Ready. Set. Brag.
I've never seen a roomful of adults so excited about what they ate for lunch. They are dancing, thrashing their arms, screaming the praises of salad and chicken fingers. It's over the top.
And I'm getting hoarse right along with them.
Not quite two hours ago, we were sitting demurely in the octagonal ballroom of this Boston hotel, pens poised to scribble down advice. We are professionals at a women's leadership conference - yet somehow we're willing to make fools of ourselves at this moment.
There are two things you need to know to understand why. One: Workshop leader Peggy Klaus has a whistle, and whistles tend to make people obey. Two: She is teaching us how to brag.
Ms. Klaus, a communication and leadership coach based in Berkeley, Calif., is convinced that if you don't "toot your own horn," jobs and promotions you deserve will pass you by. But persuading people to brag requires a certain amount of reeducation.
So, let's start at the beginning. Melissa, a technology manager at my table, says she has come because she finds that if women talk about themselves the same way men do, "it's taken as too assertive, aggressive, or being pushy." Heads nod. She's good at praising her team, she says, but she needs to learn to praise herself, too.
Klaus is a show-don't-tell kind of teacher. So she has us each find a partner we don't know and stand back to back. When she blows the whistle, one of us has 45 seconds to tell three things about our work that we're proud of. She blows the whistle again and we switch.
Her assessment? We were too shy and dull. Klaus's drama degree and her time spent in Hollywood come in handy as she mocks our body language. Why are we so inhibited? Like a talk-show host, this petite powerhouse of a woman weaves her way between the tables to find out what words we associate with bragging: "arrogant," "boring," "a person who takes credit but didn't do the work," "obnoxious." Several say that as girls, they were cautioned to keep quiet about their accomplishments or the boys wouldn't like them.
Klaus uses the word brag "because there's a visceral reaction," she told me earlier in an interview. But then she redefines it: "Talk about your accomplishments in a storylike manner," she says, "using memorable tidbits expressed with delight, enthusiasm, and passion."
She picks someone from the back of the room. After a few "ums," Jennifer proceeds to tell us her title and how she manages a wonderful team. We applaud, but the point has been made: Most of what she says in that 45 seconds isn't memorable. Then Peggy and Jennifer leave the room for a five-minute tutorial.
When Jennifer returns, she might as well be wearing an evening gown and walking up to accept an Oscar, she's so confident. She smiles and moves comfortably as she tells us the story of starting her job at an investment firm on a day that the market had crashed. All she could do was hand out sandwiches to co-workers who were tied to the phones. Now she leads 10 people, she says, and has built up mutual trust so that they've been able to do a terrific job.
Jaws drop. We give Jennifer a standing ovation and Klaus wraps her in a huge hug. "Did anyone think she was bragging?" Klaus asks, her tone of voice implying she means the old definition of bragging. "No!" we shout back.
Finally, Klaus lets us in on what she taught Jennifer. When people get nervous, they stiffen up and lose eye contact. So to communicate dynamically when you're introducing yourself to a group or asking your boss for a promotion, you have to practice (in private) by exaggerating everything. This is where our crazy lunch soliloquies come in. She literally calls this method "OTT" - over the top.
You also have to know what you want to say. She suggests taking stock of your accomplishments and skills to create "brag bites" - memorable gems that will come in handy when you're tempted to rattle off a bunch of plain sentences that start with "I." Depending on how much time you have, you can weave these into different stories, or "bragologues."
Our final task is to pair up with our original partners and practice a mini-bragologue. It turns out to be not so uncomfortable, especially because the vibe from going OTT still lingers. I imagine it will be much more difficult to put into practice with people I actually know. But Klaus tells of many e-mails and calls from people wanting to give her partial credit for their promotions. She's been doing the workshops for nearly two years and recently published "Brag! The Art of Tooting Your Own Horn Without Blowing It."
My table mates leave with big smiles and a certain momentum. "From her I finally know that I can walk into my manager's office and say, 'Here is why I want to do this and here's what I've done,' " says Ethel Woodard, who works at FleetBoston Financial.
As for me, I've been so busy writing newspaper stories that I haven't gotten very far yet on my brag-packed story that will surely win me a raise.
(If my editors leave that ending in, it must be because they think I'm joking. Maybe I should get a whistle.)