Women Learn Bragging Rights

Peggy Klaus is a woman on a mission. She's searching for a hideout where she can psyche herself up for a major performance.

Watch Lynn Sherr's full report on 20/20 this Friday at 10 p.m.

The coast is clear and Klaus swings into action, prepping herself with these lines: "I can't wait to tell you what I got to tell you. Sit down and listen to me 'cause I got something fabulous to tell you."

A couple hundred yards away, an audience awaits her. Dozens of executive women who have paid $45 apiece to come to a San Francisco hotel room to hear Klaus bully them into doing something that just doesn't come naturally: brag.

Sell Yourself, No One Else Will

Klaus' approach is radical, her methods often outlandish, in large part to shock women into action. Many who attend her seminars feel stalled at their rung of the corporate ladder. Klaus says it's because they don't know how to sell themselves or their virtues, because they're stuck in a culture that sees "brag" as a four-letter word.

"When you think of the word brag, how do you define it?" Klaus asks her audience. The answers come back rapidly: "negative," "obnoxious," "self-indulgent."

One woman defines it as "lying."

And that old-fashioned attitude, says Klaus, is the problem. "If you don't self-promote," she says, "you won't get promoted."

Some people get it instinctively — and it sure seems to work for them. Remember heavyweight champ Muhammad Ali's self-praising poetry? He had no trouble saying, "I'm young, I'm handsome, I'm fast, I'm pretty and can't possibly be beat."

But while self-promotion may be one way to get to the top — there is no hard evidence on this — pulling it off without alienating others can be tricky, especially if you're female.

Girls Often Taught to Uphold Stereotype

In one study of executive women, nearly three-quarters recognized that advertising oneself is important, but 51 percent said they'd been told that when they "tooted their own horn," they were judged too aggressive for a woman. As a result, according to Klaus, "women by far find it much more difficult."

To help them, Klaus is putting a peppy new spin on an old technique. "I want nuts. I want jumping up and down, rolling on the floor climbing on the chairs. I want nuts," she tells her audiences.

This is assertiveness training with an edge, and it's rooted in Klaus' own childhood. A neighborhood boy bragged about how well he played tennis and told Klaus he could beat her. He was wrong. Klaus beat him and wanted to revel in her victory by telling her family.

Klaus recalls, "I ran in and I said, 'I beat him, I beat him,' I'm so excited and my father overheard me and he came in and he said, 'Peggy, I know that you're real excited but don't brag about it. Don't toot your own horn, you'll make him feel bad, and you know, you don't want to make boys feel bad.'"

This is exactly the type of message generations of little girls have been taught — to uphold the sexual stereotypes.

Bragging has never troubled most guys, which is one reason they often win.

Klaus even admits she didn't vote for herself when she ran for class president in school. "I remember walking in and placing my ballot and thinking, 'I can't vote for myself, that's really bragging. I have to vote for my opponent.' And I put an 'X' next to his name," she said.

She lost that election and later was rejected for job after job. Finally, Klaus says, she realized that if she didn't start singing her own praises, no one would.

Going ‘Over the Top’

She says you, too, can come on stronger by exaggerating and exulting — a technique she calls "Over the Top." She told her audience, "I want body movement, I want volume, I want gestures, I want biiiiig, I want over the top, I want wacky, wild, I want you to look like idiots actually."

She starts them out with something very mundane: a report on what they ate for breakfast that morning. One seminar participant, Catherine, tells the group she had coffee and a croissant.

But Klaus is unsatisfied with Catherine's description.

Klaus gives her some one-on-one coaching. "You are going to tell us about this fabulous breakfast that you had. You're going to be very specific and draw out those images of the coffee and of the croissant. OK? Now what I want you to do is I want you to follow me around and I want you to scream at the top of your lungs, 'I can't wait to tell them!' "

After Klaus' coaching, Catherine has a whole new take on her morning meal. She said, "Wait till I tell you what I had for breakfast this morning. It was incredible. I came in and I thought a hotel? How is the hotel food any good? But there was waiting for me, this gorgeous buffet."

The topic wasn't particularly important. Klaus said, "My thought with that was, that if you can talk about coffee and a croissant and fruit then you can talk about anything."

The point, of course, is to bring all that new energy to the goal you're seeking — whether it's on the job, at the PTA, in a relationship, or wherever.

Push, Without Being Pushy

We wanted to see how well Klaus' theories work outside the boardroom, so at our request she agreed to coach Jeri Lynne Johnson, who performs on a very different stage — as conductor for the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia. Johnson is one of a very few women in such a high-profile, male-dominated field, but she, too, needed help asserting and bragging about herself.

At one rehearsal the orchestra even asked to conduct itself. And there's more. Johnson's mistakes may be subtle, but after a few days of watching Klaus, even I could see that she wasn't functioning in brag mode.

When she wants to focus on a particular segment of the music, she begins with sentences like this one: "Can we try please the full bar of nine?"

"That's what I think takes away from her, what I call, executive presence and her power on the podium because she's asking them for permission to ask the question and she doesn't need to ask them for permission. She's the conductor," Klaus said.

I noticed, she also says please all the time. Can we please do this, can we please do that? Somehow I don't think Leonard Bernstein would have done it that way.

Johnson acknowledged that the rules are different for women on the podium.

"They must have a certain, you know, sensual quality. But not be too sexy, and, push it too much," she said, adding, "You know they have to be, you know, in command, and in control of the orchestra. But not be, you know … pushy."

But she can't be a pushover, either. So Klaus taught Jeri another kind of bragging: how to assert her physical presence on the stage.

With Peggy's influence, Johnson held her head high at the next performance.

Her new self-assurance was evident. She told us she's even using "Please" and "can we" less often, and that the musicians like her new style. So does her coach.

The ‘Bragalogue’

Klaus says gaining that confidence can also be built on the "bragalogue," which she defines as a sociable way to tell one's story without sounding immodest. It's her secret weapon for taking advantage of ripe situations.

She describes this "bragalogue" as a 15- or 30-second "fly by." When your boss' boss comes by your desk, Klaus says, don't be vague or quiet about what you're doing. Tell them that you've just finished working on a great project and describe what you've done enthusiastically.

Klaus acknowledges that it is calculating behavior.

But she's trying to make the point that we shouldn't let a chance encounter be a chance encounter. We should make the most of every opportunity.

The seminar participants we saw certainly got the breakfast part down. The question is: can these women really learn to brag their way to the top of the job world?

For more information about Peggy Klaus's work check out her book, Brag: The Art of Tooting Your Own Horn Without Blowing It, Warner Books, 2003.