Hearing, listening, knowing, and doing walk into a bar. Or at least doing steps in as he is the only one that is, well, doing.

A shared leadership problem is that we confuse listening with hearing, and knowing with doing in our communication. This confusion creates barriers to getting results, and a shortfall in results creates pain and, sometimes, suffering in leaders and teams.

As a baseline, hearing requires us to hear a sound. It is an involuntary act. Listening requires us to concentrate and process the words we hear and assign meaning. It is voluntary.

Similarly, knowing indicates we have knowledge or awareness about a topic. Doing requires us to perform, act, and execute.

The reason we sometimes confuse hearing and listening is that we stand in front of a group of people, speak with what we perceive as clarity, and watch for the signs that we are heard. We hear the applause at the end and tell ourselves that our audience listened to our message, now understands it, and is rushing out the door to implement our plan.

The reason we sometimes confuse knowing and doing is an extension of our view that people actively listen to us. Our egos being what we are lead us to believe that reasonable people rank our message as their primary reason for getting up today. It follows that this connection to our message will drive their activities, realign their priorities, and lead to specific action toward our stated goal.

You may think, “That’s ridiculous, leaders don’t think that way.”

Are you sure?

Have you ever walked out of a room believing that your message was clear only to find out days or weeks later that the expected action did not occur? How about with a spouse, partner, or child?

Have you ever said to yourself, “I knew that, but didn’t do it this time?”

Have you ever worked on a project whose direction and responsibilities were clear to you, but other people didn’t connect, and something was left undone?

Have you ever been speaking with someone, left to go to the beach in your head, and were too embarrassed to ask them to repeat themselves?

Cutting through the Noise

Cutting through the noise can be challenging. Here are several ways to leave a room with more people actively doing what’s needed.

Simplify the topic and repeat frequently. Spend the time required during preparation to simplify your message to its essence. Stay with a core message and repeat it throughout the discussion to help people move from hearing to listening and from knowing to doing.

Establish accountability. Don’t leave the meeting without a clear set of actions, including a timeline for follow up, due dates, and the names of the people responsible and accountable for each activity. A whiteboard or flipchart are perfect for this.

Check for understanding. One method of checking the absorption of your message is to tell people at the front end that you will be asking them for their input during the meeting. Then go around the room and ask people what they heard. While it may cause some clenching amongst the participants, there is a higher likelihood that they will stay engaged for the duration of the meeting. As a bonus, listening to other people’s voices discussing your message helps cement it in place for other attendees.

Limit your remarks to under 15 minutes. Unless you are juggling flaming bowling pins, assume short attention spans rule the day. Mixing a concise, targeted message with participation will increase the likelihood that the message sticks.

Don’t use PowerPoint. Write a few bullet points on a whiteboard or flipchart as you go and don’t do handouts. If there is follow up material that you want in people’s hands, put it in Dropbox or on the intranet after the meeting. As a bonus, it is respectful of different learning styles and another way to pour concrete on the message.

Ban smartphones. Competition for attention is fierce enough, so don’t agree to battle with an iPhone 7 for message superiority. The urgency of the buzz will win, no matter how compelling you are as a speaker. And it’s only for 15 minutes!

Follow up. Once you’ve delivered the message and agreed upon actions, check in the next day with some of the people in the meeting and confirm their understanding and progress. Prepare to repeat your message to them and the broader group, as necessary. Continue weekly, or more frequent, follow up during the project or initiative to assist in removing obstacles.

Takeaway: The battle for employee attention span and mindshare has never been greater than it is today. Delivering results for our customers and other stakeholders is key to our success and, ultimately, survival. These high stakes make it imperative for us to cut through the noise, get our messages across, and rapidly convert knowledge into action that delivers measurable business results.