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Meaningful Communication

Podcast with verbal and visual communication expert, Sonya Hamlin

Sonya Hamlin Sonya Hamlin

"This is a Time of Improvisation. This is a Time of Finding New Ways." - Sonya Hamlin

Welcome to a Leadership Channel podcast on Total Picture Radio with Peter Clayton reporting. Communicating in Today's Workplace - Do People Listen When You Talk? Do Others Understand You? Do You Get What You Want? Joining us today is Sonya Hamlin, president of Sonya Hamlin Communications, a nationally recognized expert in many phases of communication. Sonya Hamlin's major focus is on business communication --both verbal and visual. She conducts seminars worldwide and consults privately with CEOs and senior executives in many corporations - she is the author of several books on communication skills, including How to Talk So People Listen Connecting in Today's Workplace.

Whether making a presentation to a large audience or dealing one–on–one with a client or colleague, or communicating by email, Hamlin's book teaches us that one of the keys to making people listen is to think about and respond to what motivates them – namely, self–interest. She then provides tools to assess others' self–interest and use it to get them to listen to your message. Hamlin also explains how to capitalize on the latest visual aids we have at our disposal today. We learn to determine what information needs or lends itself to visual presentation, and how to make visuals active, so that they serve as an extension of the speaker.

Questions we asked Sonya

  • You had your own TV talk show for 11 years - interviewing everyone from Ted Kennedy to Paul Newman, Maya Angelou, Alfred Hitchcock, Gregory Peck -- all of these people shared one thing -- tremendous charisma - how do you get that? Is that something you just born with or are there things we can do to become more charismatic?
  • Given all of the incredible people you've been fortunate to meet and interview, is there any common thread you can share with us? Was there anything they all shared? What did you learn? Who was your favorite interview?
  • A great deal of your consulting work is with corporations and executives. What's the number one communication skill they're looking to improve in today's business environment?
  • When you work with business executives, what do you find is the communication skill most lacking?
  • I think most people are somewhere between uncomfortable to terrified to have to give a presentation to a large group of people -- or a small group of senior executives -- how do you help your clients overcome these fears, to become more confident and polished when giving speeches or presentations?
  • I want to focus on the title of your book How to Talk So People Listen. And let's frame this in the context of a job search:
  • What makes people listen?
  • >I think it's a lot easer to get people to listen if you're in a position of power and authority, however, if you've been laid off the task becomes much more difficult, am I right

Sonya Hamlin Interview Transcript

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Welcome to a leadership channel podcast on Total Picture Radio. This is Peter Clayton reporting.

Communicating in today's workplace; do people listen when you talk? Do others understand you? Do you get what you want?

Joining us today is Sonya Hamlin, President of Sonya Hamlin Communications, a nationally recognized expert in many phases of communications. Sonya Hamlin's major focus is on business communications, both verbal and visual. She conducts seminars worldwide and consults privately with CEOs and senior executives in many corporations.

She is the author of several books on communication skills, including How To Talk So People Listen.

Sonya, welcome to Total Picture Radio.

Sonya: Thank you, Peter. How nice to be with you.

Peter: You had your own TV talk show for 11 years interviewing everyone from Ted Kennedy to Paul Newman, Maya Angelou, Alfred Hitchcock, Gregory Peck... all of these people shared one thing, Sonya – tremendous charisma. How do you get that? Is that something you're just born with or are there things we can do to become more charismatic ourselves?

Sonya: It's not exactly a thing you get. It really is true that some people are quite blessed. For example, Alfred Hitchcock was hardly a beauty. He made the most of standing in profile, I got a big belly and I got a big nose and a double chin, okey dokey, I'm gonna use it. He dared to be unique and an individual.

Now, of course, he was an enormously creative man and he certainly thought outside the box, his movies showed that, and it's the reason he became so famous. He used to explain it wonderfully by calling it the McGuffin. His attitude towards making movies was he said "The McGuffin is that you let the audience in on something that the actors on stage don't yet know." So it makes them crazy because they want to stand up and scream "Don't you realize..." that North By Northwest, for example, when they realize who Eva Marie Saint is and here is Cary Grant climbing the walls trying to tell her that they're gonna kill you, they're gonna take you and throw you out the window.

The issue of charisma really has to do with your attitude towards yourself. If you think you are who you are and what you do is pretty good and it isn't ego that is ho ho, pay attention to me, but that you're quite settled in the fact that these are the gifts that you've been given, this is the work you've done; you can then present yourself in a very strong light.

Maya Angelou, who had such a complex and difficult upbringing and was a voluntary mute for six years, she didn't speak at all, having been raped at the age of 7, she was a perfect example. She was settled in herself, so that if you asked her a question, you really wanted to hear what she had to say. And what she had to say came from a depth of understanding; it wasn't "I hope you like this..." "this must be popular and what everybody's saying..." it came from really deep inside herself. And people who dare to go deep into their own truth, I think, are the ones who transmit charisma. They don't necessarily have to be gorgeous.

Peter: I think that's an incredible observation. Given all of the people you've been fortunate to meet and interview, is there any common thread you can share with us?

Sonya: That's interesting because I was an interested in scientists and people who had had great hardship – Vietnam veterans who came home from the war and whose families actually disowned them because they came back highly injured or have amputees and stuff.

The common thread I looked for, really, was how are you dealing with life? I never asked a movie star what's your next movie and how was it to be on stage, and that sort of thing. I always asked them things like "how was it when you failed? How did you handle that? What was the hardest thing about success and who paid for it?" Because they'll always tell you their families did.

So that the common thread really was what you look for is, there is a common threat in all humanity. And that was where I went because I was very interested in having my audience learn something from these people, just sitting there and thinking oh I could never be that, oh what a glamorous life. That doesn't do me any good in terms of putting them on the air and then we just rub each other's backs. That isn't interesting.

The common thread was it is very hard to grow up, and people start with many different kinds of backgrounds, some good ones, lots of bad ones. The bad ones give strength, if you can survive them. And if you have a thread, a kind of passion, something you want desperately, that will carry you. It will carry you over buildings and through terrible things and doubting yourself and being fired a million times; you know, all movie stars and all performers have come through that and you have to continue the belief in yourself or that the work that you're doing is important.

I found that it was my starter too, and it was what pushed me and made me kill myself. I had three children, had a very nice husband, a house... and I was running and doing this television thing all the time because I had the feeling that I was giving an opportunity to people who were at home listening to open the big world for them and here I was the kind of door opener and that was very exciting. It's that passion I think that people share.

Peter: I think that's absolutely true and your passion certainly comes through in this interview for doing that kind of thing and that's something I aspire to doing is opening up those doors for people to get a different perspective.

Sonya: Of course.

Peter: And not asking the questions that are sent by the PR people.

Sonya: Ha, ha, ha, we always threw that out. We started from scratch. I would love to ask a question because it was live. People can watch what was happening, what was the reaction.

Peter: Right.

Sonya: I'd love to ask a question and hear, "You know? No one ever asked me that before." Or they look off to the left, looking back at their history.

Peter: Sonya, I'd like to reframe the conversation here somewhat and transition from your experience in television career into what you are doing currently, which is working a lot with corporations and individuals in executive training and in coaching and communication skills. What's the number one communication skill that your corporate clients are looking to improve in today's decidedly stressful business environment?

Sonya: Well, starting from people who are looking for a job, how to present yourself so that you have credibility, accessibility, that you like the kind of person I'd like to work with, not only that you're smart and you know your stuff, but when people go for an interview, they're also being evaluated in terms of ‘is he going to fit in with everybody...' ‘would I like to have lunch with this person...' ‘how about a stay-up-all-night working thing, has this one got the guts to do it?' But for the executives who are indeed working, the hardest thing for them is to come through as a person, to dare to become personal and real.

And you see today's world is up close and personal, you couldn't get any more personal. You've got Skype on your computer. You're into somebody's nose all the time. People are writing to each other all day long about what their navel looks like so that we need to be direct, open, real... but executives grew up knowing you're supposed to be tough, you're supposed to look formal, you're supposed to look like... and here comes Generation X and Y moving in saying, "Oh no. I don't want to wear that and I don't want to act like that." And there's a great gap in this communication ability to reach across the generations and for the younger generation to be able to present itself in the corporation which has rigid standards and of course, they're bending them a lot now but there are certain ways to do business, and we're global and countries on the other side, east and west, are much more formal than we are.

So you've got to learn to really tune in to whom you're talking to. That's the essence of communication is your audience. What do they care about? What do they want? What are they concerned about? How can you fulfill their needs? Yours come second but if you can really focus on that and for executives to recognize how worried and scared their own people are, their staff, "Am I going to lose my job... Are we going up... Is somebody buying us..." For you to come through as another real person instead of, "Now ladies and gentlemen, the subject today is..." and then they turn to the slides, you know?

Peter: Right.

Sonya: And they get lost and there's no personality there so you don't feel there's anybody there who is supportive or dependable or that you can relate to or that even has you in mind. Executives must transmit first to the people who work for them but they see you. They know you are there, that you're real and that they can understand that you have issues and problems, that just throwing work at you is not the only answer. You've got to really dig in. That is hard because nobody was ever trained that way before, you see. All the MBAs were trained to get smart.

Peter: You bring up some very current issues that I've certainly heard about out in the workplaces, all of the stress that's going on in the workplace.

Sonya: That's right.

Peter: And the executives are hiding in their offices. They're not communicating with the people about what is really going on.

Sonya: Exactly. One of the things they're most frightened about is questions. I don't know what to tell you. Suppose somebody says, "So boss, how do you think we're doing? Is somebody going to come... do you think...," that requires an answer and the boss is supposed to have those and they're terrified because frankly, they don't know either.

This is a time of improvisation. This is a time where people have to find new ways and you got sit and hunker down and get right to the laser light and get to the problem. What is the issue and now, what are some other ways we can approach this? What's the holding pattern we can go to? What's the comfort level we can stay at? And then to also recognize that the people around you will support you if you bring them in and if you make them know you know they're scared and you're concerned and these are the issues and here's what we're going to do. And we need your help and tell them what to do. That connection is a new thing.

It always used to be the boss is coming so you're scared, you keep biting your lip and you only ask a proper question or you better not ask any that'll look like you don't know anything. You see? So the connections. The name of my book is How To Talk So People Listen: Connecting in Today's Workplace. That's tough.

Peter: Yeah, it is and back to your earlier point about the different generational differences, I mean the Gen Yers and the Gen Xers grew up multitasking.

Sonya: Right, and they don't think it's strange.

Peter: No, not at all.

Sonya: I just keep talking and me while we've got the earpiece in and we're also texting and that's okay and the older generation thinks you're not paying attention to anything. Of course, what we have done with the younger generations – and I've researched this and written a lot about it – a lot about what the issues are of communicating, the biggest problem is that the generations don't understand each other. They don't know where they came from. They don't understand how each generation turned out as it did and the stories are very inspiring, each one. And if we could understand each other and see, oh that's how he is like he is, now I understand what she was doing or what she was thinking, or she couldn't dare do anything like what I know how to do; then you begin the step of how do you reach other people because you're beginning to understand them.

Our problem with communicating is we're very busy polishing our own skills. You're going for an interview, so you practice and practice and practice and you've got everything all written down and you've got all your stuff ready to bring in and everything. Have you spent one minute thinking about why should that other guy want you? What have you got to offer in this place at this time that makes you unique from the three people who just closed the door? And that understanding of who is there, what are their problems, what are their issues, what does he expect me to say? He knows I'm going to come in and do XYZ. I'm not going to tell him I'm bad. It's very disarming for you to come in and say, "Let me tell you what I'm good at and what I'm bad at." My God, here's a person with some honesty! And what I want to hear, if I'm a hiring boss, tell me what you're bad at and how you solve that. What do you do knowing that you are bad at that instead of somebody saying, "Oh, I'm very good. Oh yes. I will do everything you say. Oh yes, I'm right on time." There's no faith in that.

Peter: I think one thing that all generations share is that most people are somewhere between uncomfortable to terrified to have to give a presentation to a large group of people or even a small group of executives or in your example, in a job interview so how do you help your clients overcome these fears to become more confident and polished when they give presentations or speeches or have to sit in front of a group of people in a job interview?

Sonya: Of course, you'll be quite surprised to hear this. Research has been done over a 30-year period asking people every year, "What gives you the greatest anxiety? What scares you the most?" Number one has always been to this day, giving a speech. And the issue is this, your focus when you're giving a speech that makes everybody scared in on myself. How am I going to do? Oh, I'm going to be so bad. What if I miss this word and I'm going to turn the page and there were people out there who can do it so much better and I saw that guy yesterday, he was marvelous. I'm not I... well; guess what you're really trying to do? You're trying to talk to them. It's all about your message and what you want to give them. It's not about you.

Stage fright is based on what grade you imagine you will get when you do it which scares you so that you can hardly breathe because you're assuming everybody's giving you a grade. Now here's how you get over it.

The focus is your work. It's the message. What do you want them to know? You got to sit down and say to yourself not how am I doing but instead, "If I were to stand at the door when everybody hears my speech, what do I want them to know?" Three questions I'd like to ask them. Did they learn this? Did they get this? Are they willing to do that? And then you create your speech based on what's the best way to tell them this... no, that takes too long. No, I better show them... you know a good example would be... now listen to how actively involved I am in the work and in them. Will they get it this way? No, this will be too boring. That'll take too long. Them, them, them... and guess whom you forget about? You. And guess what comes out? Your energy goes to them, not inside of you... oh my God! What am I am going to do? I've always been so bad, my mother said I mumbled... and you bring every teenage thing... my ears are too big; they're going to notice it. Oh, I better wear a big coat... that sort of thing.

Peter: And I think to that point, one thing I have learned and the people I know who are really good at making presentations, including Steve Jobs...

Sonya: {laughs} Yes.

Peter: is that they practice and practice and practice and practice until they have virtually memorized what they're going to say.

Sonya: Do you know something? Not everybody can do that and it's an extra stress. I mean, Steve Jobs is a raving genius! He could do anything! Obviously, look at what he has created. But for a lot of people, what helps is to not write a script because it's very dangerous. You lose your place. Or you stop, pick up your head, and sort of expound on something and then when you come back, you discover that that's the next thing you've written.

The best thing you can do is make notes. Outline form and bullets with all the trigger words of what you're trying to say, because you know what you really mean to say. You've got it. You're the one who can write it and you're the one who can say it. If you see before you what the organization and outline is and what that does is it keeps you in touch with your audience. Your energy goes to your audience.

If you write your speech in advance and memorize it, all your energy has gone into the paper and you have been editing it based upon you, what you're reading. Speeches are about talking and other people hearing. Speech is very different – spoken speech than writing speech. Written speech has big sentences because it's there on the page and you can wait until you've got it. But spoken speech is short sentences, you stop yourself in the middle, you go off somewhere, you come on back, because your energy, your voice, your phrasing, your eye contact, your body language is continuing to tell the story; it isn't just words.

Words are something you send. That's when you do the editing on the page because that has to be your voice someplace else. But if you're delivering, you've got so much you can do. You can use your hands, you can show, you can demonstrate, pick up a thing, show it, break it, turn it upside down – there is action involved. And here we get to the biggest piece – we don't listen anymore.

All our information is visual. We email; we don't use the telephone. We use the phone for texting. The voice is dead! And the worst thing you can do is stand up and make a long speech. People have the attention spam of 1½ minutes now in this country. How are you going to talk past 1½ minutes? If you make contact with them visually, personally and in that 1½ minutes, you've got to do three things: Relate to your audience Tell them what's in it for them, why should they listen Give them your agenda so they know where you're going to take them.

Then they're willing to go further.

Peter: And now I have to go off on my PowerPoint rant ?

Sonya: That's right!

Peter: Because so many people in what you're describing, they use their PowerPoint presentations deliberately to take the focus off of them and put it up on the screen and then people fall asleep because it's in 12-point type and you can't read the damn thing.

Sonya: That's right! Absolutely! And black and white...

Peter: And they have basically everything they're saying is up on the screen.

Sonya: So who cares?

Peter: Yeah.

Sonya: And even more importantly, they never did the work of editing so that on the screen ... you see PowerPoint is very useful if you know how to use it. By being a supporter, you've just said three important things: Pop them up there (1) Say it again.

We remember 85-90% of what we see, less than 15% of what we hear.

So once you've said something important, which means you've shown your passion, you've built up to it, you told them why, you've given them an example, you've made them feel it – show it to them so they'll remember it. But you never put on the screen what you're saying, otherwise sit down and be quiet and send it to them.

You have to legitimatize why you are there and using up their time.

Peter: Back to Steve Jobs as an example, look at his ... look how Steve Jobs uses visual. He doesn't use PowerPoint, obviously, he uses Keynote, which is Mac's version of PowerPoint, but it's two or three sentences...

Sonya: That's right.

Peter: ... it's a picture of a product, it's a black screen, it's the Apple logo, it's not his whole presentation.

Sonya: Exactly. Because what's his #1 goal? His #1 goal is see me as a leader. Have confidence in me. Know me well enough so that if I tell you this is a new product and it's going to work, you'll believe me and say right, let's go, I'm willing.

But if all you do is focus everybody on a paper, you haven't told them that you are their leader, that you know this, that they can come to you, that you're ready to carry the ball. And people don't understand that that's the big thing is the personal contact.

I talk to 10,000 people at a time. Because we have a microphone, you can be totally personal and I picture myself talking to one person. And you know what? I am, because each person hears it themselves. They don't care that there is 10,000 people in the room; they relate to you, they like you, they don't. They don't care about what other people are doing. It's fun when there is a lot of people laughing and then they feel they're right in it, but you begin to feel the steam when you relate as an individual. You come through. And that you don't do with PowerPoint.

PowerPoint is your support system. It's your little aid. It works for you. It's not you. YOU have to bring you out so that people know whom they're dealing with.

Peter: Sonya, thank you so much for taking time to speak with us today on Total Picture Radio. And I hope you'll come back soon because there is so many more things I want to talk to you about.

Sonya: Oh you know it, I would love to.

Peter: That's great. Thanks again. Again, we really appreciate your time here on Total Picture Radio.

Sonya: You're a doll, and it was wonderful to talk to you. Let's do it again.

Peter: We will. Thank you.

Sonya Hamlin's latest book is titled How To Talk So People Listen, published by Collins.

Visit her feature page in the leadership channel of Total Picture Radio – - for resource links and much more information.

This is Peter Clayton reporting. Thank you for tuning into Total Picture Radio, the voice of career leadership.

Sonya Hamlin Biography

Starting as a dancer, choreographer and musician, she attended Julliard and earned a B.S and M.A. from New York University. Hamlin began her communication careers as a performer and chairman of Radcliffe's Dance Department . Her latest focus -communicating in the courtroom, in the workplace and on the media-- includes teaching communication skills at Harvard's Law School, Kennedy School of Government and Graduate School of Education, Boston University's Medical School and the School of Public Communication as well at Oxford and Cambridge Universities in the U.K. Between these two careers, Hamlin spent many years communicating on television.

Television: A two-time Emmy Award winner, her television career included hosting and co-producing her own daily TV talk show, The Sonya Hamlin Show, Boston; directing, writing, producing and filming television documentaries and being the first cultural reporter on the news in United States. She has an ongoing role as a jury and communications expert on network television, commenting on highly visible cases such as O.J. Simpson, Oklahoma City bombing, the Clinton impeachment, Michael Jackson, etc. Her awards (in addition to her Emmys) include a Sonya Hamlin Day declared by the Mayor of Boston; an honorary doctorate and winning, for the U.S., the International Japan Prize for Educational TV for her PBS series Meet the Arts. Her work is being collected as an archive by the Boston University Library. Hamlin is listed in Who's Who In America, in American Business and of American Women and is elected to the International Women's Forum.

Business Communication: Sonya Hamlin's major focus is on business communication --both verbal and visual. She conducts seminars worldwide and consults privately with CEOs and senior executives in many corporations, among them American Express, Bayer Corp., Bristol Myers-Squibb, Citigroup, CIGNA, DuPont, Ernst & Young, IBM, Lehman Bros. Monsanto, MTV, Nickelodeon, Sony, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the U.S. Government. Her new book on business communication in the 21st century - How to Talk so People Listen: Connecting in Today's Workplace (Jan. 2006, HarperCollins) is now also published in Russia, China, Poland, Turkey, the U.K., Canada Brazil and Indonesia.

Courtroom Communication: Ms. Hamlin is a pioneer in the field of courtroom communication, having created that course at the Harvard Law School in 1978. She lectures worldwide and consults on cases with law firms, consulting on juries and advocacy skills, preparing witnesses, developing strategies and creating visual presentations of evidence. She teaches advocacy skills -both oral and visual- across the U.S and abroad. Her landmark book, What Makes Juries Listen (1984 Harcourt Brace) completed ten printings; What Makes Juries Listen Today (1998 West Publishing) both book and tapes, are now classics. Her newest book is NOW What Makes Juries Listen (2008 ThomsonWest ).

As a communications expert, she appears regularly on network television, analyzing current trials as well as discussing political debates and other media communication issues.

Peter Clayton

About Peter Clayton

Peter Clayton, Producer/Host, is an award-winning producer/director of radio, television, documentary, video, interactive and Web-based media who has created breakthrough media for a wide array of Fortune 100 clients.


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