“If you’ve read this far, you know by now that one of the themes of this book is that we’re all human. We make mistakes. We’re vulnerable. We’re not perfect.”
– Epilogue, You Are the Message: Getting What You Want by Being Who You Are by Roger Ailes with Jon Kraushar.
The late Roger Ailes wrote this best-selling about a decade before he created Fox News with Rupert Murdoch’s money to reveal his “deepest secrets of powerful communications.”
Ailes drew on his extensive media experiences, including coaching Ronald Reagan for presidential debates, making Richard Nixon look likable on TV, and producing “The Mike Douglas Show.”
In the early 2000s, during the George W. Bush administration, my business coach strongly recommended that I read the classic You Are the Message as part of my improvement plan for public speaking. I reluctantly agreed.
Even though both Ailes and I were involved in journalism during college, the comparisons ended there. The definition of “fair and balanced” that Ailes had honed on Fox News didn’t match mine.
Yet, Ailes was one of the giants of the media business who transformed television during his long career. And I had to admit the advice he delivered in his book was not only practical, but also ahead of its time.
In the late 1980s, he was already promoting authenticity. (“The trick in good communications is to be consistently you, at your best in all situations.”)
He also valued those who were interesting. (And according to Ailes, you should push yourself to do at least 30% of reading outside your own field to give yourself a broader perspective and make yourself more interesting. Today the “reading” he recommended probably should include watching YouTube videos, looking at social media, and skimming blog posts.)
Other highlighted notes from my dog-eared copy of his book include:
- “Take responsibility for the communication you send and the communication you receive. If there’s misunderstanding either way, assume the responsibility for correcting it.”
- To sharpen your instincts about people, write down everything your senses tell you about each person you meet. If you cannot come up with at least 12 impressions or observations, you need some concentrated work in this area.
- All communication is a dialogue, and requires careful listening. “Listen for intent as well as content. People will often say one thing and mean something else.”
- Never wing it. Always be prepared with facts, stories and analogies. Facts provide information; emotion provides interpretation.
- Television has set the style of a modern communicator—relaxed, informal, crisp, quick and interesting. And TV’s fast pace has made us an impatient society, wanting to hear your point and then move on.
Master communicators are also very likeable, Ailes maintained. “If you can get the audience to pull for you, you’ll always win.”
Well, the provocative Ailes was not very likable, especially as he continued to cultivate a combative persona. It wasn’t just his no-holds-barred conservative politics; it was also his treatment of women as sex objects on air. Monica Lewinsky writes about this eloquently in her recent New York Times essay, Monica Lewinsky: Roger Ailes’s Dream Was My Nightmare.
And then last year, Ailes was forced out at Fox due to numerous sexual harassment allegations with female broadcasters and other staff members.
As Ailes, a trailblazer first in television and then in cultural exploitation, foreshadowed in this book, he was human too.
His practical primer does address many truths that are helpful today – if you take them for what they are… Not alternate facts. Not Fox News editorializing. Not mainstream media bashing. Not liberal press elitism. Instead, advice from the frontlines by a controversial character.
What have you learned from Ailes or other controversial figures?