Stressing the importance of self-awareness as essential for leadership, Lou Solomon, president and founder of Interact Skills, LLC, more briefly referred to as Interact, describes authentic communication as the true game changer in today’s business world. Interact strives to teach its clients to maintain and build on their credibility by connecting with audience members on a personal and professional level. It sounds simple, right: Be yourself? It is a lesson we begin learning early on in our childhood but few truly master, even in adulthood. But what we don’t realize is, as we get older, the need to be authentic becomes more important and has a bigger impact on how we and our businesses are perceived by others.
Solomon has dedicated herself to helping business people learn to empower themselves by taking advantage of their greatest gift—by simply being who they are.
Solomon defines her passion as helping teach business people to speak to one another in an authentic way. Authentic communication is communication that allows participants to have genuine and spontaneous experiences. It is also the medium in which individuals innovate and make their organizations more competitive.
This approach is in strong contrast to what Solomon describes as sophisticated bull, complicated and meaningless communication that stems from fear of failure, bad habits and ultra-busyness.
“When people take our classes, we have them speak without slides, scripts or business jargon. We encourage them to pause and discover the wonderful power of silence,” Solomon explains. “Most of all, we have them tell their stories. Not the facts or timelines of their lives, but their stories. Telling these stories helps them understand their core values and increase their value as a leader and a communicator.”
Interact sessions often begin with participants getting up and sharing with their class in an informal setting. One of the topics of discussion is defining moments.
“Your defining moments say everything about who you are,” explains Solomon. “They are code for your core values. Defining moments at work tell us what your organization does for customers and how to communicate these things in a real way.”
When asked about her defining moment, Solomon gets comfortable in her chair and remembers back to 1989 when she was going through a bad time and eventually “hit rock bottom.”
At the time she was a rising star in the world of corporate broadcasting, where her life typically consisted of 70-hour work weeks and little else. She describes herself at the time as a super-achiever, a perfectionist and very inauthentic.
“I was always trying to be more, and speak from who I thought I should be,” she remembers. “It took me a long time to realize that simply being me was good enough.”
After Solomon finally accepted this she left her career in broadcasting behind and began her own public relations and consulting business.
She reflects back to the ’90s and the abundance of new technology that followed: “It was becoming harder and harder for us to communicate in an authentic way. People were becoming so busy and distracted by an overload of information that they were losing sight of the importance of human conversation.”
This became the founding principal for InteractSkills, LLC in 2000. The premise behind the company was to provide training to business people that helped them break out of the old mindset of public speaking—to get away from polished and scripted deliveries to something more authentic.
Solomon and her team believe that once business people feel comfortable being themselves, they are able to “cut through the clutter” and connect with customers to open up more possibility for business that benefits everyone.
An Authentic Approach
Interact’s offerings are divided into training for individuals, teams, and leadership. The centerpiece of individual training is the monthly course “Your Authentic Style.” Eight to 10 business people participate in a two-day on-camera session that changes they think about speaking and presenting.
Team training is customized to incorporate industry relevance. In addition to the on-camera workshops, Interact offers “Dry Run for Success,” “Designing the Authentic Presentation,” and “Team Conversation.”
Solomon uses a positive approach to draw out the strengths of participants. She stresses the rediscovery of the tools of expression owned by everyone and creates a relaxed atmosphere that allows learning and does not force it.
Denny Hammack, president of Patterson Pope, weighs in with his company’s experience. “We started with Interact because we had several people in positions that were presenting a lot to the architectural and design firms and wanted them to feel comfortable doing so. But we have since enrolled our entire sales group as well as our management team.”
He continues, “We quickly found out that everyone on our team thoroughly enjoyed the experience. It was a lot more than helping a person learn to speak in front of others.”
The added value he speaks of is the team building. “We walked out amazed at what we had learned about the people we work with every day, which helped us communicate better within our own office and grow together as a team. In my opinion, this was the strongest value and the biggest takeaway.”
Further benefits include competitive differentiation, increased trust of teammates and management, confidence, inspiration and the non-pitch sales pitch.
“If there’s a deal on the fence, the one thing that will push it your way is authenticity,” Solomon explains.
Suzanne Fetscher, president of the McColl Center for Visual Art, echoes the benefits of the training: “Interact’s program was powerful and amazingly helpful for a relatively short workshop. I felt so much more at ease about making authentic presentations after it.”
Another division of Interact is its Leadership Circle. Membership means inclusion in a small group of six decision-makers from different industries who are interested in authentic speaking as a strategy for success. Groups meet four times over the course of three months and participants exit with an authentic leadership story that communicates who they are in a powerful way.
“Your values come from the story of your life—not a how-to handbook. You use what you have. And, for many people, authenticity is the discovery that what they have is more than enough,” comments Solomon.
“Authentic leaders have self-awareness, which starts with being able to tell others what your life has taught you,” Solomon explains, “I have watched so many executives bore audiences by sharing the company’s vision through complex charts and slides. But when given permission, these same executives can inspire people and earn trust by telling a personal story.”
The typical Interact learning experience includes a pre-course assessment, two senior course facilitators teaching the Interact model, breakout video viewing, six videotaped presentations, a video DVD, an individual strength summary, and options for follow up. Some opt for private coaching for help with facing a career change or an important presentation. Solomon describes the mission of these coaching sessions as providing “a personal jolt of empowerment.”
The Necessary Tools
Solomon explains that Interact’s training can beneficial to people from all walks of business, but for the training to be effective, participants must come with an open mind.
“It is essential that people are willing to learn and be vulnerable,” says Solomon. “The moment a leader is no longer coachable, he or she becomes brittle and inauthentic.”
Solomon continues to talk about the obstacles Interact participants face listing without hesitation “natural anxiety and the adrenaline experience.”
Solomon observes that most people have had only negative experiences with the adrenaline experience that comes with speaking and presenting.
“Athletes, performers, snowboarders and emergency medics all know that adrenaline is a good thing. Part of our job is to demystify the process. We insist on having fun with this, so the laughter starts early,” she states. “By the last round everyone looks forward to their turn.”
Another hurdle is convincing people that it’s not all about the information. “Professionals feel they are valued for the truckload of information parked in their heads. Today we are inundated with so much messaging that we’ve come to believe that our only role is to pass along the messages,” Solomon states, “When people spend too much time focusing on the information they are presenting and ‘getting it right,’ they lose the natural energy of conversation.”
Solomon praises the Interact team of teachers who she describes as individuals who have “a love affair with empowering people and a passion for self-expression.” She is joined by longtime colleague Sally Mitchener, certified coach and sales expert Peter Popovich, consultant Terri Murphy, media expert and former anchor Janet England, and award-winning writing coach Patrick McLean.
Although she is quick to credit her team members and clients, they will tell you that the heart of Interact’s successful program stems from the knowledge and dedication of its leader. Solomon describers herself as a teacher but for the many she has helped on their journey to authenticity, it is obvious her strengths extend much further.
“Lou delivers her subject matter very well and she is an incredibly good listener. Her background helps her get her foot in the door but it’s her style, demeanor and perceptiveness that are her biggest strengths,” boasts client and friend Denny Hammack.
Hammack isn’t the only client whose life and business has been transformed by Solomon and her training. The list of former students that have moved on to Interact’s Speakers Bureau is constantly growing.
“We are proud that not only are we helping business people increase their value as communicators, these people are releasing themselves into service and authentic leadership. They are taking what they learn and giving that back to the community,” says Solomon. “I can’t believe I get to be a part of this process.”
As Solomon references a recent article titled How to be an Authentic Speaker in the Harvard Business Review, she smiles as she explains that the idea is finally on its way to replacing the old way of teaching the ‘rules’ of public speaking. People are beginning to catch on that this is so much more than ‘soft skills’ training.”
It is partly this shift to mainstream that allows her to knock on wood as she happily acknowledges that business hasn’t been impacted by the current state of the economy.
“People need help navigating the downturn in the economy,” she explains. “Businesses are hungry for the real-deal and more than ever people are finding out that they can’t survive being inauthentic.”
She continues: “I believe the future economy demands that we take responsibility for the way we communicate. The ability to connect with and inspire one another is what makes us miraculously human. And the more that we use and understand this power, the more human we become. The more inauthentic we become, the less human and less powerful we become.”
This month marks the release of Solomon’s first book, Say Something Real. The two-year labor of love was written out of what she saw as a demand for practical knowledge and training for authentic speaking. The book is meant to serve as a companion piece to the Interact training.
With Solomon’s first book under her belt, she is already planning her next. “At the moment I am designing a course that will train others to teach authentic speaking,” she says, “There will be another book to go with that curriculum.”
A self-described “lifelong learner,” Solomon is enrolled at Queens University where she is continuing her education with a Master of Science in Organizational Development. She attends class with young people who, she says, “have a completely different orientation to life. They are more inclusive and they think globally. They are looking for authentic leadership. I would like to help my own generation to change the way we communicate and offer that inspiration.”
“We spend most of our lives struggling to gain the credibility that only comes from being who we really are,” Solomon says. “It’s a full- circle track.”