Karen Friedman

Six Simple Strategies to Engage Listeners and Maximize Outcomes

Have you noticed that some leaders understand how to instill confidence in others and empower them to succeed, while others lack that magic touch? Learn how to improve outcomes and create communication-friendly cultures.

February 27, 2012
by Karen Friedman

When the office line rang at 6 p.m. on a Saturday, against my better judgment, I picked up the phone. It was a client with a problem. One of his partners was accused of mismanaging money. While it appeared to have nothing to do with any of his firm’s clients, he said he wasn’t sure what to say if people found out. I asked him if he had contacted his customers — some of whom had been clients for 30 years. He said no. When I asked why not, he said he was afraid that they wouldn’t trust him anymore and would take their business elsewhere. To which I replied, if the clients found out that he knew something was amiss and didn’t communicate with them, they would never trust him again and would leave his firm anyway.

Having a problem that may affect others and hoping people don’t find out is not a good strategy. Being truthful, proactive, telling people as much as you can as often as you can and letting them know what you are doing to fix the problem is the single most effective way to protect your reputation.

As a former reporter who covered my fair share of highly publicized scandals, the first two questions I always asked were ones I knew viewers would ask:

  1. When did you know about it?
  2. What did you do about it?

As a media colleague once said, “People will forgive a screw-up, but they won’t forgive a cover-up.” Yet even the most reputable companies continue to underestimate the emotional reaction of their audiences. If you’re not talking, someone else is, which means they’re defining you, your company and your unintended message. In today’s Twitter-like environment, that’s akin to jumping out of an airplane without a parachute.

I have been a communications coach for 16 years, yet the rules of my past life as a television news reporter still apply to anyone who has to communicate internally or externally about their products, services, issues, or ideas. Communicating is not about talking. It’s about engaging in meaningful dialogue that facilitates understanding and creates connections with your listeners. For example, if you are delivering a financial presentation and want to engage the audience, showing a bunch of graphs and balance sheets on a slide won’t do it. Numbers, like pictures, need to create a compelling story that draws listeners in and helps them understand how the information affects them and why they should care about it.

Yet, even top-tier managers will privately admit they are not sure how to deliver more effective, data-packed talks that contain fewer slides and details. They acknowledge that their presentations are too long, lack personality and often fail to provide perspective, context or direction. They reveal that this is the way it’s always been done and if they do it differently, they might not be taken seriously. On the contrary, when you combine facts with emotional appeal, you have a better chance of influencing listeners and maximizing outcomes.

Think of listeners as friends. When you speak with your friends, you are typically conversational and animated. If your friend is having a tough time, you’re naturally concerned and empathetic. If you want to earn trust and understanding, then humanizing information and communicating with heart is essential. Here are six simple steps to take:

  1. Be Personal in an Impersonal World

    People remember impressions, not facts. Even years later when details of a situation are fuzzy, people still remember how you made them feel. Investors, colleagues, reporters and other audiences are people. By sharing real-life stories and examples they can relate to, your natural passion will come through, making you and your message more interesting and impactful.
  2. One Size Doesn’t Fit All

    It’s important to differentiate between listeners to focus on their specific concerns. If you are speaking to management about a new medicine, they may want to know about competition, safety data and market impact. Yet, if you ran into your neighbor at the supermarket, s/he might be more interested in side effects, benefits and how this differs from what is already available.
  3. Communicate Forward

    It’s easy to get stuck in the mud and over explain where you’ve been, instead of where you’re headed. For example, an executive trying to convince investors to strap in for a rocky ride that would be worth the results spent nearly six minutes delivering background information before focusing attention on the main point. Finally, s/he said: “This is an exciting product with great potential to address a huge unmet need, and we have a strategic plan in place to hit $1 billion in sales in 2014.” That’s what s/he should have said first. If you can’t quickly articulate what’s in it for them and why they should care, you risk them tuning out.
  4. Make Others Feel Important

    Author John Maxwell said: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” When you take time to learn what matters to others and seek their input, you’re communicating that you value them. For example, asking questions such as, ”What are your concerns?” or ”What would you do about this?” fosters an atmosphere of trust and collaboration in which people are encouraged to have a voice.
  5. Present the Problem

    When discussing banks looking for bailouts, I recently heard an economistblurt out: “They want a savior — a prenuptial of sorts,” which is a great quote because it’s short, memorable and captures the bottom line. But the one-liner wouldn’t have been as effective if the spokesperson had not explained the problem first. Never assume people understand the problem or issue, no matter how often it’s been discussed. When you explain the problem, the solution you’re recommending becomes much more significant.
  6. Eye Your Listener

    Many years ago, I took my mother and her friend to hear former President Bill Clinton speak. When it was over my mother said, “Did you see that, he looked right at me?” Her friend said, “No, he was looking at me.” And then a total stranger tapped them on the back and said, “Ladies, I couldn’t help but overhear you and must tell you, the president was looking at me.” Looking someone in the eye creates credibility and connection. It also makes others feel important.


In today’s uncertain times, it’s more important to be direct, honest, acknowledge fears, show empathy and continually communicate through as many channels as possible to minimize stress, confusion and misinformation.

A communication-rich culture is a relationship-rich culture in which people are always a priority. Your ability to communicate that to them through what you say and don’t say will create an environment in which people feel valued both professionally and personally. Earning their trust is a constant commitment in good times and in bad times, but clear, constant and open communication will pay huge dividends.

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Karen Friedman is a professional communication coach, speaker and chief improvement officer at Karen Friedman Enterprises. She authored Shut Up and Say Something: Business Communication Strategies to Overcome Challenges and Influence Listeners, and won the Enterprising Woman of the Year Award and the 2012 Leadership Institute’s Woman With Purpose. Don’t miss her keynote presentation at the upcoming AICPA Controllers Workshop.