Eleanor Hawkins, Communications Strategist and Writer for Axios, shares valuable insights into how communications leaders can cut through the noise by getting comfortable with data, leaning more into what their audience is saying, and more. Eleanor also discusses the research behind the successful Smart Brevity® method.
DOUG: We’re having this conversation because an article by the co-founder and CEO of Axios, Jim VandeHei, caught my eye. He talked about how business leaders are terrible communicators. And Eleanor was kind enough to say, hey, I’ll jump in and talk about that. So why does Jim feel that business leaders are such bad communicators?
ELEANOR: I think he feels more that communications is undervalued and is a secondary priority. But as we’ve seen over the past few years, the way that you communicate and engage with all of your stakeholders is extremely important, even though it’s been often overlooked. And one thing that Jim points out in an article, which I think you’re referencing, is that so many people are operating on an old model of communication, and the way that we send and receive information has changed dramatically. And so you have to, as a communicator, whether you’re a journalist, whether you’re a business leader, whether you’re just a manager, you have to figure out how to effectively reach the audience you’re trying to engage with. And so that’s one thing that we talk a lot about is this shift in thinking of how you reach people. The internal memo doesn’t necessarily work anymore. You have to become hyper specific. And so that’s one trend that we’re seeing across business is that more and more executives are prioritizing communication and those business leaders who aren’t natural communicators are aligning themselves and becoming super close with their chief communications officers because, again, how you reach all of your stakeholders is incredibly important. You know, you could have the best strategy, the best product, the best message in the world, but if you can’t reach people, it doesn’t mean anything.
DOUG: Yeah. And I would think that would mean that the role of lead communications person organizations is becoming increasingly important.
ELEANOR: Yes, we’re seeing a rise in that. We’re also seeing chief communications officers are starting to absorb more responsibilities. So, whether that is taking on ESG and corporate social responsibility, whether they’re taking on internal communications, which traditionally sat under HR or whether they’re taking on marketing and social media, we’re seeing a shift in alignment within the communications space, and that’s great for professionals like us.
DOUG: Yeah. So does that mean that communication specialists and you’re very interesting because you were in PR before going to the journalism side, sort of swimming against the tide of what’s been more common. The communicators themselves have to learn to be better leaders and how can we do that?
ELEANOR: I think communicators themselves need to learn how to show up and to be business advisers and not be afraid to be the “no” person, not to be afraid to raise the controversial questions, not to be afraid to be a key voice in the room. We’re seeing more and more discussion. Well, let me back up. We used to see a lot of discussion around communicators getting a seat at the table. Now they have that seat. So now it’s very much a hot seat. And what do they do with it and how do they make the most of it? That’s what we’re seeing the focus shift towards.
DOUG: One of the interesting things that Axios is doing that is somewhat new is a communicators newsletter and I guess that might align with you coming on board. Can you tell people about that? Because obviously that’s something of great interest to our audience.
ELEANOR: Yes. So I was brought on to write the Axios communicators newsletter. And as you mentioned, I worked in communication my entire career up until this point, and they wanted to find somebody with a communication background to author this newsletter. They didn’t want a traditional reporter because there’s so much nuance and so much that happens behind the scenes when it comes to communication. So they wanted somebody who had been a practitioner themselves, and that was really exciting for me because obviously our executives saw that there was a gap when it comes to covering communications as a key business function. And so what we’re hoping to do is kind of shine a light on the topics and trends that impact what businesses communicate, how leaders communicate, how employers communicate. And the way that I like to frame it is, you know, the Wall Street Journal covers the CFO. We want to cover the CCO, and I can think of no better place than Axios for that. Because our entire platform was founded on effective communication and effective writing.
DOUG: Yeah. So you have some great insights on how communicators can help their organizations break through in this environment.
ELEANOR: Yeah, that’s definitely one thing I’m looking at is how to reach audiences. As I mentioned, Axios was founded on an effective communication strategy that we call smart brevity. And what smart brevity is, is a very quick way to reach people. And how that came about is our founders were journalists at previous publications, and they realized that nobody was reading all of their reporting and they usually save the best stuff for the end, but nobody was making it down to the end. And so they realized we’re having a hard time breaking through. We’re having a hard time getting people to pay attention. So they did a lot of studies. They did some eye tracking studies. And they found that only about 6% of people make it all the way through, whether it’s an article or a note, 20% make it past the first paragraph. So, you really do have a paragraph to hook people. And so that’s that’s the thesis of our smart brevity format is we give you the quick lead, we tell you why it matters, and then we say, if you want to go deeper, here’s what else. But the goal is to try to be really respectful of people’s time and recognize that everybody is busy. We want to tell a story with our headlines. You want to tell a story with our visuals and our data, our data graphics that we have. So a lot of it is finding unique ways to reach people and meeting your audiences where they are. I think we’re also seeing a shift with younger audiences. They want short form video, they want visuals. They’re not necessarily going to read. We’re seeing an uptick in owned content creation, and that’s everything from, you know, quick blog posts, vlogs, video blogs or podcasting. We’re seeing companies create their own internal podcast in place of memos as a way to reach people and meet them where they are. And so I think there’s a lot of innovation that’s happening, but it’s all about acknowledging the shift in the way that we see and receive information.
DOUG: Now I’m slightly depressed because even factoring in a 200% multiplier effect for the interesting level of the information you provided, we might only have about 12% of the people still with us. So, if you had to wrap it up with something short, what are things communicators can do to make sure they not only tell well-crafted stories but deliver them effectively?
ELEANOR: I think it’s all about working backwards, right? So, asking yourself, who are you trying to reach and what do you want them to walk away with? It’s not necessarily what you want to put out. It’s what you think they need to hear and how they want to hear it. And so, when you adopt that mindset, I think it’s a little bit a little bit easier to craft your communication strategy. I would say get creative. I would say take risks. I would say use data. Use data to inform where your audiences are. Use data to inform how you reach them. Don’t be afraid of that data. Don’t be afraid to learn from that data. If your attempts at reaching them weren’t successful. That’s one trend that I’m watching a lot of is all of the different data options that are out there tracking options, monitoring options that are out there for communication professionals and how to best use them. It’s also, as I said, these chief communications officers, they finally have a seat at the table, right? But all their colleagues can bring data to the table. And so communicators need to get more comfortable in that space as well. So think that’s a big piece of it, but it’s really about taking risks and understanding where your audience is and then micro-targeting them. It might not be the best option to, you know, go to a big publication. It might make the most sense for you to go to a smaller publication, a substack use social media. There are so many different ways and so many different channels to capitalize on. And so, I encourage communications teams to start thinking about that.
DOUG: Yeah, and we appreciate you being so thoughtful and sharing your knowledge with our audience. Thanks so much for participating.
ELEANOR: Thank you for having me.