Set a clear communication objective. Be clear with yourself on why you are communicating and the intended outcome. If your communication objective is to build alignment with your team on a key project, then the information shared should be focused on what the team needs to know about the project, not other topics. Someone on the team may need to understand the current state of the project and others may need to know why this project is a priority. Having a clear objective allows you to select the right information for your audience.
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 Jennifer Maxson.
Jennifer Maxson is a passionate thought leader in the areas of networking, communication, leadership development, and public speaking. She is a Professional Certified Coach, Certified Professional Coach, and provides consulting services to clients throughout the United States and abroad, delivering customized individual coaching, executive coaching, and group training for clients. Jennifer was named the 2018 ATHENA Award Recipient and in the past has been honored as one of Grand Rapids Business Journal’s 50 Most Influential Women in West Michigan. Jennifer is a proud Grand Valley Laker, holding a Bachelor’s degree in Public Relations. When she’s not coaching, Jennifer enjoys the outdoors and fishing with her family.
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?
Being named the 2018 Athena Leadership Award recipient was one of my most memorable professional moments. The Athena Leadership Award is presented to a leader who is honored for professional excellence, community service, and for actively assisting women in their attainment of professional excellence and leadership skills. For many years, I have attended this award event and sat in the audience in awe of the female leaders receiving this award. To receive this recognition was an incredible honor.
One of the Athena principles is giving back. During the event, I had an opportunity to highlight the Cook Leadership Academy at Grand Valley State University. This amazing program is focused on building leaders that will make a positive impact in our future. Giving back through my time as a mentor to these students helps me live my passion of supporting leaders.
My family attended the event when my children were 14, 12, and 9 years old. They had the opportunity to see my work and community service through a different lens. It led to a conversation that real impact requires all of us to give authentically and graciously to others.
What is the most unexpected twist in your career story, and what did you discover from your detour?
I grew up in Bay City, MI, a tight-knit community where my father was a podiatrist. When I was in middle school, I decided that I wanted to be a pharmacist. It was my career dream all through high school and into college. I had a vision of being able to help others when they walked into their local pharmacy. This career combined my interest in the medical field and a desire to help others.
Toward the end of my sophomore year in college, my career dream started to change. I was completing two years of a strong math and science curriculum, and chemistry lab was my least favorite class. I realized that even though I was a good math and science student, this career path was no longer fulfilling or exciting. I found the School of Communications and an incredible professor, Fred Chapman. Fred was the advisor for the Public Relations program. This was where I shined and found a different way of helping and serving others through effective communication.
In 1996, I joined a leadership development firm. I was responsible for all marketing, public relations, and communications with current and potential clients. It was this role that led me to the leadership development industry. After a few years, my career shifted from marketing to a client-facing role, along with leading and facilitating programs. I am grateful to this organization because it started my love of supporting leaders at all levels to communicate with impact and lead their organizations.
Here I am 27 years later, a business owner leading my organization and a certified professional coach working with emerging and executive leaders in all different industries. The shift from pharmacy to communications was a change in content. However, my desire to support and help others has not changed. My passion is to support new and current leaders to inspire their teams and organizations.
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?
When communicating, my goal is to be audience-focused rather than presenter-focused. What many of us forget is that we have already bought into our own idea, concept, or solution. Your communication is not about you, it should be focused on what the audience needs to see, hear, and feel in order to support your idea, concept, or solution. When we are audience-focused, it allows the presenter to relax and connect with those in the physical or virtual room.
Here are my go-to questions that help me adapt my communication style:
Who will be in the audience? What are their roles? How much do they know about my topic? What do they want and need to know about my topic? Do they want me to get right to the point or start with a casual conversation? What is their DiSC style? What is their current attitude about me/do they know me? What is the setting: virtual, in-person, or hybrid?
If you don’t know the individuals in your audience, go to a trusted resource to learn about the audience styles. As leaders, it is our responsibility to adapt our communication style to the needs of our audiences.
Clarity is critical as well. What lessons have you learned about how to communicate with clarity in our distributed world of work?
Clarity in our communications is critical to the success of our organization. In this world of distributed work, there is a lot of noise around us. Information is being shared through many different communication modes, for example, email, chat, text, meetings, and casual conversation.
Here is what I have learned about clarity:
- Clarity takes effort. While the concept of being clear in our communications sounds easy, it is not always easy to do. There is a lot that we want and can share with others. I encourage you to practice key communications out loud. Ask yourself, did you deliver your message as you intended? Many times we keep adding more information or ideas which makes our communications hard to understand and follow. Take the time to revise your content and practice the delivery in order to reduce the noise and provide clarity to what is most important to your audience.
- Clarity provides direction. Leaders at all levels need to clearly communicate the future state of their work and projects. Where are we going, what could it look like, and what is our role in achieving where we want to be? Clarity and consistency of our messages help to build and maintain alignment so we are prioritizing the right work to achieve our vision.
- Clarity is motivating. Because our task list is always full and there are many new opportunities, clarity helps manage expectations and outcomes. It is a leader’s role to motivate and inspire their team. Think about the meeting that lacks clarity and direction, how did you feel leaving that meeting? Being clear and direct, while audience-focused, builds connections with others.
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 have recently finished my term on a board of directors. One of my roles was to chair a committee focused on leading a key strategy for the organization. Because this strategy had a lot of discussion at our board meetings, I made an assumption that the committee was aligned with our vision and had the same sense of urgency. During one of our committee meetings, I created our agenda and opened the meeting with a communication based on this assumption. I was wrong, the committee lacked clarity on the vision and was not ready to move forward. The meeting stalled. After the meeting, I received some tough feedback from a key stakeholder.
I was reminded that failure happens and that sometimes we need to slow down in order to move forward. Here is what I would do differently,
- Meet with individuals on the committee in advance of the meeting to hear their perspectives and understanding of the vision and urgency.
- Remind myself and others that things are constantly changing and ensure that they have the most current information.
- Clearly document and communicate the vision so the committee can see and hear it when we are together.
- View pushback as data, the team needed more information before they could move forward.
This communication was about the committee, and I needed to be flexible to meet them where they were and adjust my approach at that moment.
That is what communication is all about, it is about people.
What advice would you offer to other leaders who are struggling to have their messages heard and actioned?
My first question to leaders is this, “what was your communication objective?” Many times, the leader then starts to give me their communication and does not answer the question. A communication objective is focused on why you are communicating, what will be different, and by when. Having a communication objective brings clarity to what needs to be shared in the communication. This helps the presenter select the right information for the audience, for this communication opportunity.
I also find that many of us start strong but lack a clear close to our communication. We tend to share information and then assume that the audience knows our expectations for the next steps. The close of a communication is critical for action. I encourage leaders to simply recap key points, remind the audience of the benefit to them, and clearly articulate the next steps.
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 . Create connections with your team. Consider how you can make a disputed team not feel distributed. This requires us to “read the room” during all of our communications. If you are in the same physical space, take the time to read the body language of your team. Are they smiling or are they frowning? Is their body language open or closed? If your team is coming together over a video conferencing platform, turn on your camera and encourage others to use their cameras. As individuals are joining the meeting, what do you observe in their body language? This information is data that will help you connect with your team. If we can’t see others, then listen for the tone used when individuals are sharing verbally and the tone of the comments in the chat. We are all communicating even if we are not saying anything.
Consider how you craft your message for engagement and connection. Since many of us are focused on sharing information, have you considered sharing a story? Stories bridge the persuasion and inspiration, head and heart. Next time you hear a story in a meeting, notice your body. Many times we relax when listening to a story and feel a sense of connection. Allow time and encourage questions and discussion to build connection and understanding.
2. Communicate more often. When our team is distributed across locations and time zones, we need to communicate more often. One of the biggest mistakes we make is assuming that communication and understanding have taken place. When our team is distributed, we need to acknowledge that they are reading information at different times during the day. They all may have a different understanding of the information. If you are only communicating every two weeks, your team may not be working on what is most important. We need to find ways to communicate more often, this could be weekly or daily check-ins during a time that works for your team. I’ve found that shorter, more frequent communication helps move a project forward faster versus one longer communication.
3. Select the right communication medium for your team. Over the last three years, we have become more comfortable with technology. New information comes to us via email, chats, direct messages, and meetings. As leaders, we need to select which communication medium is the best for our team. Sometimes, quick questions and collaboration happen best through your chat platform. However, not all communication should be delivered this way. More detailed information might be shared via email followed up with a meeting to allow for discussion.
4. Set a clear communication objective. Be clear with yourself on why you are communicating and the intended outcome. If your communication objective is to build alignment with your team on a key project, then the information shared should be focused on what the team needs to know about the project, not other topics. Someone on the team may need to understand the current state of the project and others may need to know why this project is a priority. Having a clear objective allows you to select the right information for your audience.
5. Understand your team’s motivators and stressors. Think about a recent meeting you attended and left feeling unmotivated or stressed. If we understand what motivates our team, this provides us with information on how to celebrate their success. When our work is acknowledged and appreciated, even if the project is not yet completed, we feel good and find the energy to stay on course. As a leader, when we know our team’s stressors, we can acknowledge how the team may be feeling at that moment. Or, we may be able to reduce the stressor to keep the team moving forward. Being audience-focused requires us to build connections with our team.
What are the three most effective strategies to diminish distractions when there is so much competition for attention?
- Less is more. There is a lot of information that you can share with your team and others. However, more is not always better, especially when there are competing interests. Take the responsibility and simplify your message. Focus on what is most important for your audience today.
- Structure your message with three key talking points. We all have distractions from our laptops, phones, watches, etc. Knowing that your audience has limited attention, set them up for success by providing structure to your communication and limiting key talking points. My favorite tool is to use the Rule of Three. Many times, we have a large bullet list of items to share with our audience. However, your audience will not remember every item you have shared. Using the Rule of Three, you can focus on what are the three most important talking points that your audience needs to know. Three talking points are manageable for you and your audience. The benefit is that you can reduce your content, and have a bigger impact. Less is more.
- Balance persuasion, motivation, and inspiration. Have you been a part of a communication filled with too many numbers, facts, and figures? Or a communication filled with inspiration but not supported with key information? If we have to work hard to stay focused or justify the inspiration, then we have added to the list of distractions. Balance your communication by providing only the key information your audience needs, finding their motivation to support your task, and vocalizing why this is the right thing to do for the team, the project, the organization, and/or the customer. If you balance persuasion, motivation, and inspiration, we build connection and our audiences stay engaged longer.
What is one skill you would advise every leader to invest in to become a better communicator?
Out-loud rehearsal. Don’t go into a communication cold, always give yourself an opportunity to say your communication out loud. After crafting a communication, many of us run through a mental rehearsal. Visualizing our communication is helpful to see what the end result could be for us and our audience. Out-loud rehearsal gives you the opportunity to hear your message before sharing it with others. Many times, the message comes out differently than our intended communication. The goal of out-loud rehearsal is not to memorize your communication, it is to become comfortable with your content, listen for clarity, and make adjustments to connect with your audience. If you are sending an email, memo, or other electronic communication, take the time to read it out loud. You may find that you have missed a word, or the order of information needs to be adjusted. Finally, our word choices do matter and have an impact on others. Reading your electronic communications out loud gives you the opportunity to send the right message to your audience.
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.
Always be kind. My kids hear me say this all the time. In today’s world, there is a lot happening all around us and technology puts it right at our fingertips. We read and hear about negative stories every day, and we don’t always know or understand the impact on others. When someone is angry in a meeting, or a friend responds differently than expected, we can choose to be kind in our response. We can be direct, provide feedback, and clarity and still be kind. We are human, we do make mistakes, and we are trying to do a good job at school, at work, and at home. Let’s show up differently with kindness in all of our interactions with others.
How can our readers stay connected with you?
I welcome readers to follow and connect with me on LinkedIn where I regularly post about my work. Readers can also visit www.JenniferMaxsonAssociates.com to learn more about me, my team, and how we enhance the credibility of leaders.
Thank you for these great insights! We wish you continued success.