Are you coming across at the right level?
Becoming proficient at executive communications is critical for every mid-level manager.
Many leaders are very comfortable communicating downward or with peers, but when it comes to talking with top executives they are not able to hit the right tone — it’s a very different thing.
Talking to executives can seem mysterious and stressful. They can get annoyed or impatient unexpectedly. I’ve seen so many leaders get blindsided when something goes amiss while talking to an executive. But the problem is often the tone more than the content.
I’ve come up with 8 simple check points that you can use grade yourself when you prepare and deliver your next executive communication or presentation.
1. Outside vs. Inside
I remember one time a group of mid-level managers were presenting a plan for a new project to an executive. They had a very nice presentation with slides showing what they proposed to build and why it would be useful. The presentation went on for some time and finally the executive interrupted and said, “I agree you have got the picture right, but the issue is that our competition has been doing this for months, why are you proposing this now?” They had no answer.
Make sure that you set your communications in the context of external reality. Talk to customers, talk to sales people. Find out what competitors are doing. Make sure you have incorporated that knowledge into your communications or your point of view will seem small and insular.
2. Short vs. Long
Get to the point. Please. I can’t tell you how many times leaders presented to me, where 46 minutes into a 1 hour meeting I’d have to say, “What is this meeting about?” If you are talking or presenting to an executive, make sure you can make your point in 1 page and/or 3 minutes. Use that brevity to earn more time.
Describing how fascinating and complete your research was before you ever get to the point doesn’t help you. I can tell you that have spent days filtering the content of an important executive presentation down to its core points so that I could cover it in 5 minutes. It was always worth it.
3. Meaning vs. Detail
Don’t make your executive audience do the work to process the detail to get the meaning. Instead of going through all the data you could say, “There is only one number on this whole spreadsheet which is of concern and here is why”. While some executives might want to drag you into detail or challenge you on facts, this does not absolve you of the responsibility to have an opinion on what the most important take-aways are.
4. Outcome vs. Activity
Check your language. Are you taking about important outcomes, or describing activities? All the things you are doing — all of your project plans, all of your travels, all of your meetings, all of your development — those are activities. So what? Did quality improve? Did pipeline grow? Did time to close sales get shorter? Did clients provide references?
Check your titles and headlines. Turn them all into outcomes. What happened? Why does it matter?
5. Plain speak vs. Jargon
Be easily understandable and relevant. Leave your jargon, your acronyms, and your project names back inside your team. When you get to talk to an executive, you need to create an entirely different communication tool to do the communicating than you use to manage the work. A communication tool that is in their language, not yours.
You can learn their secret language simply be being observant and listening. Listen for what they care about and the words they use to describe it. What they say becomes your allowable dictionary. Translate.
6. Story vs. Status
I have found that executives respond really well to stories, examples, memorable tag lines. Turn your information into an interesting story. Share how your project impacted the life of a particular customer or employee. Give them a story with a beginning a middle and an end with concrete elements. A good story is one that involves an actual person, a story that they can remember and repeat easily.
7. Proposing vs. Reporting
I was talking to a CEO one day about a problem the company was having in its business. I suggested that he assign one of the directors to work on that problem, and he said, “No, I don’t trust him to own and solve the problem — he is more of a reporter.” Ouch!
While identifying problems is important, and articulating them can make you seem insightful, check your language and make sure you are not just reporting problems, but taking ownership and proposing solutions to fix them too.
8. In Control/Calm vs. Defensive/Angry
Finally, one of the most important aspects of executive communications is to not get shaken up when you get confronted with something uncomfortable or upsetting. It might be a question you don’t know the answer to, or an attack from a peer, or subtle undermining comment about your team. These things happen to everyone.
Stay calm, stay in control. “That’s an interesting question, I’ll need to get the answer. That is an interesting point of view, I haven’t seen that myself, but I’ll look into it. Well the data shows this, but if you disagree, I’m happy to talk about that offline.”
I have found that not getting shaken by attacks, and in fact treating them with a level of calm seriousness, it makes the attacker more nervous than you are. They think, “oh crap, now I have to do actual work follow up this shallow attack”. They often shut up.
Here are some webinars that help improve your executive communication skills. Check them out if you are interested.
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Patty Azzarello is an executive, best-selling author, speaker and CEO/Business Advisor.
She became the youngest general manager at HP at the age of 33, ran a billion dollar software business at 35 and became a CEO for the first time at 38 (all without turning into a self-centered, miserable jerk)
You can find Patty at www.AzzarelloGroup.com, follow her on twitter or Facebook, or read her book RISE…3 Practical Steps for Advancing Your Career, Standing Out as a Leader, AND Liking Your Life.