THE MAGIC BULLET - You Are the Message - Roger Ailes, Jon Kraushar

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

Chapter 7. THE MAGIC BULLET

If you could master one element of personal communications that is more powerful than anything we’ve discussed, it is the quality of being likable. I call it the magic bullet, because if your audience likes you, they’ll forgive just about everything else you do wrong. If they don’t like you, you can hit every rule right on target and it doesn’t matter.

It’s what I call the like factor. In politics, like votes can swing elections. Many elections today are close—53 to 47 percent, for example. Therefore, the number of voters who vote on gut feelings—those who just like one candidate more—is crucial. The same phenomenon exists in business, except that in business, the key votes may be found across the bargaining table with union representatives, or in building relationships between middle managers and their bosses, or in the boardroom when a new CEO is selected.

Corporate or civic leaders who can be tough-minded but likable will be the future’s management elite. That’s because the leaders of the next ten years will no longer be able to maintain low profiles. They will need to function comfortably in a communications arena very similar to that of today’s politicians. The arena will be wide open to public scrutiny and will require winning the goodwill—the like votes—of different constituencies. These include employees, shareholders, government regulators, consumer activists, and—very important—the news media.

Irving Shapiro, former du Pont CEO, said in Dun’s Business Month, “Above all, the CEO must have the ability to relate to people, both within the organization and outside. He is no longer just running plants and selling goods. Today, he is a quasi-public official, who needs as much skill in dealing with people as any Senator.”

A TRICK SHOT

This is a very tricky subject because the magic bullet, likability, is difficult to define. Almost no one can tell you exactly how to be likable. People who try too hard to be likable usually aren’t. It appears almost as if some people are born likable, and others will never be likable. But in fact, you can do something about your like quotient.

While no one can tell you exactly how to do it, it is possible to define some things that likable people have. It’s also helpful to identify unlikable behavior so you can avoid it. People who are unlikable complain about their problems, jabber constantly about meaningless things, and talk in a monotone. They are overly serious and rarely smile or joke about anything. They usually are self-centered.

One quality of likable people is that they are genuinely concerned about the well-being of other people. It’s not the phony concern of “How are you today?” and then the blank look while the person answers. A guaranteed way to be unlikable is to talk down to others or to put them down. One of my favorite quotes from Ralph Waldo Emerson is “What you are speaks so loudly, I can’t hear what you say.”

At least one third of my clients have the problem of being too arrogant or aggressive—either as speakers or as listeners. They turn others off and tune them out because they’re over-projecting and underabsorbing. One of the unfortunate byproducts of success often is arrogance.

Perhaps you’re sometimes guilty of this, too. Do you say unlikable, put-down phrases like these to others: “You don’t understand,” “Well, obviously,” “Let me start at the beginning,” “In simple terms,” “Let me explain something to you,” or “You probably don’t know this, but”? If you say these phrases or hear them, you can be sure that a chill will come over the conversation. If you think those derogatory thoughts as a listener, you’re likewise blocking your ability to hear and understand.

OPTIMISTS AND PESSIMISTS

Another trait of likable people is that they are optimistic. Pessimistic people bring you down; optimistic people bring you up. President Lincoln once said, “The pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity and the optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” If someone asks you how you are feeling and you actually tell them that things are terrible, people are not going to want to be around you. Extremely shy or depressed people are generally not likable, even though we might feel sympathy for them.

Research by a psychologist at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh indicates that optimists handle stress better than pessimists do. Optimists tend to respond to disappointments, like being turned down for a job, by formulating a plan of action and asking other people for help and advice. Pessimists often react to such difficulties by trying to forget the whole thing and assuming there is nothing they can do to change their circumstances. Which kind of person would you rather be around?

Likable people are almost never “poor me,” self-pitying people. If you’ve been around people who always tell you how the world’s treating them badly, or how their bosses treat them unfairly, quickly you want to get away. If you want to be likable, avoid being a “poor me” person. Likable people simply lend a hand, have a smile, mind their own business, and laugh easily, especially at themselves. They often understand humor and can get others to laugh.

List five people whom you consider to be unlikable. Then list the characteristics about them that you don’t like. Do the same with five people whom you consider to be likable. List their characteristics and why you like them. Study both sets of characteristics. If you emulate the likable people, you will be even more likable yourself. You’ll also become a better communicator in the process because you’ll carry the magic bullet wherever you go.

AN ALL-TIME FAVORITE

One of my all-time most likable people is Eddy Arnold, the great country music star. Eddy Arnold is one of the top ten record sellers in history, selling over eighty million records to date. In the early 1960s, when I was still a gofer on “The Mike Douglas Show” and had to go to the airport to pick up the stars, my assignment was to pick up Eddy Arnold. At the time, he had two hit records on the charts. After I met him at the airport, we had a pleasant and uneventful ride to the Carter Hotel in Cleveland.

My job was to see that his suite was satisfactory and that he had everything he needed, so that he’d be in a good frame of mind to appear on the show. We picked up his room key at the hotel front desk and proceeded upstairs. When I opened the door to his suite, I was horrified. The room looked as though the boys from Chippendale had spent the weekend with the Dallas Cowboys’ cheerleading squad. There were clothes hanging on lamps, furniture upside down, garbage against the walls, and whiskey bottles on the floor. We walked right into this mess. My short career flashed before my eyes.

Very calmly and in his comfortable Tennessee drawl, Eddy Arnold said, “Looks like we’ve interrupted something here. Maybe we better go have something to eat.” So we went downstairs. I told the people at the hotel’s front desk what happened. They immediately apologized and said they would get another suite. Eddy took me to dinner.

In my career I’ve seen many stars throw fits over lesser things. But Eddy just wasn’t that kind of guy. The next day at the studio he never said a word to my bosses or to anyone else about the problem we had at the hotel. Because he was so likable that day, Eddy Arnold made a friend for life.

No matter how things are going for you, if you can take the time to realize that somebody else can use a lift, you’ll never be forgotten and you’ll always be likable.

CHRISTMAS 1965

Years ago, I was working on the East Coast but also producing some television segments on the West Coast for a talk-variety show. Bill Daily was a little-known comedy actor in those days who was involved in the West Coast project. Daily, incidentally, went on to become Larry Hagman’s astronaut buddy in the “I Dream of Jeannie” TV series with Barbara Eden. He later played Bob Newhart’s neighbor on “The Bob Newhart Show.” Daily is one of the funniest men I know.

Back in 1965, at Christmastime, I was working in Philadelphia. There was a crisis in Los Angeles, so I was summoned immediately. I had to leave my family on Christmas Day and go to the airport in a snowstorm. My flight eventually took off but arrived in Los Angeles seven hours late. I got off the plane—rumpled, exhausted, and cranky—at 1:30 A.M. I had been up for twenty-one hours. As I walked down the exit ramp I saw a familiar face in the waiting room. It was Bill Daily.

I couldn’t believe my eyes. The airport lounge was practically empty except for Bill. I walked over to him and said, “What the heck are you doing here?”

He just looked at me with a big smile and said, “Ailes, nobody should be alone on Christmas.” He reached inside his jacket pulled out a bottle, poured me a drink, and then drove me to the hotel. I’ve often thought that if people would just go a little out of their way to help others, there’d be no problems with anybody’s like quotient.

IT’S NO JOKE

There was a comedian named Shelly Berman who was very popular in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He was filming a television special, and at the time he was considered to be one of the funniest and most successful men in America. People often equate funniness with likability.

A TV crew was recording his routine that night. He was well into his comedy act when a phone rang backstage. The phone interrupted the rhythm of his delivery. He got through that particular story and then walked off the stage.

The camera crew followed him. The phone was still ringing and Shelly Berman grabbed it, screamed into it, and ripped it off the wall. This display of anger and aggression nearly ended his career. His income dropped dramatically by thousands and thousands of dollars. Suddenly one of the funniest men in America was considered unlikable.

A similar incident happened with another comedian of Berman’s vintage—Jackie Mason. His career was going brilliantly until one night on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” when he allegedly made an obscene hand gesture. Mason’s career instantly derailed. He spent years out of the limelight before making a comeback in a 1987 Broadway show. But he admits of the past, “I would say I terribly mismanaged my career.” Open displays of ill temper will almost insure unlikability.

THE SPOKESMAN

A few years ago a client called me because the company had agreed to appear on the TV program “20/20.” The program’s producers wanted someone high up in management to rebut charges that a widely used company product was unsafe. The chairman had identified a few top executives who could speak knowledgeably about the product, and he wanted me to help him select the best spokesperson. After I met with all the candidates, the CEO asked me what I thought of the one he had named as his first choice. I replied that the man knew the subject quite well, but that he came across as rather cold and aloof.

As a TV producer, I had become aware of the importance of not just accurately communicating the facts, but also winning the sympathy of the viewing audience—in effect, winning their like votes. We therefore chose another spokesperson, a down-to-earth, slightly overweight, and avuncular senior scientist. He came into my studio prior to the taping of the show, and we helped him sharpen and edit his delivery. He knew the subject and was committed and interesting. When it came time for his television appearance, he handled himself exceptionally well, despite the aggressive tactics of his interviewer.

His friendly demeanor neutralized a potentially inflammatory attack by “20/20.” It also helped diminish possible negative coverage by other journalists who might have followed the program’s lead if the story had been hot enough. Incidentally, a few years later, a federal agency declared the product to be safe. But prior to that, one likable, knowledgeable scientist helped to save his company millions of dollars and thousands of jobs—because of his communications skills.

LOSING THE LIKE VOTE

Not only is winning the like vote important with external constituencies such as the press and the general public. It is also a key goal internally with employees. Each year certain magazines like to point out the toughest leaders of corporations. The implication is that with ruthlessness and orneriness they extract the most out of their work forces and fatten the bottom line.

My experience is that, while some of these tough leaders run profitable enterprises, most of them have chronic morale problems. They lose many talented executives, and often they self-destruct because somewhere, somehow, the lack of trust from the troops denies them access to new ideas and the loyalty they need to develop management depth in a competitive world.

I often consult with technically brilliant executives who fail to win support from subordinates and coworkers. They are winners on the academic point scale but losers of like votes, which threatens to torpedo their progress—even their jobs. My job is to give them a candid assessment of how they come across to others, and to counsel them in practical ways to improve their interpersonal relations.

I HATE HIS GUTS

One CEO of a major retailing firm told me he was on the verge of firing a $400,000-a-year executive who was a consistently good bottom-line performer. I was puzzled and asked the CEO why he would fire someone who had performed so well. He said simply, “I hate his guts. Not only that, everybody on the board hates his guts. He has a big mouth and he irritates his peers as well as his superiors. If you can’t do anything with him, I’m going to let him go.” This was the first time in my experience I had heard that a man doing that well on the bottom line was going to be fired, but I took on the assignment.

I videotaped this executive and involved him in a number of role-playing situations. In effect, I showed him what others saw. Once he had witnessed the hostility and aggressiveness he projected, he was able to move toward a more likable behavior. Three months later, not only had he improved his behavior with his peers in the office, but he was interviewed very favorably by The Wall Street Journal.

If you take care of all four essentials well—be prepared, be comfortable, be committed, be interesting—you will be an excellent communicator who never disappoints your audience. But if you can add likability to these four essentials, you will be a master communicator.