staged.

Again, common sense prevails. The eyes should be used when speaking to a large group the same way they would be used when speaking to a small group. When you’re sitting in a room with four or five other people, from time to time you glance at one or the other person and carry on part of the conversation with that person. It’s exactly the same when you’re on your feet in front of a large crowd.


Every speech situation is different. Often I stand up in front of a crowd with a prepared opening, and as soon as I get to the lectern I realize—because something feels strange—that the prepared opening simply won’t work, and that if I stick with my text, it’s going to bomb. I have to deal with what happened before I came on and how the audience is feeling now.

I’ve seen speakers get up at the end of a long evening, after the emcee has read the treasurer’s report and has introduced everybody in the room. By then, the members of the audience are thinking about their baby-sitters and whether the hubcaps have been stolen off their cars in the parking lot. What you really need to do at that point is lighten it up, let them know that you’re aware of how they feel. Tell them that you recognize the hour is late and you’re not going to keep them too long. You want to move immediately into the text and relax them. If the time is short, don’t talk faster. Talk less. Edit your text.

A couple of years ago, I was the last speaker at a particularly long dinner where more than fifty people had received awards. The entire audience was thinking the same thing: “When will this be over? How many more of these can there be?” I got up and said, “Before I actually start my speech, I’d like each of you who got awards to stand up again one at a time so that we can recognize you.”

Of course, the place broke up in laughter because everyone in the audience felt that the evening had gone on too long. By kidding about the situation, I became one of them and they became more receptive to the rest of my speech. It’s a matter of sensing or feeling what’s going on, and perceiving how best to get to the audience. Absorb first, then project.


In every communications situation—one-on-one or in a group—you should be asking yourself, “What am I feeling here?” Whenever I’m confused in a business situation, I generally get very quiet, sit back, and ask myself, “How do I feel about what’s going on here?” If I’m in a conversation with one person, I might ask myself, “How do I feel about this person?” The emphasis is first on my feelings.

On occasion I’ll sit in a meeting where some poor guy makes his presentation and the boss is totally turned off. If I sense that nothing good is going to happen that day, I don’t present my ideas. I just get off the playing field, because my intuition tells me there is no chance for progress. You may only get one chance to present your idea, so don’t waste it if the recipient is not tuned in to you.

Once, during a strategy meeting for a U.S. Senate race, we listened to a presentation by the campaign’s television-time buyer. The campaign manager was a woman I’ll call Betty, who was in her early seventies, a very sharp lady, very tough.

The various consultants to this campaign were at war over certain strategies and procedures. At one point, I just happened to see Betty flinch—just the slightest movement of the head sideways and narrowing of the eyes. She felt somebody was wrong in something they were saying. It might have been me, it might have been someone else, but something was wrong. I stopped the meeting.

“Wait a minute. Betty, what’s going on in your mind? Because if you’re uncomfortable with something, we need to know about it.”

She hadn’t even been aware of her reaction. “Well, I don’t like these budget numbers,” she said. “We just won’t be able to raise that much money!”

We solved the problem then and there. Believe me, it would have been major chaos later if that little twitch of her head hadn’t tipped me off that there was a problem.


I was recently visiting at a friend’s home, and his wife came into the room. I said, “How are you?”

As she answered gaily, “I’m fine,” her eyes shifted away from me. She continued, “Everything’s great. How are you?” But her voice was falsely gay, very forced and high-pitched, very tight. I knew there was some problem.

The nature of the problem isn’t important, but this situation illustrates my point. While her words said everything was all right, everything else about her said she was under a tremendous amount of stress. I noticed throughout the evening that when she was talking naturally about an abstract subject, her pitch was comfortable and much lower. Whenever the subject turned to her personal life or her relationship with the family, however, her pitch went up dramatically, and her voice tightened. By her forced, determined effort to project that everything was okay, she instead revealed the information which she was so desperately trying to hide—that things weren’t all that great.

You’ve probably been in a situation where you’ve read tension between two other people. Although they weren’t even speaking directly to each other, much less arguing overtly, you sensed hostility. Or have you ever been sitting in a room with your back to the door and sensed when someone else entered, even though you didn’t hear them?


We all have the capability to read, or sense, what’s happening with others. This ability is every bit as accurate and reliable as the sensory abilities of the eyes and ears, and it is often more important in forming your final assessment of what’s going on. It can often give you the edge when negotiating with another person.

Here’s an example. As a TV producer, I remember being called into a union negotiation to discuss a labor issue that could have resulted in throwing a lot of people out of work. I knew the situation was serious, but when things are tense, I have a tendency to use humor to relax myself and others. So I wasn’t taking myself or the labor leaders very seriously. I made a few side remarks under my breath to test the atmosphere. They were harmless and meant as jokes. Most of the union negotiators stared straight ahead. But I noticed that one man thought what I had said was pretty funny and he was chuckling. I knew he was powerful and realized he might be an ally. I looked at him and there was instantly some rapport between us.

The next time we took a break from the negotiation, I caught up with him at the coffee machine and asked him to take a walk with me outside. I said to him, “Look, we’ve got a lot of ‘experts’ in there who could mess this thing up and hurt a lot of people. I think you and I can work this out so that we don’t set any harmful precedents for the union. Just give me what I need to get the show done and we’ll keep everybody working.”

We worked things out right there in the alley behind the television studio. We went back into the meeting and within an hour we had an agreement to continue working. The only reason that happened was because I was watching him closely and realized he was basically a good guy who wanted to get this problem solved, and he had a sense of humor. We were reading each other, absorbing each other’s signals, and developing a rapport which allowed us to solve the problem.


Some people have never developed the ability to read others. These people are generally too focused on themselves. For example, a client who wanted to run for Congress came in to see my associate, Jon Kraushar. Jon asked me to join them, and what followed was amazing. The prospective client talked nonstop about himself for two hours!

He was so boring that I left the room three different times. Each time I came back, he was still talking. He was so unwilling to listen and so unaware of what was going on around him that I could have gone out to lunch and he would have just kept on going. As Voltaire wrote, “The secret of being a bore is to tell everything.” We’ve all met people like this man—maybe not as extreme, but nonetheless insensitive to others.

Gradually he learned how to strike enough of a balance between talking and listening to get elected. Good communicators adjust their talk-listen ratio to the situation. A good rule of thumb is to listen 60 percent and talk 40 percent of the time. As psychologist Carl Rogers wrote, “Man’s inability to communicate is a result of his failure to listen effectively, skillfully, and with understanding to another person.” And as Wilson Mizner said, “A good listener is not only popular everywhere, but after a while he knows something.”


Do you talk more than you listen? Rate yourself on the talk-listen ratio chart. Then ask two family members and two friends to score you. Also, have your boss or two coworkers score you.

Check the line of the ratio best representing the percentage of the time you generally:






























Compare your self-assessment with the way others rated you. If there are major discrepancies in the scores, the more accurate numbers are the ones reflecting how others view you. Their perception is what’s real.

In general, though, you should strive to listen 60 to 70 percent of the time and talk 30 to 40 percent. The reason for this bias toward listening is that most people listen but don’t really hear. We therefore need to overcompensate—and listen more—to improve our comprehension. We’ll explain this in more detail in the next chapter.