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.