Whether you’re pitching an idea to a prospect, client, or even your senior leaders within your organization, it can be a big challenge—even for experienced professionals.  Regardless of whether you’re presenting a business case internally or looking to sell a product or service to folks beyond your walls, it can be daunting to walk into these high-stakes scenarios.  Senior leaders are notoriously busy and impatient, and you need succinct, targeted messages to win them over.

In the course of the work we do with senior leaders to help them communicate more persuasively, we find one somewhat surprising habit that can get them into trouble when communicating upwards with a call to action.

Take one example – a set of leaders we worked with from a global technology firm.  These leaders typically call on CIOs and other very senior leaders in the technology function to make the case to buy their products and services.  In helping this group to prepare and practice their approach to presenting to this important audience, we found that they all started their presentations this way:

  • “Thanks, everyone, for taking time out of your busy schedules to meet with me today.”
  • “First of all, I wanted to say how very much I appreciate you giving me the opportunity to meet today.”

As we walked through the initial feedback session, the group felt this was a fine way to start – and one they often rely on in the room.  But what stood out to me was the fact that their tone and language was overly deferential. It wasn’t engaging their audience as equals.  As I shared with the group, “All of you need to be seen as trusted advisors, strategic partners, and peers to these leaders—rather than as deferential vendors.” 

Being overly deferential can show up in a variety of ways.  In many “communicating up” situations, high-potential leaders speak way too fast.  This comes across as saying, “I know I’m not really worthy of your time, so I will hurry through my content as fast as I can to underscore that fact.”  The problem highlighted above – thanking the audience too much – is very common across many different situations.

Some of the leaders we work with push back that this is a problem – they share comments along these lines: “I don’t see anything wrong with this.  You need to be courteous.”

This is true, but there’s a big difference between being polite and professional, and using language that highlights the fact that the other party is more powerful and important.  In the case of this group of technology leaders, they are all calling on very powerful folks—people who know more about being a CIO and more about their own company than these leaders do.

But what I suggested to them is that they need to remember that they’re the experts in their field and know way more than their prospects do about how to solve the types of problems that their products and services can solve.  Furthermore, they know far more than their prospects do about how their fellow CIOs are dealing with these same issues. As I pointed out, “You are in a great position to come across as a strategic partner and peer.”

Being too deferential can hurt your business impact in so many ways. When you’re selling ideas internally or externally, you may not only lose the deal—you may lose future opportunities to have a seat at the table because you aren’t seen as a peer and a partner.  You also show that you really don’t know how to communicate up.  You can be branded as “not ready” for the next promotion, the next collaboration, or the next deal.

Keeping Your Deference at Bay

Here are six steps to keep your deference in check:

  • Don’t fawn over people for taking the time to meet with you. Your time is valuable too.
  • Avoid the temptation to give a lengthy history or background. Remember that the best way to be courteous is by being ready to focus on the problems and opportunities that matter to them more than on your own agenda.
  • Make the time worth their while by being concise. In just a few minutes, you should be able to cover what the problem or opportunity is, why THIS is the right thing to tackle NOW, and what your idea is for handling it.
  • Allow ample time for questions and be ready to go where your audience wants you to go.
  • Control your speaking pace. The more important the point you’re making is, the slower you should go.
  • Limit your use of PowerPoint slides. Over-reliance on a deck will make it harder to connect personally and may send the message that you don’t really know your stuff.

This peer-to-peer approach literally levels the playing field, making it easier for you to score big when it comes to driving business results.




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