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Lighten Up!  Stuffed Shirts Have Short Careers

The only advice some of my clients need when they come to see me can be summed up in two words: “Lighten up!”  It’s ironic, but your career can depend on whether you get serious about taking yourself less seriously.

According to executive recruiters, for 7 out of 10 people who lose their jobs, the cause isn’t a lack of skill—it’s personality conflicts.  The management newsletter Bottom Line Personal reports a similar finding: “As an executive reaches middle management and beyond, the primary criteria for advancement are communication and motivation skills, rather than job performance.  Relations with superiors and peers are also crucial.”

The bottom line: “Top management promotes people it likes.”

What’s the most common reason someone isn’t liked in business?  He takes himself too seriously.  He has no sense of humor.

It’s important to take your job seriously.  But people who take themselves too seriously tend to believe that their title or their intelligence makes them more important than others.  Think of something really foolish that you did: would you be comfortable telling others about it and laughing along with them?

What a sense of humor measures is your ability to see things through someone else’s eyes—to recognize that others are like us.

According to researchers at the Center for Creative Leadership, “insensitivity to others, abrasiveness, and aloofness” often seem to be the factors that derail the careers of otherwise talented executives. Ask yourself these questions:

• When someone comes to me with a problem, what’s my first reaction?  Do I shift gears and listen—or put him off and hope he’ll go away?

• How often do I find myself complaining about something?

• Do I take a lot of satisfaction in lecturing people or being tough with them?

• When someone tells me a new idea, do I look for an objection to puncture his balloon?

• Do I feel cheated by fate—in my career or in life?  Do I think others around me have gotten ahead largely through     luck?

• Do I still blame my parents for my problems?

• How often do I use the word “I”?

The idea is to get a sense of how positively you respond to what’s going on around you.  If you came out on the “self-absorbed” side of even one of these questions, you need to lighten up.  You’re wearing out your friends, family, and co-workers.

The most important question you face in your career and your life may be this: Do you bring other people up or down?

Author & communications consultant Jon Kraushar may be reached at 212 685-8157 or jon@jonkraushar.com.

Here is one of many articles on politics I have published. 

 The Human Drama of Elections: How the Winners Win and Why the Losers Lose

 It would be hard for the most imaginative playwright to top the theatrical ups and downs of a presidential campaign such as our current one, with its clashes of personalities, ideologies and sparring multi-media messages. Just days before the end of this seemingly endless production, how do we forecast the outcome? Let’s go behind the scenes and examine how the candidates shape their roles and how voters respond in this—or any—election.

If “all the world’s a stage” as Shakespeare wrote, then elections are best understood as human dramas about how the winners win and why the losers lose.

This drama is played out around four emotions: reassurance, fear, anger and coolness.

The winning candidate is the one who performs better by incorporating these four emotions into the portrayal of their character and the plot of their campaign.

Reassurance

Voters know that every candidate has flaws; so what they’re really looking for is a sufficient amount of reassurance that Candidate A is better than Candidate B. Keep in mind that perception is reality: substance doesn’t necessarily beat style and emotions trump facts. There are four forms of reassurance that voters seek. Think of them as “the four abilities.”

Credibility. Which candidate succeeds in portraying themselves as more “up to the job” by qualifications: record, experience, knowledge, and being a convincing communicator when discussing issues and their plans?

Suitability. Which candidate succeeds in portraying themselves as more “right for the job” with qualities such as leadership, judgment and temperament that suggest they have the better aptitude to fix major problems of the day?

Likeability. With the exception of firmly committed voters, many people have mixed feelings about the candidates, right up to the end. They conclude that “no one is perfect, but—you know what? I just like this candidate better.” The size of that “like vote” can’t precisely be measured. But it is big. After all, people are emotional creatures. We pride ourselves on being rational, but we vote with our feelings.

Memorability. When we close our eyes, what picture of each candidate forms in our minds? Given a single sentence, how would we describe each candidate? During defining moments in the campaign, did one candidate go either right-footed or wrong-footed and did their behavior make an indelible impression on the public—either positive or negative?

Sadly, we are often reduced to asking ourselves: why couldn’t better candidates be found? (Perhaps our favorite candidate didn’t make the final cut.) But when the curtain closes in the voting booth we choose one candidate, not because they are the ultimate hero (or heroine) but because, compared to their opposition, they are relatively more reassuring.

Winning candidates reassure us to the extent that they do a good job playing two roles: the “happy warrior” and the “good listener.” The human drama of an election peaks where these two roles intersect, in battles between the candidates—debates, speeches, dueling advertisements and those moments when a candidate blurts out something in response to a question, a challenge or an event.

Winston Churchill said, “I like a man who grins when he fights.” Voters prefer a candidate who is a happy warrior. Losing candidates are unhappy warriors. At crucial moments in the drama of the campaign they make a mistake or do something ineffectual. In a worst case, they become an object of ridicule.

Happy warriors are comfortable in their own skin, confident in their own convictions, and articulate about their own plans. They seem to relish the chance to win us over with the force of their personality and the depth of their beliefs. Losers stumble and get tackled. Winners break tackles and keep running forward. The difference isn’t always because of the way a candidate acts; it’s because of how they react, artfully or awkwardly.

The title of Arthur Miller’s play, “Death of a Salesman,” captures the poignant human drama of an election. Candidates are sales people. They travel around with “a smile and a shoeshine.” Only one achieves the dream of success. The winning candidate is the better sales person in this way: he or she has listened better to the voters and the spirit of the times. When we buy anything, we buy from those who listen for and respond to what we want, what we need, what we object to, and what price we’re willing to pay. Winners listen well and when it’s time to talk, they show that they heard us.

Fear

Just as we often choose to vote for “the lesser of the evils,” we often choose to vote not so much for what we are attracted to but against what we fear. Candidates play on our fears as well as our hopes, warning us of the consequences if we don’t vote for them.

Certainly, candidates also appeal to our hopes. But in many elections there aren’t enough true believers behind one candidate to insure a victory. Candidates thus put the greater emphasis on fear to motivate voters who are tuned out, ambivalent or independents.

The fear appeal is highly dramatic and it can be highly effective. It says, “My opponent and what he or she represents will lead to catastrophe.” Winners often wear the face of hope, even as they open our eyes to fear.

Anger

As with fear, anger is frequently what motivates our vote. Winning candidates have one thing in common: they know how to stir us to anger. They play to what we are “mad as hell about and not going to take anymore.”

Politics is a human drama about power. We are angry that powers seemingly beyond our control are affecting our lives. The winning candidate persuades us that he or she will be better at addressing our anger and redressing our resentments about abuses of power.

Coolness

The winning candidate is better at the “Goldilocks test.” Just as in the Goldilocks fable where the porridge is “not too hot, not too cold—just right,” a winning candidate is the one who seems more cool, calm and collected without seeming indifferent or aloof.

Candidates lose when they are too cool—when they seem distant, detached or “out of touch” regarding the concerns of the public. They lose when they seem cool instead of passionate when talking about their principles and plans. How can you sell anyone anything that you don’t seem to believe in yourself? Yet we see this in some losing candidates. They want to be the star without appearing to completely believe in the script they’re delivering. Losers also blow it by blowing too hot, in response to a question that gets major media play or to some other big breaking news story, for example.

Candidates win when their cool is seen as “just right” in the heat of battle, whether that battle is in a debate, a media interview, with a heckler in a crowd, or in response to any other confrontation, attack or crisis.

Put this analysis to the test. At any point in an election—and particularly once it’s over—check which candidate has played the more convincing role that appeals to four key emotions in the human drama of elections: reassurance, fear, anger and coolness.

Author & communications consultant Jon Kraushar may be reached at 212 685-8157 or jon@jonkraushar.com.

The Magic Bullet: Make Them Like You and Your Ideas Will Soar

If you want to influence others, one trait is so much more powerful than all others: I call it the “magic bullet.”  With it, your audience will forgive just about anything you do wrong.  Without it, you can hit every bull’s eye in the room and no one will be impressed.

The magic bullet is being likable as a speaker.  In politics, the “like vote” can swing elections.  The same phenomenon shapes our business environment and forms the basis of most negotiations.

Those who can be tough-minded but likable have the best chance to join the management elite.  That’s because the business arena is wide open to public scrutiny and requires winning the goodwill—the “like” votes—of constituencies. 

 These constituents include employees, investors, government regulators, consumer activists and the news media. As Irving Shapiro, former Dupont CEO said in an interview, “Today (the CEO) is a quasi-public official who needs as much skill in dealing with people as any Senator.”

The most common failings of today’s business leaders are qualities that used to be considered “natural” in a boss.  At least one-third of my clients are too arrogant or aggressive.  Many of them are technically brilliant executives, but they fail to win support from subordinates and co-workers.  Sometimes they alienate clients.  Their logic and analysis may be correct, but their manner is so abrasive that they lose “like” votes—which can torpedo their progress, and even their jobs.

One CEO of a major retailing firm told me that he was on the verge of firing a$400,000-a year-executive who was a consistently good bottom line performer: “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.”

I met with the executive.  I told him that he was rude, condescending, thin-skinned and enormously talented.  He shifted in his chair, looked at me disdainfully, and brandished his cigar like a cattle prod.  But he was disarmed by my candor.

We had six two-hour meetings.  When we played back tapes, he was shocked at how intensely unlikable he appeared.  He used put-down phrases: “You don’t understand,” “Well, obviously,” and “Let me explain something to you."

He communicated impatience and disrespect: interrupting frequently, scowling, rolling his eyes, and sighing.  Over time, he learned to listen better, elicit others’ ideas, exercise diplomacy and laugh—especially at himself.

No one can tell you how to be more likable.  For the executive I advised, showing made the difference.  But the concrete suggestions that helped him may help you:

Be considerate.Make listeners comfortable.

Get off to a good start.  A strong, warm, responsive beginning puts you in control.

Choose your words.Try to talk so your listener can understand you.

Persuade.  Requests work better than orders.

Relate.  Be enthusiastic and react naturally.  Don’t hide behind a deadpan expression.

Be patient. People think at different speeds.

Read between the lines.  Some people have personal problems.  If someone doesn’t seem to be absorbing what you’re saying, don’t immediately assume that he isn’t buying your story.

Admit your weaknesses, when appropriate. You will gain respect and understanding.

Pay compliments.They express your awareness and make people want to please you.

Express thanks.You’ll gain support.

Finally, consider Lord Chesterfield’s advice:  “Be wiser than other people if you can, but do not tell them so.”

Author & communications consultant Jon Kraushar may be reached at 212 685-8157 or jon@jonkraushar.com.

The First Seven Seconds: Make The First Impression Work For You

You’ve got just seven seconds to make the right first impression.  As soon as you make your entrance, you broadcast verbal and non-verbal signals that determine how others see you.  In business, those crucial first seven seconds can decide whether you will win that new account, get financing or succeed in a tense negotiation.

Are you confident?  Comfortable? Sincere? Glad to be there?  In the first seven seconds, you shower your audience with subtle “cues.”  And whether people realize it or not, they respond immediately to your facial expressions, gestures, stance and energy.  They react to your voice—the tone and pitch.  Audiences, whether one or one hundred, instinctively size up your motives and attitudes.

We can all benefit from a review of the first impressions we make. Before your next important business encounter, review this checklist.

Prepare.  Learn as much as you can in advance about your audience’s motives, needs and interests. Establish goals.  What do you want to happen as a result of this encounter?  Organize your thoughts and rehearse out loud.

Absorb.  Quickly take in the mood of the audience.  Are they skeptics?  Eager? Relaxed?  Excited?  Get your “radar” up.

Listen.  Trust your instincts.  Be sensitive to recent events that may influence the group’s mood.  You may need to adjust your approach.

Control.  You can set the tone by appearing confident and friendly.  It puts others at ease. Use graceful gestures and avoid sharp moves.

Emote.  Your body reflects your feelings, whether you’re aware of it or not.  Concentrate on your face, especially your eyes—they should be engaged and lively.  Use them to convey sincerity.

Voice.  Pay attention to vocal quality, pitch, tone, pace, and volume.  Record yourself, monitoring what you hear for variety, commitment, and authority.

You are the message, and that is never more true than in first impressions. If you’re in control of the composite message you send via your face, body, voice and attitude, you’re on your way to success in any business situation.

Author & communications consultant Jon Kraushar may be reached at 212 685-8157 or jon@jonkraushar.com.

The following three columns have been excerpted or reprinted in several publications, including Newsweek and SUCCESS magazines.  Based on reader responses, the advice has proven valuable to communicators for a wide range of audiences, including voters, investors, clients, prospects, shareholders, securities analysts and the news media. For a fuller treatment of the subjects covered, please see the book, You Are the Message, by Roger Ailes with Jon Kraushar, chosen as one of the “year’s best” business books by The Wall Street Journal and published by Doubleday.  The book, Kindle, or audiotape of You Are the Message, by Roger Ailes with Jon Kraushar can be ordered at amazon.com online.  Jon may be reached at 212 685-8157 or jon@jonkraushar.com.