If you are in a larger meeting, pace it carefully so there are naturally moments of interaction, such as polls, jokes, or moments to laugh together. It’s important to create those moments of genuine collaboration to avoid meetings feeling like lectures. I’ll build in 3 minutes here and there in a presentation for people to write down ideas on paper, then share with the group.
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 Sarah Kiefer.
Sarah Kiefer is the Chief Marketing Officer of Pitch. Pitch combines the best parts of productivity, design and presentation software to help fast-moving teams create beautifully designed in minutes. Prior to her role at Pitch, Sarah was the Global Director, Enterprise Marketing at Spotify.
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?
One of my most treasured memories is riding along the Embankment in London on the back of my husband’s Vespa, watching the city lights reflected on the Thames after a great night out with friends. There was nothing special about that day, and I could of course talk about those big, much more significant life moments like getting married, or when my kids were born instead, but there’s something about that memory that’s so precious and uncomplicated. Just riding through a city I love, with the man I love, looking at the river flow by.
What is the most unexpected twist in your career story, and what did you discover from your detour?
Most recently it’d be leaving Spotify. It’s such an iconic company that probably some people thought I was mad. I’d been there for 5 years when I left, and the part of the business I was working in had grown revenue by 4x in that time. I loved that company, and I still do. But I also knew that I wasn’t really learning anything new, and that my learning trajectory for the following few years was not steep, partly because I wasn’t in New York, and moving there was not the right thing for me and my family. When I look back on what I’ve learnt and had the chance to do at Pitch since then, it was 100% the right decision.
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?
Before leaders even start to think about communications — whether it’s a key meeting, a Slack post, an email, a big presentation — they need to clarify their objectives. Why do I need the audience’s attention, and what do I want them to do or think differently afterwards?
Once you’ve got that clarity, you should spend the bulk of your time thinking about your audience. Why should the audience care? It’s about practicing empathy. Put yourself in your audience’s shoes. How can you make them feel seen and understood?
Finally, concrete examples and anecdotes are a communications superpower. They bring your message to life and mean people feel something as well as understanding something**.** Data is great. Memorable stories are better. Both together are killer. But always make sure your data, examples, and stories are relatable and useful for your audience. Almost every example of communications failure are the result of someone saying something that exposes the fact they’re wildly out of touch with their audience.
Clarity is critical as well. What lessons have you learned about how to communicate with clarity in our distributed world of work?
When working and communicating remotely, what you lack is context. You don’t always have that body language, that energy in the room feeling, or insight into where another person is and how they’re feeling today. This means you need to be even more intentional.
What does that mean practically? When presenting remotely it can feel like you’re talking to a brick wall, so it’s extra important to add interactive elements to create that sense of communication as a collaboration. When you start a session, establish the norms. For example when you will allow time for questions, and whether you’ll be checking the chat box for incoming comments.
Think about what needs to be a meeting, and what communication can be done async. As a rule of thumb, meetings are very bad for information sharing, and really good for discussion, debate, and relationship building. So once you’ve determined the objectives of your communication, choose the channel appropriately. A lot of the time, sharing an information-dense presentation for people to review in their own time, then scheduling a discussion session after, will be better than presenting to a sea of faces on Zoom.
At Pitch, we’re totally committed to the power of visuals in communication. Most people absorb information more effectively from images, videos, or even GIFS than they do from words. How many times have you heard a colleague say ‘I’m a visual learner?’. To make your comms more effective in a distributed world of work, use more visuals.
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.
Every time I’ve ever presented to a customer or prospect using a standardised deck, without tailoring it to that specific group of people, it’s fallen flat. One particular instance of pitching to a client in Amsterdam immediately springs to mind. Wow it’s embarrassing when the room just stays totally silent! Even if all you do is update your template with the other company’s logo, and add a slide summarising what you’ve learnt about their business challenges so far, you probably just turned a one-sided sales presentation into a more collaborative, engaging, human interaction.
What advice would you offer to other leaders who are struggling to have their messages heard and actioned?
Repetition is important. You’re probably going to have to say your message so many times you’ll get bored of saying it. Just when you feel you’re going mad from repeating yourself over and over, that’s probably when people are starting to get it. Consistency is powerful, and also reassuring.
Invest in your headline, or the one line version of your message. Research suggests 80% of readers never get past the headline of an article, and a headline message is also much easier to remember. So take the time to research and condense your headline message. This has never been more important than in our distributed world of work, with people’s attention spans shortening as they flick through email inboxes or tabs on calls.
Don’t forget about the “actioned” part. Once you’ve delivered your message, tell them what you want them to do. In marketing this is your “call to action” but it’s amazing how uncomfortable some people feel about telling people what to do, and this can impede clarity. If you expect people to infer the desired next step, you’re asking them to do the heavy lifting, and you’ll often be disappointed. End your presentations with specific instructions, next steps, and contact details.
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 . At Pitch our employees are distributed across 30 countries, which means competing time zones and working asynchronously. We often record ourselves presenting our slides rather than presenting live. This means our colleagues can watch back whenever, and if they didn’t quite get that last part of the presentation, they can drop a comment to clarify. Pitch lets you build these recordings right into your slides.
2. As a leader, I often test my important comms with colleagues and ‘friendly’ audiences who I rely on for their opinion before I go to ‘primetime’. Then, you can learn how it lands and tweak to get it right, just like a dress rehearsal before a performance. I usually send important presentations to the marketing leads on my team for their feedback, before I’d present it to the whole team because they can best gauge how it’ll land with their direct reports.
3 . Research and personalise your slides. Everybody can tell if it’s a deck you’ve delivered a million times, so tweak it every time to show the audience you’ve thought about their tastes and circumstances. When presenting slides, they should generate ‘something special’ for that specific audience, for example a compliment about a prospect’s recent ad campaign, or an anecdote about how a person’s wisdom recently helped you out of a scrape.
4 . Leave a lot of space for the other party to talk if you are working in a smaller group. I consider it a good meeting when the folks I’m meeting with talk at least twice as much as I do. Leave room to chat. This is even more important in remote work than it is in person, as it often doesn’t come as naturally. I start every team meeting with a 10 minute “water cooler moment” where I give folks a fun prompt question like “my most disastrous holiday ever was…” then send them off into randomly assigned Zoom rooms to chat before we get down to business.
5 . If you are in a larger meeting, pace it carefully so there are naturally moments of interaction, such as polls, jokes, or moments to laugh together. It’s important to create those moments of genuine collaboration to avoid meetings feeling like lectures. I’ll build in 3 minutes here and there in a presentation for people to write down ideas on paper, then share with the group.
What are the three most effective strategies to diminish distractions when there is so much competing for attention?
- Adapt your medium to the message. Whether it be an in-person meeting, over Zoom, or listening back to your recording, really consider how you are using the tools in your arsenal, be that presentations, meetings, or official documentation. Start with your objective, and your empathy for your audience when deciding on the right medium.
- Add personality, and vulnerability. Vulnerability is powerful. It helps us to feel connected to other people, especially if they’re just a face on the screen. People will listen to you more, and feel more connected to you, if you’re honest about your failures and authentic about who you are.
- Keep it interactive. Very few people can truly do two things at once. If you make work communications interactive, it’s less likely people will zoom out.
What is one skill you would advise every leader to invest in to become a better communicator?
Learn to listen. At Spotify our tagline was “listening is everything” and I’ve never loved a tagline more. Communication is like an iceberg. People see the broadcast bit, where you’re putting your message out there, but that is just the tiny 10% poking out of the water, with the 90% of listening under the surface, supporting the whole thing.
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 to inspire investors to allocate 50% of venture funding to female founders. In 2022, the proportion of capital invested in female-founded startups dropped to 1.9% in the US and in Europe, the percentage of funding raised by women-only teams has gone from 3% to just 1% since 2020. If we want to solve all the world’s biggest problems, and not just those experienced by a tiny proportion of very privileged people, the new businesses solving those problems have to be started and led by people who can deeply empathise with those problems. At Pitch we’ve assembled a collection of decks from inspiring female founders. Please give them the funding they deserve.
How can our readers stay connected with you?
I’m on LinkedIn here. Check out Pitch here, build your next deck with it (for free!), and send it over to me on LinkedIn or Twitter. Hopefully it’s obvious, but I absolutely love seeing great presentations.
Thank you for these great insights! We wish you continued success.