Be concise and to the point. Which means for important conversations think through what you’re going to say beforehand.
We are all competing in an attention economy. From pings and dings to blinks and rings, companies and content constantly compete for our limited time and attention. How do great leaders turn down the noise and tune in to the messages that matter most? What does it take to be heard above the noise? And how do we create communication that cultivates community and connectedness in a distributed, distracted world? To address these questions, we started an interview series called “Can You Hear Me Now?: Top Five Strategies Leaders Use to Diminish Distractions & Win in the Attention Economy.” As a part of this interview series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Barry Maher.
Consultant, author, speaker, Barry Maher, www.motivationalpresenter.com, has appeared on the Today Show, NBC Nightly News, CNBC, and he’s frequently featured in publications like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the London Times and USA Today.
His client list includes organizations like ABC, the American Management Association, Budget Rent a Car, Canon, Cessna, Hewlett-Packard, the National Lottery of Ireland, the Small Business Administration, the U.S. Government, Verizon and Wells Fargo.
His books include Filling the Glass, which has been cited as “[One of] The Seven Essential Popular Business Books,” by Today’s Librarian.
Thank you for making time to visit with us. Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. What is one of your most memorable moments, and what made it memorable?
I’m lucky enough to have had a life full of memorable moments. But the one that comes to mind right now is my wedding to the love of my life. Plus if she ever reads this that will earn me any number of points.
What is the most unexpected twist in your career story, and what did you discover from your detour?
Growing up, I’d always wanted to be a writer. I thought that was the way I could make a real difference in people’s lives. But writing didn’t pay much so I’d gone into the business world to support myself while getting established. Unfortunately, though I kept writing and even added a little public speaking to it, the more successful I became in my “temporary” career the more it ate into my writing time, leaving me almost no time to pursue what I actually wanted to do. And the more financially successful I became, the harder it was to tear myself away from that steady income.
At age 50, I had a very successful career which was keeping me from the life I wanted. What’s worse, I was on the verge of deciding that I was just too old to make the change necessary to pursue my dream.
Then fate stepped in, in the form of my boss, a corporate VP. A man who called himself a “change agent” while fighting change every possible way.
Even though my performance was extremely highly rated, when accounting told him that I’d been slightly overpaid for a year, he decided to the best course of action was to threaten me, throwing his weight around and issuing an ultimatum. Either I pay the money back or he’d let me go. I’d seen this kind of performance in that company before, but, since I was the fair-haired boy, this was the first time it had been directed at me. But instead of feeling threatened by the possibility of losing a very successful and lucrative career, I amazed both the VP and myself by simply responding, “I quit.”
The shocked expression on his face was worth more than they were paying me. He immediately cut the amount of money I supposedly owed in half. I didn’t budge. I was astonished by how relieved I felt.
Once out of there, I didn’t even wait for the next day to begin writing full time. I started as soon as I got home that afternoon, a book at least initially inspired by the management, communication and leadership mistakes I’d seen all around me during the last twenty years.
The writing lead to more speaking, which I enjoyed even more than writing. Consulting jobs started coming in. Within a year, the same company brought me in as a consultant, at a rate several times the rate that they’d been supposedly overpaying me. And several years later, that very same VP got to sit in the audience and listen as I delivered the opening keynote at his new employer’s annual leadership conference, for a fee that was considerably in excess of what I’d been “overpaid” in a month while working for him.
One of my old boss’s current employees told me the presentation was the most honest and inspiring she’d heard since she’d come aboard with the company. She added, “You’ve actually got me thinking that I can make a real difference around here.”
According to a recent Harvard Business School study, the most essential communication skill for leaders is the ability to adapt their communication style. How do you adapt your communication style?
I adapt my communication style by focusing on the person I’m dealing with, listening to how they communicate and watching their body language. Then I try to reach them with a communication style which is 100 percent me yet compatible with their style.
Clarity is critical as well. What lessons have you learned about how to communicate with clarity in our distributed world of work?
One of the things I’ve learned is that for important communications it’s extremely helpful to communicate both verbally and in writing. If people don’t pick up on one, they usually pick up on the other. Then you want to make sure you have a mechanism for encouraging questions and for answering those questions completely.
We often discover what works by experiencing what doesn’t. Tell us about a time when your communication didn’t lead to the desired results and what you learned from the experience.
I started out in sales, so my first failure was the first call I ever made, trying to sell greeting cards door to door in my neighborhood for cash and prizes. (I wanted the cash.) I did so many things wrong on that first call, things I knew I could do better, that I found out right away that what some people call failure is really education. It’s only failure when you stop trying.
What advice would you offer to other leaders who are struggling to have their messages heard and actioned?
Remember that good communication isn’t about you. It’s about the people you’re trying to communicate with, it’s about reaching them in a way they’re comfortable with and a way they can absorb the information. Paying more attention to those you’re trying to communicate with and learning how they like to receive information will usually yield the result you need.
Leading a distributed team requires a different communication cadence and style from leading a team in person. What are five strategies any leader can deploy to improve communication and clarity when leading a distributed workforce?
1 . When it’s an important message, avoid background distractions; pick the right time and place. The other day, I watched a manager call in a remote employee for a 4:45 meeting on a Friday afternoon. Probably not the best time to capture someone’s full attention.
2 . Give them a reason to listen upfront: What’s in it for them? Start with an interest creating remark.
- “This should save you 10 minutes every time you do that”
- “In order to get that raise we discussed, here are three things you’ll need to do.”
3 . Pause occasionally when you’re talking
- it gathers attention
- and lets them absorb info,
- keep them from feeling like you’re trying to run over them.
- And gives them a chance for input.
I’ve seen far too many managers keep talking in a torrent, listing point after point, even though it’s obviously the person they’re talking to is still back trying to absorb point one or two.
4 . When appropriate, ask questions and really LISTEN TO THE ANSWERS.
Question like, “Understand?” or “Does that make sense to you?” are meaningless, if you’re the boss you’re going to get a “yes” even if the person has no idea what you’re talking about. Make your questions specific enough that they reveal if you really got through to to the individual.
5 . Be concise and to the point. Which means for important conversations think through what you’re going to say beforehand.
- If it’s important enough, maybe even work out 4 or 5 talking points. If it’s really important, maybe you should even rehearse.
The more you rehearse important conversations, the better you’re going to get at them and the better those conversations will go.
What are the three most effective strategies to diminish distractions when there is so much competing for attention?
- The key is reason number 2 above. Give them a reason to listen. Demonstrate the what’s in it for them. Give them the right reason and you can deliver your message at a rock concert.
- Again, pick the right time when distractions are minimal.
- Pick the right place. That’s why there’s a door on your office. Close it. This sounds obvious but too many managers today are in cubicles. If you are, you need to insist on having a place with a door where you can take people for important conversations. It’s basic. And it’s ignored far too frequently.
What is one skill you would advise every leader to invest in to become a better communicator?
Simple: empathy. Increase your ability to empathize and you’ll increase your ability to communicate.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I’d love it if I could inspire people to actually pay more attention to those around them, doing their best to understand what makes those people tick, how they’re much like you and how they’re different.
How can our readers stay connected with you?
They can reach me at www.motivationalpresenter.com
Thank you for giving us the opportunity to experience a leadership master at work. We wish you continued success and good health!