By Elizabeth Freedman
I recently heard Emmy award-winning sports broadcaster Joe Buck share his brilliant – and humble – insights into what he has learned about himself and his audience in his years delivering play-by-play coverage for the NFL and Major League Baseball. (For a funny, candid conversation, listen to Joe Buck interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air with Dave Davies here: http://www.npr.org/2017/01/11/509302998/hall-of-fame-sportscaster-joe-buck-admits-to-being-a-lucky-bastard)
Joe isn’t shy about detailing the ups and downs of his career and life as a self-described “lucky bastard.” As he described what it takes to deliver great play-by-play, I was struck by how many parallels exist between Joe’s world, and that which our clients experience. In both cases, outstanding communication is a requirement, and tough, knowledgeable, demanding audiences are often the norm, whether it’s an audience of rabid sports fans, or, in our clients’ case, the C-suite.
The Traps of C-Suite Communication
In play-by-play, the announcer is expected to nail it in the moment, offer insight as the game is unfolding, and do it all with a sense of calm and composure. Familiar territory for senior leaders who are communicating at the C-suite level, yet surprisingly we find it isn’t uncommon for even the most experienced leaders to fall into a few traps:
Making It All About You: “Nobody cares,” is how Buck views the tendency for announcers who spend too much airtime showcasing their personal perspective. He’s clear that viewers tune in because of the game, not because of who is announcing it, so no surprise that his pet peeve is when his peers over-talk to show how much they know.
Even the best of us can get caught here. The pressure to sell, to close, to advance the deal, and to impress, can overtake us, and we lock into our ‘script.’ We end up talking too much about our solutions, our process, or giving more information, background, or context than needed – it becomes about us and misses that golden window to connect to the audience in a nuanced way. This is particularly true in situations that are new, risky, or even when we’re feeling out of our league (like a first Board presentation), or when a really big decision is on the table (like getting buy in from top leadership to provide resources for your new project).
Forgetting the Poetry: Calling a Phillies baseball championship game one night, Buck tells viewers how batter Matt Stairs “rips one into the night, deep into right, way out of here.” Viewers imagine a ball disappearing into the shadows, and can understand and feel the impact of what’s happened on a much deeper level. In the midst of trying to land a meeting, build a relationship, or close a deal, it’s easy to forget poetry, but insights are the ‘poetry’ of the C-suite. Insights are the kinds of ideas that we share that take the conversation from “just another baseball game” to something that feels deeper and more meaningful, because we’ve brought ideas that are relevant, real-time, and connect directly to our audience’s challenges and priorities.
Missing the Fly Ball: Even though Buck’s terrific poetry and one-liners may appear to be happening in real time as the game is unfolding, behind the scenes, preparation is ongoing. The process of reviewing stats, players, team history, and more, leaves nothing to chance. It’s clutch announcing at its best, and Buck credits his preparation process for allowing him to be ready for when the moment counts. Moments count in the C-suite too, and it isn’t uncommon for us to see executives, confident in their knowledge and abilities, skimp on preparation for their important C-suite conversations. When the unexpected fly ball comes in to the meeting, they aren’t ready to catch it, and they miss the opportunity to connect in a meaningful way.
Strategic Conversations with the C-Suite: 3 Elements to Connect as a Peer
Like great play-by-play, it takes a combination of qualities and behaviors for leaders to consistently bring their A-game to their highest stakes conversations. 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 raise their game in C-level conversations. Here are three important elements to consider:
- Gather the Right Information. Take a page from Joe Buck, who is able to connect in an authentic way because he knows what the audience cares about. In our work with senior leaders, we’ve seen how taking the time to gather the right information about the audience or the individual before a big presentation can help transform a dry recitation into a compelling dialog. Make it part of your process to find out what your target is looking to hear, and build your story to address those needs.
- Create a Process for Insights. In some cases, we see situations where leaders have a hard time getting the meeting they want at the senior level, or they can’t demonstrate value once they do. Executives find credibility in data and insights, and our approach creates a simple process for bringing relevant insight, targeted to audience needs, into C-suite conversations. One powerful resource for this is by curating and applying the typically vast amounts of thought leadership produced inside many companies. As an example, we have set up experts from within a company we were working with to provide a “thought leadership briefing,” highlighting proprietary data and information, for their leaders to translate into insights for C-level clients and prospects.
- Prepare Differently. We know that C-suite leaders sit through many, many meetings; it goes without saying that standing out and truly differentiating your communication with executives requires thinking differently, preparing differently and engaging in a different kind of dialogue. It takes time and effort to build these habits, but as we have found, it is something that can be practiced and learned. As one example, our approach utilizes real-time client-scenarios to provide immediate impact and enable executives to experiment with changes in how they approach C-Suite meetings and conversations.
Joe Buck once said, “The worst thing in the world is to feel like people turn on the TV and say, ‘oh god, it’s that guy again.’ I’m trying to avoid that.” With the right approach and preparation, leaders don’t have to be ‘that guy’ when they meet with executives. On the contrary, we’ve seen leaders and teams transform once they’ve made an intentional shift in how they prepare and communicate with the C-suite. This goes far beyond giving a great pitch or presentation – it fundamentally changes a leader’s ability to influence their executive peers and impact the business. Just remember, it’s all about the audience.