Senior executives and CEO’s in particular, often assume they will be judged solely by what they do. What they say, and especially, how they say it, is presumed to carry less weight. That’s an assumption that’s as widespread as it is inaccurate.
Whether dealing with internal or external audiences, facts simply don’t speak for themselves. Positions, values, ideas and yes, even facts, need to be put into context. They need to be given a voice so they can be clearly understood. There is simply no substitute for the kind of powerful, in person, human communication that can ease concerns, prod action, and gain buy in among your target audiences.
That’s where powerful communication skills make all the difference. Memo’s, emails, web sites and advertising all have a role, but there are times when only personal communication with key stakeholders will do. These important players for every business need and want to hear directly from those in charge. Seeing and listening to a senior leader explain positions, policies or change allows these stakeholders to make judgments for themselves and can be key to persuading even skeptical audiences. It also serves as a powerful statement about the confidence of the speaker and the strength of the speaker’s conviction.
That’s why communication skill, and presentation skills in particular, are vital for top executives to master. Powerful speaking skills are the surest way for a CEO to embrace the role of Chief Explanations Officer and to gain buy in or good will, to build or regain trust.
While it’s easy enough to cite examples of highly successful leaders who’ve achieved success without strong speaking abilities, (Bill Gates, or in the public arena, George Bush come to mind), such a lack is always an obstacle to success, and often, an insurmountable one.
How then does a top executive best demonstrate powerful communication skills and how do you obtain them? Here are a few tips used by some of the best:
Take your communication seriously.
Make communicating at your best a top priority. That means resisting the temptation to view presentations, remarks and speeches as something “other” than getting things done. Deciding to set aside adequate time for preparation and practice will pay off many times over in instilling confidence in others in your leadership abilities. Remember these forums are an opportunity for those who don’t interact with you daily to hear and see your skills displayed. Time and effort spent on your communication skills is one of the most worthwhile investments you can make.
Take your communication personally.
Don’t confuse presentations and speeches with academic exercises. These opportunities are never solely about “educating” an audience on an objective set of facts. These appearances are opportunities to persuade your audience about the perspective on those facts, and the action or conclusion you’re leading to. Even if your audience doesn’t wholly agree with the case you’re making, these appearances are your opportunity to assure them you are the right person to be making the case. Don’t seek to be dispassionate. Allow your audiences to see the conviction with which you hold your ideas.
Do get help.
Whether through an outside coach or a trusted colleague or mentor, get some constructive feedback on your performance. Remember that successful communication is in large part dependent on what’s received, not only what was intended. You need objective help in evaluating whether you’re connecting with your audience effectively, and in what areas you can strengthen your performance. If possible, record your performances and replay them. Try to see your performance from your audience’s perspective.
Powerful communicators are adept at developing their own, unique style, rather than trying to emulate someone else. To do that, you’ll need to identify what your strengths are. Are you a natural story-teller? Are you someone who can easily get others to understand difficult or complex issues? Seek to play to your strengths by building the presentation, materials and format to your greatest advantage. For instance, if you are someone who relates well to audiences generally, don’t burden yourself with too much data and materials that might interfere with understanding, or compete with you for the audience’s attention.
Think about how you’d like to be regarded.
Your reputation as a leader is in your hands, and in many ways, that reputation for every leader rests on his or her communication skills. However unfair it seems, you will not be seen as a strong leader if you display weak communication skills. Work on developing the kind of communication style that reflects the leadership style you want to project. If you are a consensus builder for instance, display that trait through interactive presentations or speeches. A leader with an in-depth history and knowledge can effectively share that confidence through anecdotes and personal experiences, more effectively than flow-charts and graphs could ever do alone.
Whatever your title, understand the vital importance communication skills play when others evaluate the strength of your executive presence.
Aileen Pincus is President of The Pincus Group Inc., an executive training firm offering media training, presentation skills training, speech training and crisis media communications. She can be reached at www.thepincusgroup.com