Be visible regularly. Much like Henry V, the most inspiring leaders will tend to be out of their office space more and available to their people. This can include online and regularly does these days.

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 Ben Walden.

Ben is founding partner of Olivier Mythodrama, a global leadership development consultancy. He has been a speaker and workshop leader at many international conferences on the themes of inspirational, influential, and transformational leadership and brings a unique perspective through the stories of Shakespeare to highlight these leadership themes in a powerful and engaging way.

Ben trained at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London and with Uta Hagen in New York. Playing many leading roles in London’s West End theatres and on television, he was a member of the inaugural company at Shakespeare’s Globe and performed in Henry V and Julius Caesar.

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 would say my most memorable moment would be the birth of my children. I have two boys. When the older one was born he had breathing difficulties and I remember some very difficult hours when he was in an incubator. While sitting with him then, I realized the most powerful thing I had ever experienced was not an idea or a speaker. It was him, the emotional connection and grounding he instilled in me. I learned a lot from that — impact is all about the emotional connection.

What is the most unexpected twist in your career story, and what did you discover from your detour?

My career started as an actor on the West End stage, and on TV in the UK. In 1997, I had the privilege of performing in the newly opened Globe Theatre in London and it was there I met my great friend and colleague Richard Olivier, son of the great Shakespearean actor Sir Laurence Olivier. With our shared interest in theatre and storytelling, we started a company using mythic stories and the plays of Shakespeare to look at key themes in leadership and personal development.

The concept proved way bigger and more successful than we had ever originally anticipated. We are now a global leadership development consultancy providing several world class training programs. What I learned from this experience is that the way we compartmentalize education and learning is very limited. Theatre, myth, psychology and ritual are all very closely related. I also discovered how a chance meeting can lead to something much bigger!

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?

The great actor Marlon Brando was once asked how he managed, “to become all these different characters”. He replied, “Nobody becomes anything. You are what you are. You have yourself”. Our “selves” are way more than our everyday habitual behavior and we have the potential to be far more. Our untapped potential is genuinely huge.

For example, one of our most popular programs uses the themes of Shakespeare’s Henry V to help leaders tap into their own personal story, uncover what inspires them, and use this to inspire others. We are all different and will have a leadership style we are naturally more comfortable with. The story of Henry V helps people discover their personal style and how it might impact them, and those around them, positively and negatively. We then work to uncover how they might adapt when required. It’s incredibly powerful.

Clarity is critical as well. What lessons have you learned about how to communicate with clarity in our distributed world of work?

Clarity and authenticity are essential. So much of what is said in business meetings is not needed, repetitive or drowning in acronyms. Acronyms rarely inspire. This gets even worse in online meetings. Simple, clear communication, with a vison and an emotionally intelligent awareness supporting it, is an art form. The principles are teachable and the practice can really make a difference. A compelling story is just as effective in the current world of work as it was for Shakespeare 500 years ago.

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.

Children can be your harshest critic. As well as working with business leaders around the world, I also work with schools and young people. Many young people who struggle academically have been my greatest teachers in communication. They demand authenticity and passion and without it, you will achieve almost nothing. PowerPoint and heady ideology won’t hold their attention. Trust me, I tried it and they won’t buy into it. Instead, they demand full presence, integrity, and honesty. That’s been good training and has stood the test of time across all the training programs I deliver, regardless of social status or organizational hierarchy.

What advice would you offer to other leaders who are struggling to have their messages heard and actioned?

Be authentic. Don’t repeat tired business phraseology. Take risks and be bold. Speak to the essence of the issue and be open to challenges. And in terms of getting bold ideas actioned…develop a strong and diverse network. Those who are reluctant to network tend to miss out on key decision making. We run a whole program that is purely about public speaking and networking skills. They get underestimated so badly because they are not part of our academic curriculum. They should be. These skills can change lives and make careers.

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? Please share a story or example for each if you can.

1. Be visible regularly. Much like Henry V, the most inspiring leaders will tend to be out of their office space more and available to their people. This can include online and regularly does these days.

2. Be a good listener. Listening skills and approachability are key forms of emotionally intelligent influence. But senior leaders have limited time, so interactions need to count, which leads to point 3…

3. Edit skillfully. Great communication involves the ability to edit the message. What are the key points that need to be made and are we communicating them without over-simplifying people’s concerns? These storytelling skills are fundamental to good leadership. At Olivier Mythodrama, we teach people how to deliver a compelling narrative and take out details which serve no purpose.

4. Have a broad reach of communication skills. A good communicator in business will demonstrate several key elements of communication. They are clear and concise strategic thinkers. They are emotionally intelligent and sensitive to the feeling state of the group. They are creative thinkers and can challenge orthodoxies that no longer serve. And they are courageous: taking calculated risks and being resilient in the face of setbacks.

5. By far the biggest skill I believe is authentic presence, matched to good strategic understanding.

As a professional storyteller, I’d like to explain these five points with a story. It was told to me by a young executive and I have never forgotten it. She had grown up in South Africa and Nelson Mandela visited her school. The children sang him a song and then he walked along a line to meet some of them. It came to her turn. She was very nervous and she could barely look at him. Her parents had told her, “ask him for a hug!”, but she didn’t dare. The moment passed and he moved further along the line.

She was very upset and angry with herself. Eventually, she stepped out of the line and shouted “Madiba!”. Mandela, who was speaking to a child further along, turned to look at her. She was terrified and thought, “what have I done?”, but it was too late. She had stepped out of the line and now had his full attention. There was nowhere to run.

Who are we when that moment comes? She simply said, “can I have a hug?”. She told me that he roared with laughter and then came back and gave her a hug. At which point all the other children broke the line to get a hug too. She showed real leadership there. Mandela asked her name. She said, “I’m Naomi”. He smiled at her and said, “Good luck to you, Naomi”. When she told me this, she was almost tearful. She finished by saying, “The way he looked back at me… the presence he had was like a mountain. And he made me feel for one moment like I was the only focus of his world”.

Now that’s authentic presence….

And for any exec who says, “big deal, I can’t go round hugging everyone and nor would they want me too!”, my response would be “of course not. But how much of you that’s in ethical service and open to others is really showing up in your interactions?”.

What are the three most effective strategies to diminish distractions when there is so much competing for attention?

I’m not sure it can be simplified into three. But key ones would be…

  • Be authentic.
  • Listen well first. Assess the deeper dynamics at play in the situation before adding your voice.
  • Develop a good clear speaking voice and intent without aggression. The voice has a center and well-trained speakers talk with grounded bodily resonance, not just forced from the head and neck. Speaking is a physical and emotional act, not just an intellectual one.

What is one skill you would advise every leader to invest in to become a better communicator?

Authentic Presence, using compelling narrative that is ethical and in service to the group’s vision.

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.

Easy. I would radically change our education system. While academic focus is of course essential, it’s almost totally dominant at this time. I would put far more focus on developing skills of leadership. Emotionally intelligent awareness, resilience, conflict resolution skills, social entrepreneurship, and the development of our own individual vision in service to the wider community — these are vital skills most people receive far too little education in. These skills can change the world and they can help people lead far more emotionally well-informed lives. That leads to making better informed choices on our path — and that’s why we focus on these skills in our programs.

How can our readers stay connected with you?

You can reach me any time through our website

Thank you for these great insights! We wish you continued success.