Remember the old saying “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know”? In our work with senior leaders, it’s more like “It’s not what you know, it’s how you communicate what you know.” In fact, one of the biggest frustrations our clients voice is how poorly their teams, external partners, and even their executive peers communicate important information. It isn’t unusual to hear comments like, “I had no idea where he was going in the discussion,” or, “She totally missed the point,” or even, “I can’t even remember what they talked about.”
Whether presenting to a group of investors, updating the board, or requesting resources from the executive committee, the stakes are high with a senior-level audience. So when a presentation falls flat – after all the effort that went into it – what gives? Is this a question of content, delivery, or is something else going on?
Going Beyond the Obvious: No More “Tell the Story”
Perhaps one clue comes from a client of ours – an EVP in an operations role at an industrial company – who said his leadership team members need to “stop being afraid and start acting like real advisors.” His comments went beyond the typical observations to “get out of the weeds” or “tell the story.” Instead, he is pointing to something that goes deeper than the words themselves, and touches on how we show up as leaders and what executives actually respect when it comes to communication.
What to Do Differently: Start with Measurement
Through our work at Bates, we’ve developed a distinct perspective on what it means to communicate with impact at an executive level, using powerful data and insights generated from the Bates ExPI™ (Executive Presence Index), the first-and-only research-based, scientifically validated 360 tool that measures qualities of executive influence.
Why is this important? Because we’re able to pinpoint and measure the specific qualities that matter most and assess leaders’ capabilities in each of these areas, audience by audience. Whether it’s a quality like resonance (your ability to ‘read the room’), vision (how you communicate a future state that makes strategic – and emotional – sense), or composure (how to bring a sense of perspective and calm to your audiences), we’re able to better understand what it takes to be seen as a credible communicator to senior leaders who can inspire an audience to commit, to engage, and to act.
4 Things CEOs Want to Hear from You
Here are four key examples of what we hear from CEOs and C-suite leaders – and what we know from our own research – works for communicating effectively and getting others to take action on what you have to say.
- “Stop presenting.” We all too often see leaders come to a meeting with power point slides in hand, jump in and methodically plow through the presentation. While this may be the right approach for certain settings, our C-suite clients tell us this ‘presenting’ style has an amateur, junior-level element to it. Many observe this type of presenter gets flustered by interruptions or questions – common territory when presenting to a senior leader – and seems more intent on getting through the slides than on having a genuine dialogue about the issue at hand. The message here? Slides don’t get respect; conversations that reflect real life (with questions, humor, even challenge) do.
- “Tell me what I don’t already know.” Your average C-suite audience has years of accumulated knowledge and experience, and access to vast volumes of information about the business. We often see presenters wasting precious moments reviewing facts and data that the C-suite already understands or assumes as the baseline. This quickly communicates a lack of insight on the part of the presenter, and loses the audience. Instead of lingering over familiar areas, focus on what’s around the corner, what’s new, or what surprises may be in store. Remember, you bring a unique vantage point to the discussion, so don’t hesitate to leverage that with your senior audiences.
- “Tell me what I need to do.” C-suite leaders also share their frustration when a speaker is reluctant to take a stand. Even at senior levels, it is not uncommon for those engaging with the C-suite to hesitate to rock the boat, and the desire to please can overtake the situation. While at times it is certainly appropriate to stay neutral and offer options or choices, it is also true that senior leaders seek answers and a clear perspective to help run the business. Being able to move beyond the tactical execution role of a “pleaser” to the strategic role of executive peer requires bringing recommendations about outcomes and benefits to the table. As one client said, “It is not enough to share your point of view on what the data means or provide options. You are the expert. What do you recommend?”
- “Less is more.” For many, a meeting with the C-suite is a rare occurrence. To increase the challenge, the time is often cut short, so it’s tempting to resort to a few common tactics, such as speaking too quickly, rushing through the message, and trying to cram everything into a very short time frame. Here’s when it is essential to fight common instincts and slow down, pause, and offer only what truly matters. To overcome the tendency to over-talk and appear anxious or not confident, it is critical to have the ‘three-minute version’ of your message prepared in advance in case you need to edit on the spot. Audiences at all levels are overwhelmed with information, so the ability to keep things simple, clear, and short has a far greater impact. Executives who bring this discipline to their C-suite meetings will get to valuable outcomes more quickly.
Build the Right Foundation
Based on our work with companies, and informed by our research on executive presence and influence, we have developed a framework and approach to help leaders elevate their ability to lead and participate in C-level conversations. In a recent, related post, I shared three important elements to consider in preparing for these discussions, and create a more systematic approach to the conversations: gather the right information; create a process for insights; and prepare differently. This means:
- Start with understanding your audience’s agenda. What does your audience really care about? The key here is to go beyond the obvious questions they may have, and dig deep to uncover the questions behind their questions. This essential first step to executive communications means that the audience will feel like you understand their priorities, that you know what’s important, and that you ‘get them.’
- Identify the single “big idea” you want to communicate, with a recommendation that has clear outcomes and results. Resist the temptation to fit too much into your message. Take time in advance to edit thoughtfully; if audiences respect the message, they will want more time with you anyway.
- Lay out the risks and benefits, and determine how to build the business case to connect with your audience. Even good ideas come with a price, whether costs or risks, and the ability to present a balanced message helps gain credibility and trust in the room.
When it comes to C-suite communications, anyone can improve, and our clients are often surprised how even the smallest of changes can have a very outsized impact. The key is going beyond the ‘usual suspects’ of content and style, and addressing the deeper aspects of communication that connect with an executive audience.
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