Five expert tips about communicating with executives

14 Dec 2021

Does the thought of communicating with executives make you nervous? Are you worried about what to say, or how to make the topic relevant? Most of us don’t communicate with executives every day. That means we don’t get much time to practice. When we do finally get our moment in the boardroom there is even more pressure to get it right.

So what can we do to improve our chances of communicating successfully?

Simple — learn some helpful tips about effectively communicating with executives. Here’s what five top communication experts have to say about communicating with executives:

Disclaimer: if you buy any of the books using the links on this page I may receive a small commission. This doesn’t affect the price you pay and it hasn’t impacted my selection for the advice on this page. All the advice comes from sources I have bought, read, and refer to regularly.

Five expert tips for communicating with executives

1. Use volume to show confidence

Expert: Jay Sullivan, Managing Partner at Exec|Comm and award-wining communications author.

Tip: Increase your volume to demonstrate confidence in your ideas.

Description: When we are nervous, we let our voices shrink. A quite voice doesn’t convey authority or confidence. It can undermine the confidence the audience has in your ideas. Wen you sound sure of your ideas others will feel more sure of them too.

My thoughts: This advice doesn’t mean we should start shouting at people to make them think our ideas are good. It means speaking in a way that everyone can hear, and at a volume that conveys our confidence in the idea. Try recording yourself speaking at different volumes, then watch the recordings. See what you think about your message when you speak quietly and confidently.

Source: Simply Said

2. Always answer the ‘So what?’ question

Expert: Mark Magnacca, author of So What? How to Communicate What Really Matters to Your Audience.

Tip: Structure your message to help the executive get what they want. Do this by showing or explaining how what you have can benefit them.

Description: When preparing to present to executives, take time to consider what they want as well as what you want. You might want them to approve your project, provide funding, or make a decision. All these things are what you want. They are not what the executive wants. Identify what goals the executive is focused on. Then work out how your idea, proposal, or request, aligns with those goals. That alignment is the basis for how you should describe your topic.

My thoughts: Focusing on what the executive wants doesn’t mean the executives are selfish. After all, the executive goals are for the overall benefit of the company. By focusing on their goals you show the value of your idea or request in terms they understand and agree with. If the executive needs to meet a quarterly cost saving target and you are asking for money, your request doesn’t align with their goal. Instead, talk about how your project will save money. Show how quickly it will pay for itself and deliver cost savings every quarter for the next three years. This aligns your topic with the executive’s goals.

Source: So What? How to Communicate What Really Matters to Your Audience

3. Remove treadmill verbs

Expert: Ann Latham.

Tip: Replace treadmill verbs with destination verbs.

Description: For a message to be clear, we mustn’t use treadmill verbs. We should replace all treadmill verbs with destination verbs.

Treadmill verbs keep you moving but you always stay in the same place. You never reach a destination. Treadmill verbs encourage talk without a clear purpose. Whereas destination verbs demand an outcome.

Examples of treadmill verbs include ‘review’, ‘share’, and ‘discuss’. These types of discussion can go on forever. Where is the defined end of a review? Instead of running on the treadmill, choose a destination. Then state that destination using a destination verb when you talk to the executives.

Destination verbs show where you need to get to in the conversation. When you use destination verbs, you speak the language of outcomes. When you speak the language of outcomes, you choose words that reduce ambiguity. You seek critical distinctions, and clarify what must be different when you are done.

Example: Don’t tell an executive you want to discuss options. Say you need to decide which option to use. The destination verb provides a concrete end point. Everyone knows when it is reached.

My thoughts: I really like Ann’s definition of treadmill verbs. It perfectly captures how many of us communicate. Perhaps it’s caused by our reluctance to make bold and declarative statements at work. After all, making a declaration of what must be done can feel like overreaching. Especially when talking to a senior executive. And yet, if we don’t make such statements, we set ourselves up to have unproductive conversations. No one likes unproductive conversations, and executives are no different. To make the most of the limited time you get with an executive, ditch the treadmill verbs and use destination verbs instead.

Source: The Power of Clarity

4. Keep your answers to the same length as the question

Expert: Allen N. Weiner, author of So Smart But…

Tip: Keep your answers to the same length as the question.

Description: You’ve finished presenting and an executive asks you a question. While this may feel like an opportunity to demonstrate your depth of knowledge, it isn’t. The real opportunity is to show how short you can make an answer. Before launching into a detailed answer, remember the simple rule – When answering questions, try to keep the answer about the same length as the question. This technique shows you have the ability to communicate complex information skilfully.

My thoughts: Giving long answers to short questions is an easy trap to fall into. We provide background, multiple opinions, lists of options, and more. None of which directly answers the question we are asked. Much of what we share isn’t relevant to the question, or to the goal of the conversation. If you give focused answers others will see you as someone who doesn’t get bogged down in the detail.

Source: So Smart But…

5. Know your point

Expert: Joel Schwartzberg.

Tip: When communicating with executives make sure you know your point.

Description: When preparing to talk to an executive make sure you know the point you want to make. Every presentation and pitch have a point. A point is not ‘Next year’s strategy’ or ‘Project status update’. Those are themes, they are not points. A point is unique. It is something you can propose, argue, defend, illustrate and prove. A point has clear value and purpose. When you talk to an executive you need to know your point.

My thoughts: This is my favorite of the tips about communicating with executives. It’s so important and is useful in all our communication, not just with executives. Joel does a great job in his book, Get to the Point. He explains how we can identify, clarify, and state the point we want to make. When communicating with executives we usually want something, or we have an opinion, or we are proposing an idea. In each case our success depends on having a clear point. When you make your point clear the executive audience will know what you are about. They have a clear destination for the conversation and a well defined point to evaluate.

Source: Get to the Point


So there you have it, a selection of top tips about communicating with executives from five experts in the field. If you want to learn more about executive communication you can get copies of the expert books using the links above. Also check out the other articles on the topic of communicating with executives here.