Running workshops at corporate offices all over the country is not a Covid-friendly activity, and The Latimer Group, a Connecticut-based communications consultancy, was in trouble when the virus hit last March. Company president and sailing champion Dean Brenner had just written Persuaded, his third book about leadership communications. It wouldn’t be published until October 2020, but it had useful advice for its author in the interim.
“In January and February, we were on track for our best year ever,” Brenner says. “We went to basically zero revenue in the second quarter, and I came home half of the nights in April and May absolutely convinced The Latimer Group was going out of business.”
His book talks about four key skills: assess, message, document and deliver. “I’ve appreciated the first skill area, assess,” he says. “This year broadened my perspective on that, being able to assess what’s going on around you in a calm way. It was a highly emotional time, but we had to take a step back and de-emotionalize our thought process. That required getting out of the mindset of what this means for The Latimer Group and pivoting to what this means for our clients — and what we can do to help them. That pivot became the way we reinvented ourselves.”
Start with Listening
Brenner summarizes Persuaded as a book about making a human connection, starting with listening. “When someone is actually paying attention to what you’re saying, it’s a breath of fresh air — it’s powerful,” he says. “When you’re someone who does this well, it’s a real differentiator, a real leadership tool.”
The Latimer Group runs workshops for companies small and large, but Brenner says he doesn’t see a difference in the essentials of communications “whether there are eight or 80,000 in the company. On a practical basis, the large corporation operates like 10,000 organizations of eight people, each in their own pod on the org chart.”
When describing how to make human connections, Brenner shifts from corporate lingo to the performance language of the Olympic-class sailor he once was. “If you can take a few simple concepts and make them a regular part of your routine, you’ll build the right muscle memory,” he says.
His concepts are simple. First, ask questions. Then listen to what others care about so you understand their perspective. Finally, simplify your message accordingly.
Prescription and Storytelling
Persuaded has 200-plus e-book pages on the fundamentals of communications. At its core, the company model described is to assess a situation, collect and prepare your message, document it with supporting materials, and deliver it effectively.
Making a human connection with your audience is essential. It’s only possible based on listening and assessment. And it becomes effective when you get right to the point, omitting superfluous details.
The book breaks down this model with tools and frameworks, brought to life through anecdotes. The combination works by moving readers from theory to practice and back, repeatedly. Brenner’s tools and stories come from the real world of 20 years of workshops, with names and details changed to protect individual privacy. (In full disclosure, I graded workshop presentations for Brenner’s company a few years ago.)
Advocacy and an Olympic Diamond
The Latimer Group’s focus on persuasive communication started before the company’s 2002 beginnings. Brenner narrowly missed selection for the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia, finishing second in the U.S. trials in the Soling Class. In 2004, he became chair of the Olympic Sailing Committee, through 2012. During that time, Brenner led the U.S. Sailing Team to a more professional, sponsor-supported model, building revenues from $800,000 to $4 million annually on the principle that persuasive communications is not about manipulation, but rather advocating for what people care about.
With Dan Cooney, US Sailing’s marketing director (now a colleague at The Latimer Group), Brenner developed a graphic for whiteboard sessions on team communications strategy. “We realized if we were going to grow the program, we had to bring certain audiences together,” he says. “We drew a diamond with our four audiences — donors, sponsors, fans and athletes — with one at each point. In the middle, we put the US Sailing Team logo. We measured every proposal against its ability to connect the team with one of our four audiences. If an idea connected with more than one, it moved up the priority list.”
An Olympic sailing program is not about raising money, Brenner says. “Individual athletes come to me for fundraising advice, and I tell them, your goal is to make people care about what you are doing. … If you can, many good things will happen, one of which is that you’ll raise some money. People don’t give money to things they don’t care about.”
Reinvention and Takeaways
“This approach has completely shaped my business,” Brenner says. “We go through the exact same exercise with our clients, employees and vendors. What will make people want to work with The Latimer Group? What will make people want to consume our products, whether it’s reading a free blog post or hiring us for a series of workshops?”
Which leads us back to what The Latimer Group did in 2020 after the pandemic hit. The company listened to its clients, who still needed employee training and still had training budgets. “All of a sudden, most of their employees were trying to communicate from home,” Brenner says. “We realized this was a huge opportunity for us.”
In three months, Brenner’s team created new content around virtual communication and completely redesigned its in-person workshops for virtual platforms. “In June,” he says, “we started dialing our clients with our reimagined curriculum and said, ‘Hey, we are ready for this. We can help you.’ In August, the phone started ringing off the hook.”
Brenner hopes those who read his book will take away three key points: leadership communications are not a soft skill, but instead a must-have power skill; communications skills can be learned; and if you learn certain behaviors, you can get quick at them. In fact, if you practice these behaviors, Brenner says, “they become how your mind works.”
This article was originally published in the February 2021 issue.