Larry King Shares 9 Lessons on How to Become a Master Communicator
'I'm the kind of person you don't want to sit next to on the plane. I do it in real life.'
“You’ve got to tell the Oprah story,” John Dickey, new CEO of Ora TV, told Larry King as we all sat together in King’s trophy room in Beverly Hills. King shared that Oprah Winfrey told him that while on safari in Africa, she asked a local about various celebrities, to see whom they knew, since they didn’t recognize her. The local finally stopped her and asked, “Do you know Larry King?”
That is the kind of reach King has achieved with his 60-year career in communications.
His story is the American dream realized: A Jewish kid from Brooklyn dreams of being on the radio so he starts cleaning floors at a local station. One day a disc jockey calls in sick and King changes his name, jumps on the air, has a rocky start and then goes on to conduct more than 60,000 interviews. He’s received a Peabody award, multiple Cable ACE awards and numerous Emmy nominations. He’s been inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame, the Broadcasters' Hall of Fame and has a star on the Hollywood walk of fame. King has also written for multiple newspapers and magazines and is a New York Times bestselling author.
At 83, King is still going strong with his show Larry King Now, which airs on Ora TV, a digital network he co-owns with billionaire Carlos Slim. He has become a communications industry icon and arguably the leading talk show host of all time, on both television and radio.
If you’re wondering if I was intimidated when I sat to interview him -- the answer is absolutely. As an entrepreneur and writer, I knew he could take me to school on the art of speaking, writing and interviewing. What were his tips, tricks, advice? How did he parlay radio success into television success into his own network?
He answered all of that and much more during our hour-long interview, but here are nine lessons on mastering communication from the King himself.
1. Just get started.
If you dream of becoming a speaker, author, broadcaster or other brand of professional communicator, King advises to get in as soon as you can. His career got its start because when he had met a CBS staff announcer by chance, he immediately shared his desire to get into radio and asked how he could break in. He was advised to go to Miami, a newer radio market with more opportunities for beginners. Once there, he took a job at a small station serving as an assistant, running errands and cleaning.
The lesson: Take whatever jobs you can get to break into the industry, King says. And once you’re in, "Work your ass off. Do whatever they say. Work weekends. Show up early and don’t give up.”
2. Keep gaining experience.
King said yes to every communications opportunity that came his way, eager for the practice and chance to improve his speaking, writing and interviewing skills. His local success led to his first national gig -- the first ever national radio show. Not long after he was invited to join the then young CNN.
3. Stick with the basics.
King says he believes that one of the reasons he is successful is that he never lost touch with where he came from and he stuck with the basics.
“I’ve been transmitted differently, but I haven’t done anything different," he says. "Who, what, when, where, why. I ask questions.” He gave a great example from one of his favorite interviews:
“Now Frank Sinatra is sitting there, the number one personality in the world. I’m sitting there. The light goes on. All I said was ‘Welcome to the Larry King Show. My guest is Frank Sinatra. Why are you here?’ I didn’t go through any pretensions or ‘my old friend’ baloney.”
Today, it’s common for a communicator to wear an increasing number of hats: a host who is also a producer, a speaker who is also a consultant, a writer who is also a coach and so on. However, King advises to delegate as much as you can. He relies heavily on those around him, from technicians to producers and publicists, so he can perform when the light goes on.
4. Know your role as a communicator.
There is a time to tell your story or opinion, and there is a time to sit back and simply be a conduit. Though King wrote books and has been a keynote speaker, he spent most of his career listening. He says that he believes listeners love him because of his “street questions” approach and his ability to leave himself out of the conversation, something King says modern hosts no longer do.
“It’s the role of the interviewer to draw [guests] out," he says. "I was never more important than the guest. I never say 'I' in an interview. I’m there as a conduit.”
5. Stay curious.
To be a skilled communicator, you must stay curious, King says. It’s also important to stay hungry. Ask questions, read as much as you can and become an observer of people and trends.
“You have to be curious," he says. "I’m the kind of person you don’t want to sit next to on the plane. I do it in real life.”
6. Be present.
King’s advice for communicators is to stay in the moment.
“Tune out yesterday’s interview. That’s over. Tune out tomorrow’s interview, that’s still to come," he says. "If I’m doing a strike worker at a plant today and a president tomorrow, I’m not thinking about the president.”
He also added that staying in the moment means truly listening. If you’re thinking of your response while the other person is talking, you’re failing at communication.
7. Trust your instincts.
King’s intuition kicked in during his first real celebrity interview in 1958.
“One day the great Bobby Darin walked in ... [and] about a third of the way in, I felt a groove, something clicked there," he says. "Other people started to come in.”
King’s gut felt the same click 10 minutes into his first broadcast on CNN. He listened to his intuition throughout his career, which led to his pivotal decision to stay at CNN -- a risky move since the network was a small startup at the time -- even though he could earn more elsewhere.
“No matter what industry you’re in, if you’re happy, don’t leave," he says. "Don’t do something just for money and trust your instincts.”
8. Just be yourself.
Know your strengths. Are you a better writer? Interviewer? Are you better live or taped? King knew early on that he was talented and “at home in a studio.” He credits his success to this knowledge, paired with some early advice he received from Arthur Godfrey.
“You can’t make the viewer like you, so be yourself.” King recalls. “The only secret is there is no secret. Be yourself.”
9. Never give up.
King went on to assure aspiring communicators that, even though it’s a competitive industry, if they have the skills and the commitment to stick with it for the long haul, they will make it. To succeed, King says, you have to have the “comeuppance,” explaining that even now, he’s wondering, "what else can I do?"
“You’re going to get rejected, you’re going to get fired," he says. "Never give up.”
The journey, with its highs and lows, has been the reward for King.
“The best part [of my career] was the climb, each little rung," he says. "Better than making it -- climbing it. The pursuit, the ups, the downs. That was it.”
Watch more videos from "The Pursuit" on the show's YouTube channel.
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