Whether you are in person, hybrid or virtual, if you don’t make the effort to know the people on your team as individuals and what is important to them, you will struggle as a leader. Effective messages come from tailoring them to the audience’s mindset. Make the effort to get to know people as individuals. Have regular check-in conversations.

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 Karen Eber.

Karen Eber is an international leadership consultant, and keynote speaker. Her talk on TED.com: How your brain responds to stories — and why they’re crucial for leaders, has almost 2 million views. As the CEO and Chief Storyteller of Eber Leadership Group, Karen helps companies reimagine and evolve how they build leaders and teams, transform culture, and tell stories.

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?

A few months after my talk went live on TED.com, a stranger recognized me in public from the talk. Her eyes opened wide, she pointed at me and said “I know you!” I thought she was kidding, but sure enough she had seen the talk and remembered me. We ended up having coffee together and she is now a friend!

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

After almost 20 years developing leaders, teams, and culture within companies, I decided to open my own company. I wanted to help show others how you can drive meaningful change and create healthy workplaces. A big piece of that is storytelling. While some may consider this a detour, this is the path I was always mean to be on. My corporate experiences gave me a depth that helps bring meaningful and practical solutions to clients. I’m a better advisor because I’ve sat on both sides of the desk.

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?

Many people focus on what they want to say in a communication, instead of whom they are communicating with. If you focus on yourself, you risk your communication not being clear or understood. Adapt your communication style by focusing on your audience. What do you want them to get out of your communication? What do they currently understand? What might be a barrier to their understanding? Take a few moments before interactions to think these through — they shed light on where to adapt to help with your audience’s understanding.

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

Clarity comes with time and focus. Communications that lack clarify are often created last minute and have a lot of information that isn’t necessary of helpful. Or they weren’t developed with a desired outcome in mind. Recognize that people listen through their own perspective first: what does this mean for me? Until they can resolve that, they can’t hear what might mean for their team, organization, or company.

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.

When I worked in corporate, I was on a team that was pitching a big technology project to be adopted. It made sense financially, it saved time, and people wanted it. But the leadership were reluctant to disrupt the status quo. The first communication we led with was why we thought it was important to do. It flopped. Because we didn’t stop to think about what the reluctance might be of the decision makers and how we share why it would be important for them. Sometimes when we feel passionate about things, we center on ourselves instead of the audience. It might be a small tweak — but an audience knows when they are at the heart of a message and when they aren’t.

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

When I work with leaders who want to be more effective in their communications, we follow these steps each time they communicate:

  1. Who is your audience? What do you want them to take away or do from this message? If you don’t get clarity on this, your message may not resonate with your audience.
  2. What is the takeaway of the communication. If you aren’t clear on that, your audience won’t be either.
  3. Once you are clear on the first two, put a basic structure on your communication. If you are rambling or unfocused, the listener will tune out. There are many models, but I like this outline:
  4. What is the context: set the stage for the topic.
  5. What is the conflict: what is to be resolved?
  6. What is the outcome: what is the result of the conflict?
  7. What is the takeaway: what do you want to leave the audience with? What happens if nothing is done?

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 of you can.

1. Whether you are in person, hybrid or virtual, if you don’t make the effort to know the people on your team as individuals and what is important to them, you will struggle as a leader. Effective messages come from tailoring them to the audience’s mindset. Make the effort to get to know people as individuals. Have regular check-in conversations.

2. Schedule the hallway conversations. One of the complaints of hybrid or virtual is that there aren’t hallway conversations. People don’t bump into each other. I’ve worked on global teams that have never met. These types of conversations can still happen when people know each other and have collaboration tools. Instant messenger became our hallway conversations. As did having moments where the leader scheduled office hours or time to check in and see how people are doing.

3. As the leader, you can’t assume people will come to you and share information. Your role is to ask questions that make it comfortable to share and explore, particularly when there are challenges. You can’t be defensive to the responses either. Try questions like: Are there areas of tension that need me/our attention? What might we be missing? What would it look like if we disagreed with this? What haven’t I asked about but should? On a scale of one to ten, how confident do you feel about this? Questions are a leader’s superpower. They invite perspective and make people feel safe and valued.

4. Celebrate the “I saw you…” moments. “I saw you do this and here is the impact it had. It’s fantastic! How do we help you do more of it?” When you send these messages that you are noticing what people are doing and value it, they feel seen. When people feel seen and valued, they have a stronger connection at work. These can be shouting outs in meetings, emails or discussions in one-on-ones. Help your employees feel seen.

5. Tell stories. Stories not only help us learn about and gain empathy for one another, they bond us. When you listen to someone sharing a story about their experience, background or even vacation, your form empathy for them. Oxytocin is released in the body, and it signals to the brain “this person is safe to be around.” This is why you come away bonded from team offsites and retreats. Stories help us better relate to one another and work together better.

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

  1. Prepare: when you are focused in your message, you make it easier for the listener to digest. If you aren’t, the brain will become lazy and drift off.
  2. Include specific details and engage the senses. Not only will your message be memorable, you will engage more of the listener’s brain. Telling you “I had many text messages when I picked up my phone” isn’t as interesting as saying “I had 17 text messages.”
  3. Seek specific feedback to understand how people experience your communication? Ask a few people, “What stood out for you in my communication? What do you remember?” That specific question will help you recognize where you captivate your audience or lose them so you can adjust going forward.

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

Time. We can all learn to be great communicators and storytellers. But if you don’t give yourselves the time to plan, reflect and practice, nothing changes.

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.

Wellness. The more technology we add to our lives, the more we are pulled in different directions. It’s too easy to give up the 15 min you were going to take a walk to handle something. But the cumulative effect of giving away 15 minutes leads to burn out. When each person makes one choice a day for their wellness, you create a movement and better workplaces.

How can our readers stay connected with you?

Please check out my website: https://www.kareneber.com. I am publishing, The Perfect Story: How to Tell Stories that Inform, Influence, and Inspire, this fall with HarperCollins. You can find more information about the book and preorders here: https://www.kareneber.com/book. I also have a blog called Brain Food where I regularly share stories and tips on storytelling and leadership.

You can also follow me on Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/kareneber/

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