Words: Your Most Powerful Weapon by Evy Poumpouras (Transcript)

Evy Poumpouras

This is the full transcript of former Secret Service Special Agent Evy Poumpouras’ TEDx Talk: Words: Your Most Powerful Weapon at TEDxStLouisWomen conference. This event occurred on May 28, 2015.



“Make people feel special. Listen to people. Be present. Nobody matters more than that person across from you.”



Evy Poumpouras – former Secret Service Special Agent

I’m often asked by people, you know, how can I read people? How can I know if somebody’s lying to me? How do I elicit information from people?

And I’m asked this, because in my previous profession, prior to working in the media, I conducted a lot of interviews.

I spent hundreds of hours in the interview room as a special agent. I interviewed people that had committed some very horrible crimes.

I interviewed people who wanted to work for the government. I interviewed people who wanted to harm our country.

I interviewed people from all walks of life.

And over the years, I learned — rather I discovered that there were some basic principles, recurring things that I was seeing when I was speaking with people and trying to elicit information.

Because that’s all I needed to do. I was trying to get information out of people. And at the end of the day, it all came down to communication.

When people ask me: how do I get people to tell me, you know, what I want to know? How do I read people?

They think I’m just going to pop out this checklist and be like just follow steps one through seven, you’ll get what you want. And it doesn’t work like that.

Yes, there is a science when it comes to communication. But communication is more of an art form than anything else. Communication is what gets you to where it is you want to go, whatever that is.

I want to share those basic principles with you here today. But most importantly, your words are what matter.

We live in the world where we speak words and we don’t really even think about we’re saying. We say things just to say them; we tweet what we want. We email what we want. But we don’t understand the impact of our words.

Prior to being a special agent, I went through the New York City Police Academy. I was a cadet. And when you’re in the New York City Police Academy, there’s a class you have to take; it’s called Police Science.

And during one of my lectures, my lecturer — my instructor was Sergeant Corrigan. Sergeant Corrigan got up there in front of the class and he said, “If you all go through your entire career and you never have to use your weapon, well then by my account, you’ve had a great career, because, he said, this is your most powerful weapon. This is how you get people to give you what you want. This is how you get people to comply, not this; this.”

Listen, the fundamental principle in having communication is listening, and I have to tell you we don’t listen.

And when I say listen, I mean be an active listener. Half the time when you’re speaking with someone, you’re not even absorbing — we’re not absorbing what they’re saying. We’re thinking what am I going to say in response.

We’re thinking about what — when is it my turn to speak. We don’t even let them finish sometimes. And I do that on occasion. Sometimes they do to my husband and he’ll say to me you know for someone who’s a great interviewer you kind of suck at this sometimes.

But when I say listening, I mean with more than just your ears. You have to absorb people.


You want to feel people with your mind, with your soul, with your heart; what vibe are they giving you? And this may sound like an awkward thing but it’s not. And you’ve all experienced it.

You meet somebody; they introduce themselves to you. Within the first five minutes you either like this person a lot. You’re like you know, what I just found my BFF, love this person.

Or within those first few minutes you say to yourself ,you know what, don’t like this person. I want nothing to do with them.

And somebody can ask, you they’ll say well why not, and you won’t be able to articulate it. You’ll say you know what, I just don’t like them. You know what I’m just don’t – something doesn’t feel right. You know what, they’re just off.

We all have that instinct and you know what, we don’t listen to it.

We don’t sit there and think and feel and see. When I would do interviews I would listen to people, all of them. I would never put a table between myself and another person ever. I still don’t. Even now I’m working in the media, when I interview someone, when I talk to someone, my preference is in-person no table between us, because if there’s a table between us, all I can see is what’s going on from here and up.

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I want to see all of you. I want to see what every part of your body is doing, because then I can understand you. When I understand you I can begin to communicate.

And listening also means what: you listen and you speak less. We have this myth where we think if we speak more, if we couldn’t control the conversation, we’re in control and it is the exact opposite.

It’s the person who speaks less who’s actually in control, because you’re giving it all up, you’re an open book.

Here you go: what do you want to know about me? And people love to talk. So let them.

Think of it this way – 80:20 rule. You listen 80% of the time, 20% of the time you speak, especially when it’s something that you need from this person, especially when it’s something that you desire that you need to learn, because if you’re talking you’re not learning anything.

And having patience, when people speak and then silence, a lot of us don’t like silence. Sometimes you speak to people and there’s a moment of silence and we feel like we have to keep talking and talking.

Silence is beautiful because when you’re silent you’re also telling that person I want you to answer my question. But when you keep speaking you don’t allow them.


I love special. I tell everyone make people feel special, and they look at me like, what? Make people feel special?

When you speak to someone and you’re looking to have a communication with someone, you have to make that person feel that they are the most important person that you are dealing with at that moment. Doesn’t mean you do one of these or even glance at your watch? Doesn’t mean you pull out your iPhone and talk to people.

And we’ve all had that done to us and it doesn’t feel so good.

During my previous career, I had the privilege of being around some amazing people to include world leaders and presidents. And often I was assigned to former President Clinton and I would accompany him and supplement his detail.

And I was amazed at how he mastered this. He would walk into a room. It didn’t matter where we were, who he was speaking to. And it didn’t matter what was going on in his life. But he would walk into a room and when he would speak to someone he would make that person feel like there was nobody else in that room but him and that person.

And this is a former president of the United States, man who’s quite busy. And you know what else, he would do? He would ask people their name: what’s your name? And he would remember it.

And then half away during the conversation, he mentioned that person by their name, because when you mention somebody by their name, our name is our identity. That’s how we identify ourselves. We’re proud of our name. And when you can remember somebody’s name, that speaks volumes.

That is the ultimate compliment to remember somebody’s name.

Earlier on they asked you to look to each other, introduce yourself, ask the person next to you their name. I bet 80% of you don’t even remember the name of that person you introduced yourself to. Because you’re not listening, you’re not trying to make somebody else feel special.

And it’s okay in this environment but if it’s in an environment where you’re looking to try to get somewhere, it’s always going to hurt you.

Make people feel special. Listen to people. Be present. Nobody matters more than that person across from you.

When I would do interviews, I would take my phone, I would put that thing away. I would take my watch off, because obviously it was very important to me, because I was trying to get an admission or confession. I was trying to solve a crime, to get information.

And I wanted that person whoever it was to know that I had nowhere to go. And all that mattered in that moment was that.


When I say perspective, I speak about in the way in which we look at people, in the way in which we see the world. And as human beings, I’ve learned in studying human behavior and dealing with people, we all are egotistical people in some way. We see the world truly through our own perspective.

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We try sometimes to see it through other people’s perspective. But we are so subjective and so biased, and look we’ve each lived our own life and we are a culmination of our own experiences, our life’s experiences. And that makes us who we are.

But when you’re communicating with someone, you have to take a moment and learn about that other person’s perspective. And how do you do that? Well you have to know your audience. You have to know who you’re speaking to.

And if you’re not listening you really don’t know who you’re speaking to.

I was in a situation, or I was on an assignment in Florida, and we were doing in advance as we called it and I was doing the security preparations for one of the people we’re protecting who was going to the site. And my responsibility was to secure the site, the event site to make sure everything was safe for one of our protectees, a high-level protectee.

And I had to work with other members — their staff members, people from the facility, and whatnot. We had to negotiate terms and of course being that I had the security angle I wanted everything locked up and tight. I want to know who’s going in. I want to know who’s going out.

And I had to compromise on certain things too with the other entities that I was working with, because they were focused on the event being a success.

We were at one point where we were discussing something and we’re trying to compromise a part of the security plan when one of my counterparts came up. And he said to me, you’re acting as if somebody’s going to fly a plane into this building.

Now I realized in that moment he didn’t know his audience, because I am from New York City. I was in the World Trade Center on September 11. I lost colleagues and a friend. Several of my colleagues and I stayed behind to help evacuate people, to set up a triage and we were caught in the collapse of the towers both.

By the grace of God I was able to go home that night.

But in hearing him speak he had damaged those lines of communication. And although I continued to work with him and stayed open and receptive without realizing he had sabotaged something, because he didn’t know his audience.

When you speak to people, you have to know your audience. And you’re not going to know your audience if you’re just seeing things from your own perspective. If you’re the only one who’s talking, and if it’s just about you, because it can’t be.

When we don’t have perspective we have ignorance. And ignorance causes conflict, causes conflict in our relationships, it causes conflict in our personal relationships with our loved ones, at work with our colleagues, it causes conflict within societies. When one group doesn’t stand another group and even causes conflicts between countries.

Because we’re too busy trying to shove down somebody else’s throat our perspective, instead of trying to listen to somebody else’s. And when you communicate with people, the idea to enhance communication is to do so in a way that that person understands, not in the way that you understand. But in the way that person sees the world.


Fifty percent of what we discussed has to do with the other person. But the other 50% has to do with you.

And when I say self, I mean self-awareness. Sometimes we’re not really self aware of ourselves, we’re so focused on someone else.

And when I say self-awareness, it means really taking stock of yourself: how do you present? And it varies — we’re different people with different individuals right, well one person at home, one person with our a husband or our wife, one person with our children, one person at work.

But how do you carry yourself? If you were to see you walk into a room, what impression would that give you?

I always hear you know doesn’t matter what you look like on the outside and it doesn’t in that vain perspective. But what matters is how are you put together, because if you look the part, then people are going to think you know what, what he or she says is relevant.

And unfortunately if you look disheveled, if you look like you’re a mess, no one’s going to listen, because it’s going to make the assumption that she doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Look at her she didn’t even iron her shirt today.

And when it comes to self, it’s not just on the aesthetic level but also on the level of when it comes to confidence. How you carry yourself, who you are.

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There was this study done in Ontario in Canada. They went to a bunch of felons and they asked him: how do you pick your victims? They wanted to know how do they pick their targets to commit a crime on these people.

And a lot of them said, well, we look at body language. We look at how people carry themselves. If you see somebody walking up with their head held high taking up space because if I take up space, I’m telling you what, I’m relevant, I’m matter, I’m here. That’s one thing.

But if I walk and I’m closed in, I have my head down, maybe I’m on my iPhone all the time. I’m in my own world. What message am I sending out to you? Not a bad target, she might go down easy but the idea was when they sensed that somebody could possibly be a counter predator, they didn’t attack.

But if they sensed somebody would go down easy, an easy victim, then that changed the scenario.

How you carry yourself, how you portray yourself, that’s communication. How people see you, how people feel you.

So although you may think you’re sizing people up and you are, people are sizing you up too.

And every time I walked into the interview room, every time I went to do an arrest or search warrant, people were sizing me up. And you have to be aware of that.


I’ve talked to you about communication and words and how important it is. But there are times where words are not the way to communicate. Sometimes our actions are the way to communicate to people.

When I went through training, through special agent training, it was like my second or third day, we were in the cafeteria in the evening, eating and I sat down with some of my colleagues.

And a couple of guys came over and they said, you know, some of the people don’t feel comfortable with you being here. Some of the guys don’t want you here.

I remember thinking, okay I don’t understand. Well they feel that you know what, maybe physically you’re not kind of stacked up to do this job.

And I remember turning around, I said, I don’t — I don’t understand. I went through the same hiring process as everyone. I qualified like everybody else. I did everything that everybody else did. You guys don’t even know me. You just met me two days ago, three days ago. I don’t understand.

And said, well, you know what, the standards for women are lower than they are for men. The standards are lower so that women can get this job.

So I went home that night and I thought about what they said. And what they said was true: the standards were lower so that women could get in. That wasn’t a lie.

And I felt stupid, I felt like a stupid girl to think that I actually thought I belonged there. I felt ashamed and embarrassed.

But then there was this other part of me. I felt angry and rage, and I could feel this venom coursing through my veins. And lucky for me, that part of me won over.

Next day I found out what the standards were for the men, and I started training. I would train during the day and then I would train that night by myself for months, pushing and pushing.

And eventually, I got stronger. But what I realized is my confidence got stronger and my mental armor got stronger. That part of me because it was all mental, it wasn’t really physical. And I built up my mental armor and eventually I started competing on the same level as the men in my class. And even in some occasions surpassing them.

I earned the respect, not through going to somebody and saying hey you need to respect me. I knew that that wasn’t going to work. But I earned it through my actions.

I have to tell you, though, not everybody respected me no matter how much I excelled, no matter how so much I surpassed, not everybody respected me.

And that’s when I learned it wasn’t my issue, it was theirs. That’s when I learned you don’t need everybody’s respect. Some peoples you don’t need. First and foremost is your own: respecting yourself which I acquired.

And then knowing whose opinions of you matter and whose opinions of you don’t. When you learn to differentiate which ones matter and which ones don’t, that’s when you’re really free.

I want to finish with this: how you define yourself is your choice, how others define you is their choice, is up to you to decide which definition you prefer.

Thank you.