Before choosing life as an independent business consultant, your former career-roles might have required you to understand and practice executive-friendly communication. If not, the tips contained in this post may be useful to you, because communicating with senior business leaders is something you’ll need to get used to.
Executive officers can be challenging to present or report to. They are almost always pressed for time, in a hurry, and unable to give their attention to minutiae, however much they might wish to.
That doesn’t mean they aren’t interested in what you have to say though. Indeed, since senior business leaders are often the ones to approve spending on project resources (including consultants) you should expect executive meetings, briefings, and updates to form a sizeable chunk of your communication activity.
What Makes an Executive Audience Different?
If you haven’t had much experience with executive audiences before, it’s a good idea to become familiar and comfortable with executive-friendly communication.
It’s certainly a little different from your interactions with other business professionals, but if you get it right, you can avoid some frustration and enjoy a more rewarding independent consulting career.
When it comes to communication, executives have somewhat different expectations to most other professional audiences. Whether hearing from employees or external agents, they are, in the main:
- Unable to pay attention to the fine details of the projects they initiate and/or sponsor
- Unmoved by the use of technical language and jargon
- Unimpressed by dramatic, drawn-out build-ups to key points or conclusions
- Protective of their time
- Given to interrupting briefings or presentations, either to speed things along or to ask unexpected questions
- Unwilling to lose time discussing matters which don’t relate directly to the purpose of their meetings
These characteristics are born not from any desire to make life difficult for those who provide them with information. It’s just that executives’ calendars are ridiculously full and often beyond their control. That’s why they need communication to be concise, straight to the point, and delivered in a way that enables them to synthesise key points quickly and efficiently.
How to Make Your Communication Executive-friendly
Company executives are as human as the rest of us, but urban mythology is responsible for many misconceptions. Perhaps that’s why a lot of professionals (consultants included) are daunted by the idea of interacting face-to-face with CEOs, CFOs, and other executive officers.
In the consulting profession though, there’s really no room to be bashful about presenting or reporting to execs, but there is a right and a wrong way to go about it.
If you want to get it right, just take heed of the following tips for executive-friendly communication. Once you get the hang of these simple techniques, and can apply them in practice, your C-suite briefings and presentations should be well-received by even the most irascible and overworked executives.
Compress Your Communication Time
If you’re accustomed to presenting and speaking to groups of professionals, you probably begin your meetings/briefings by providing some background and context, then explaining the topic in detail, before finally summarising the main points and conclusions.
While this might seem a natural approach to briefings or presentations, it’s one you should change if you want to communicate in an executive-friendly way.
When briefing executives, the summary is the most powerful tool you have for getting your message across successfully. Therefore, your briefings should always begin with a strong summary, with supporting material placed afterward.
If you think you might have difficulty with this change of process, it can be a good idea to imagine you have just five minutes of time to speak with the executive team, and that all the information they need must be delivered in that short space of time.
This will help you to compress all your information into a concise summary. Follow the summary with as much detail as you believe necessary, but don’t plan to deliver it unless the executives ask you to share it, or you need it to support answers to any questions you may be asked.
Give Executives Control of the Discussion
Any meeting with business chiefs becomes executive-friendly when you put them in control of the time allotted for the session. This is another good reason to begin your briefing or presentation with a summary of main points and conclusions/recommendations.
At the beginning of the session, explain that you are merely going to present the summary and will then give the rest of the time over to discussion.
This will compel your audience to hear you out without interruption, and will also give them back some control over their time. If they wish, the execs can spend the rest of the session on questions or let you provide them with the details supporting your summary. Alternatively, they can move straight on to their expected actions (approving resources, discussing/approving/rejecting your recommendations, or fulfilling their part in the meeting’s objectives).
Don’t Deviate from the Purpose
While we’re on the topic of objectives, it’s important to remember that when you are given time with the executive team, it will be for a very specific purpose.
Executives have little time for general discussion or routine updates (which you’re likely to be asked to provide via email, spreadsheet, or some other document that executives can study at their leisure). Executive-friendly communication means never deviating from the purpose and objectives of your meeting.
Make sure you know exactly why you are seeking an audience with your client’s executive leaders, or why they are asking to see you.
Prepare your communication precisely to address the meeting’s purpose, and don’t try to sneak other topics into the agenda. It’s unlikely to be appreciated, or to receive immediate attention. At best, you will probably be asked to send something in writing or to request a meeting at a later date and time.
Gather Some Executive Intelligence
It’s easier to make your communication executive-friendly if you first gather some knowledge about each senior leader you’re likely to come into contact with. This information-gathering must be done early on, right at the start of your engagement, or even while you are in pre-engagement discussions with the client-company.
What you’re trying to find out is how each executive prefers to communicate. Ideally, you should make sure you’re aware of…
- Whether each executive likes (or dislikes) to be presented with decks of slides
- How each executive likes to receive information (verbally, in writing, with or without detailed background data, and so on)
- Whether any of the executives require specific data (such as an ROI prediction) to support proposals or change requests
It’s also a good idea to pay attention to the language and jargon used within the client-company—and especially in executive conversations.
While it’s important to avoid speaking your own technical language when communicating with executives, there’s nothing at all wrong with adopting the phraseology and buzzwords they like to use. In fact, it will actually help you get your message across, by making your communication even more executive-friendly.
Speak in Terms of Outcomes, Not Activities
Unless your client-company’s executive team asks you to provide details of activities leading up to a set of conclusions or recommendations, they probably don’t need them. In most cases, you can reserve the finer details for reporting to the local project manager or lead.
Executive-friendly communication requires a laser focus on outcomes. Let the C-suite know about the outcomes of your investigations and diagnoses, and even more importantly, the outcomes they can expect from your recommended solutions.
It Pays to Be Executive-Friendly
As your consulting career progresses, you’re sure to be in contact with executive teams on at least some of your client-engagements, and as busy as execs are, the ability to communicate effectively with them will spare you from a lot of potential frustration.
It will also strengthen client’s perception of your professionalism and service ethic, potentially opening doors for repeat business and referrals.
Executives are some of the most powerful allies you can have in your career as an independent consultant, so don’t be shy around them. Just follow the tips in this post and practice being an executive-friendly communicator. Like all new skills, it will be second nature after a while, making your visits to the C-suite something to face with confidence, not trepidation.