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How an Audience-Focused Approach to Communications Helps You Lead with Heart


 — August 18th, 2021

How an Audience-Focused Approach to Communications Helps You Lead with Heart

I started out in 2020 wanting to explore the concept of leading through change with a new book.

In more than three decades working with leaders across industries, I’ve seen a lot of what works, and what doesn’t, and I wanted to share those findings to help others.

And then the global pandemic happened, followed by social unrest that forced a reckoning for business leaders and employees across this country.

This was the biggest level of change any of us had experienced in decades. The layers of change felt endless.

I decided at that point to invite a select group of leaders to sit down and talk about the change they were experiencing and the insights they were picking up as they went along.
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The results of those interviews – along with other lessons I’ve learned from advising leaders and communicators across a wide variety of organizations – resulted in the the leadership book I've just published: Heart First: Lasting Leader Lessons from a Year that Changed Everything.

Heart First Leadership

What does Heart First mean? I am not suggesting we abandon the hard, more “head-focused” measures, particularly those related to the financial side of a business. We have to keep those measures top of mind to stay in business.

Instead, it’s about putting more focus on empathy and embracing the more human nature of situations. For some, this may be a seismic shift; others will need to avoid the tendency to drift back to pre-pandemic ways.

Regardless of your place on the spectrum, I am more convinced than ever that leading with Heart First is likely to be among the most important lessons we need to take forward for organizational success.

Taking Your Leadership to a New Level

So, how can you make this a reality?  What are some practical applications of the learnings?

A theme that came through my conversations loud and clear was the importance of returning to tried and true communication management principles. Near the top of the list is remembering that communication happens in the mind of the listener.

Recognizing this fundamental concept leads to an examination of your audience and their needs.

Communication Happens in the Mind of the Listener

The “listener” is the one who decides whether you have created mutual understanding, built trust, and motivated someone to act.

A trap leaders often fall into is to communicate from their own perspective. After all, we’re very clear about what we think in our heads!

What’s more, employees today are bombarded with so much information that it’s hard for them to digest it all. They’re bombarded with information but starved for meaning.

To truly move employees forward, and not be paralyzed by events, we have to know what they care about and get into their mindset.

During times of crisis and change, this can be especially challenging, with emotions understandably running high, as we saw during the COVID-19 crisis and the social unrest that followed the murder of George Floyd.

Uncertainty can sometimes lead to feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, fear, heightened anxiety, and more. Think back to how you were feeling as COVID-19 first hit.

As we transitioned to shelter-in-place and businesses closed, as people lost jobs because of the uncertainty, got sick, and passed away, we all tried to make sense of the unrest that swept the U.S., and the world.

The core principle as we think about moving people to action is this—the more you know about someone, the better you can listen to them, empathize, support, or guide them to be effective in the workplace.
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Know Your Audience

Begin with the basic question: Who do we need to reach and influence with this message(s)?

  • It is important here to dig deep and think beyond the obvious groups or individuals.
  • Consider the connections between these groups and try to find those who can also be ambassadors of your messages.

Next, analyze and consider where your audiences are coming from. Take time to think about their current mindset and ask:

  • What concerns or issues do they have that might pose a challenge or risk?
  • What positive perceptions do they hold that can be leveraged to increase the chances for success?

To then examine your audience even further, focus on their needs. Ask:

  • What do people already know about your topic and at what level?
  • What don’t they know that will be critical to getting them engaged?
  • How does the audience like to receive information and what might be their barriers or objections to supporting the topic?

During the pandemic, for example, we heard about a significant shift to more frequent and less structured meetings using electronic “face to face” options rather than emails for messaging.

This is a reflection of the “need” employees felt during these difficult times for more human interactions.

Determine What You Want Your Audience to “Think, Feel, Do”

While not an entirely linear process, in the end, what you want your audience to “think, feel, do” after receiving your messages should be your aim.

And, with these behaviors established, measures of progress are also more easily identified as well as modified, if needed.

Keep in mind that each of these represents differing aspects of human behavior. As we move forward, it will serve us well to continue to reflect on our experiences and use our learnings to create new opportunities for successful communication. 

Authentic leadership – Heart First leadership – that takes the time and energy to employ solid communication principles, like audience-focused communication, will contribute to an organization’s results and achievements.

Heart First: Lasting Leader Lessons from a Year that Changed Everything can be purchased on Amazon here.

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