Axel Löber, Head of Brand & Marketing at E.ON and Energy Community Builder, relies on simple communication to achieve big goals. Relevance and conciseness replace widespread complexity and ensure greater clarity. To achieve this, it is not only important what a message may contain, but also what it should not contain in order to be effective.
I’m sitting in the ICE with Axel Löber, Head of Brand & Marketing of the German energy corporation E.ON. We’re heading towards Essen. The Easter holidays have just started and the train is packed. Passengers are pushing and shoving each other; travelers who didn’t reserve a seat are sitting on the floor or standing in the aisle. Everybody’s talking at the same time. If we manage to focus on the essence of our conversation here on this train, then we’re actually doing what the subject of this chapter is about! Axel is an out and out communication pro.
He knows the subject of communication from the different perspectives of the consulting world and the corporate world. After studying German, politics and psychology, he learned the basics of his trade at a small PR agency: press releases, copy texts, catchy headlines. This was followed by a stint in Germany’s leading strategic communications consulting firm. His next station was the world of large corporations: The communications of the finance section and the board were stepping stones on his way to brand management – “it just fell into my lap,” he says. At Merck, he eventually oversaw the global brand and, in his own words, “rebuilt it a bit”. That’s the understatement of the year. Merck’s radically transformed brand identity has not only been an iconic transformation for the 350-year-old science and technology company but has also amazed people way beyond the industry. I still have to smile when I recall a business show on CNN where a journalist visited the new Merck website live at the studio. With wide-open eyes, he shouted, “Gosh, that looks like an Austin Powers movie!” Well, Axel knows other colours besides dark blue and other forms than just the right angle.
“For me, the key is to find out what moves my dialogue partner and how to make an emotional and intellectual connection. After all, communication is not a one-way street.”
Even though Axel, now that he works for E.ON, sticks to the issue of brand, our talk today is not about branding but about communication. And first I want to confess that, being a person who does not have a communications background, I learned a lot from Axel. I automatically associate the phrase “Take the jellyfish fat out of this” with him. Our discussions about texts have made me aware of many linguistic subtleties. I want to start with a general question: What, in Axel’s opinion, is simple communication? “For me, the key is to find out what moves my dialogue partner and how to make an emotional and intellectual connection. After all, communication is not a one-way street,” Axel said. “It’s important to get to the core of the issue and to word it concisely. The world is already complex enough. If we explain things in even more complicated terms, they will be even harder to grasp or even not get through the medial white noise. Incidentally, I don’t think that’s a phenomenon of our time. We live in the VUCA world, that’s correct. But there has always been complexity – and the simple truths that made this world accessible to us. Great myths as well as my grandmother’s homespun wisdom. I can understand, remember and reproduce what is simple and visually tangible.”
“I can understand, remember and reproduce what is simple and visually tangible.”
That sounds sensible. When I look at organizations, I notice one of the biggest problems is that the communication is either too long-winded or too complicated. Nevertheless, a CEO who gets thousands of pieces of information on his desk every day is supposed to listen to me, despite the fact that on his last trip to the lavatory he already met three other employees who were all trying to talk his ears off. And at the same time, each of them also wanted to emphasize their expert status. Yet I still want my ten minutes of attention without coming across as an idiot. So how do I do that? “First of all, it has to have something to do with what’s actually on your conversation partner’s mind,” explains Axel. ”Everyone has their agenda and certain issues on their desk. If what you say is not related to that at this moment, then it’s not relevant for them. The second thing I do is to reduce my communication to essentials: What’s the essential information your counterpart should be getting? What does he or she have to know – and what don’t they need to know? To get there, you take the jellyfish fat out. This phrase was coined by the former German chancellor, Helmut Schmidt. Don Draper from Mad Men put it like this: ‘Keep it simple but significant.’ That’s exactly it. A message must be relevant and significant, and it must be an argument that’s simple enough in the already complex working world. So how do I get there? It’s important not to lose yourself in details. In the first step, I focus on the core information and convey it as succinctly as possible. I let the details follow in the second step – or even let someone else deliver them later. Carving out the core idea is the hardest part. There’s a certain truth in the saying ‘I’ll write you a long letter because I don’t have the time for a short one’.”
What can people use to guide them if they just want to communicate? Does Axel have any examples or advice? “I like the children’s TV show Die Sendung mit der Maus,” says Axel. “In professional contexts, I’ve often recommended to let yourself be guided by non-fiction stories.” Internationally, the feature “Big Bird learns about …” in Sesame Street may be better known. “Exactly. The programme itself isn’t all that important; I’m talking about explanatory films for children as inspiration. That’s how we can learn to get things across easily. Ask yourself:
Axel Löber and René Esteban (Author of “Do Epic Stuff!“) in the ICE to Essen
How would you explain something to a 5-year-old? Or your grandmother, who has no idea about the subject? If you can do that, then you hold the key in your hand. Always communicate as if your recipients were not professionals but laypeople. If they are professionals, they will be generally happy about someone who puts their complicated profession into a catchy phrase. Of course, you should be prepared to answer questions about detail issues. Consider a good management template, for example: It has a headline that’s to the point, contains an executive summary that includes the essence and then 10 pages of details. If the headline doesn’t get the reader’s attention and if the executive summary doesn‘t pinpoint the facts, the 10 pages of details are for nothing.”
When reading executive summaries, I would sometimes like to ask: Could I get a summary of this summary, please? Even the summaries are often too bloated for my liking. Or take PowerPoint slides. Actually, they force you to concentrate, but some people manage to overload a slide with information so that the core is already forgotten again. “Absolutely. There’s this famous memo Winston Churchill wrote during the air war with Germany. In his memo, the Prime Minister requests all members of the War Cabinet to cut things short as of right now, because otherwise they would waste too much energy and couldn’t think clearly. Even though we’re riding a train right now, let’s think about a sports car. It’s light and agile. You have to slam the steering wheel of a heavy car around bends, so you never get the sports car feeling with it. It’is the same with communication: You can only make yourself clear if your statement is clear. What is concise and – ideally – differentiating is easy to remember. That’s why claims work so well: ‘Just do it’, ‘Think different’, ‘Only the best or nothing at all’. A whole corporate philosophy is being broken down to a few words. That’s enough to convey an idea, and sometimes it says as much as 150 pages or a website. Ultimately, this is exactly what branding is all about: defining the core idea of your company or product.”
During the time he was responsible for a CEO’s communication, Axel also wrote speeches. Frankly, I find that many speeches make me fall asleep. How do you write a speech that will keep people awake? “First you research the topic, and then you structure the contents. Then you write the speech. But the main work, the work that is by far the most time-consuming, comes in the end: The speech needs to be put into its final form – and that means cutting the text down to the bones. Even if something has been painstakingly researched and worded, it may be necessary to delete it. That’s the jellyfish fat. Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address consisted of only 272 words. Even today, it’s still one of the most important speeches in American history. It takes less than three minutes to say 272 words. Can I remember any of the 30-minute speeches from any conference? Not a single one. Somebody could talk for an hour; it wouldn’t make a difference. I wouldn’t remember it anyway. But three minutes might make a difference. Conciseness brings clarity. ”
Does Axel have any final piece of advice? “Twitter makes for a nice exercise,” he says. “You have only 280 characters. If I want to make my point with these few letters, every word must matter. Donald Trump manages to communicate his politics via Twitter. That’s an art. Without passing judgement on the content: Just look at the effect it has.” Compared to that, the two of us us have talked quite a bit already. But now to the point. “I think everything I’ve just told you could’ve been said in just four sentences,” Axel says, straightening his colourful tie. Okay, I still want to write a book people like to read, and not just a note. But then a book is exactly that level of detail Axel has just described. If the essence is clear, then the level of detail has its justification, too.
About the book
This interview is an excerpt from the book „DO EPIC STUFF! – Leadership after Change Management”, published by Campus Verlag. Transformation expert René Esteban explains together with senior leaders of today’s business world how to achieve challenging goals together. Learn more about the book and order it directly.
About the author
René Esteban is the founder and CEO of the consulting company FocusFirst GmbH. With his team he supports executives in the global corporate environment to achieve their most challenging goals with focus and inspiration – and at the same time to develop the corporate culture towards more empathy and humanity.